When we eat, we establish a direct identity between our culture and the natural world. Food reflects social identities and membership in social groups. It not only unifies people from all aspects of life, it serves as a facet of society and socialization throughout the world. People are able to gather together when food is present. It allows us to feel relaxed and socialize with one another even if there are stark differences between groups. Food allows us to strengthen social ties and serves as a unifier not only within cultural groups themselves, but between those groups. It reduces cultural differences to a minimum, reducing the disparities seen between groups of various races, ethnicities and even socioeconomic standing. This unification can be seen in the tales of Momotaro or Peach Boy, a Japanese folk hero whose stories have remained incredibly influential in Japan for the past three centuries. Food serves as a main unifier throughout the various adaptations of Momotaro. Whether they are in literature or film, food is used to symbolize community and functions as a method by which Momotaro can contract animals to help him with his quests. Throughout these variants of the story food remains a common element; food as a method to portray nationalism. The characters in the story represent different elements of Japanese society and are united by food.
In the original Momotaro story published by Iwaya Sazanami, food, specifically millet dumplings, play a crucial role in Momotaro’s development into a hero. At the very beginning of the folk tale, Momotaro’s adoptive parents discover him in a giant peach. They are “both so astonished at this appearance that they were frightened out of their wits, and they fell down” (15). The peach symbolizes life in Japanese culture and thus Momotaro’s appearance brings new life into the lives of the old couple. He is portrayed as coming from Heaven and thus has a mission on earth that he must fulfill. Once he reaches the age of fifteen, he feels an intense desire to go “wage war against them [the oni], to catch and crush them and bring back all their treasures” (19). He bids his family farewell but not before his father prepares “suitable food for a warrior on a journey” (21). This food, Kibi-dango or millet dumplings, may not seem out of the ordinary, but in reality it is these dumplings which are the means by which Momotaro can ultimately be successful at the end of his journey. As he goes about his quest, he gives half a millet dumpling to each animal he encounters on his journey. The dog, monkey, and pheasant each, in turn, become his honorable retainers and thus accompany him to the Ogres’ Island to defeat the oni. The dumplings serve as ways to bring the group together and to maintain respect and loyalty to each other. At first, the animals are incredibly aggressive towards each other but after receiving their dumplings, “all three animals were the best of friends and obeyed Peach-Boy’s commands, heart and soul” (32). The humility and esteem the dumplings bring the group into a familial connection. Prepared by Momotaro’s parents who love him dearly, these dumplings spread their love for him to the animals that end up becoming unconditionally loyal and respectful to him. His “influence of a great General is a great thing!” (32). Thus, with his new army, he is able to overcome the demons. The millet dumplings are what lead to the intense camaraderie between the group and shed light into the ability of food to bring together people from all different backgrounds for a common cause. Food is portrayed not only as a labor of love from his parents but also as a method by which Momotaro becomes a hero. With the support of this food, he accumulates all he needs to accomplish his goal and it allows him to reap the benefits of the spoils of victory.
Mitsuyo Seo’s adaptation of the traditional Momotaro lore, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, utilizes some of the same food elements seen in the traditional tale. However, this adaptation is not used solely for the purpose of entertainment but takes on a slightly darker, propagandist twist. In the film, the millet dumplings don’t have the same emotional effect as seen in the original tale, but they seem to still have a significant effect on Momotaro and his minions. The millet dumplings, as seen in the hands of a monkey, give a reaction similar to the one seen in the American Popeye cartoons. They give him the strength and fearlessness needed in order to complete his mission for his country.
The similarities between Popeye and the monkey in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle
The dumplings are also used as rewards for the retainers and are part of the spoils, which they take after defeating the demons. The benefits of the dumplings are evident as the soldiers overrun the demons’ ships and decimate their forces. This sweeping victory aims to showcase the Japanese superiority over their American counterparts. It lifts the attack on Pearl Harbor to a mythical level; Momotaro leads pheasants, monkeys, and dogs into a fight against evil demons. The millet dumplings are more complex in Sea Eagles; the sense of love and camaraderie seen in the traditional story takes on a much larger nationalistic meaning. The nationalistic approach sheds light on the dumplings effects versus those that of the effects of the alcohol on the captain of the demon ship. While his fleet gets destroyed, he squirms around in his drunken squalor helpless to stop the invasion. The stark contrast between Momotaro and the demon captain is apparent in that the captain continues to drink while Momotaro executes his plan to perfection. The captain is not only a drunkard but is also incredibly overweight. These two characteristics are obvious propaganda tools portraying the American diet as unhealthy while that of the Japanese is lauded for its benefits to its soldiers (such as with the monkey). Overall, food in Sea Eagle represents more than just a “superman drug,” it represents the desire for Japanese global dominance in World War II. The dumplings serve as the unique aspect of Japanese culture that is untouched by Western influence; this distinctiveness aims to show the Japanese as good while the Americans are portrayed in a much more negative light.
Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary Minimata: The Victims and Their World aims to show the negative effects that food has on communities as a whole. Unlike the Momotaro stories, this documentary shows the unity that families and communities have during times of intense suffering. Throughout the entire film, the audience is exposed to residents of Minamata and the mercury poisoning caused by the fish contaminated by Chisso fertilizer factory. The families suffer from deformities and other critical diseases and thus are subject to intense hardships due to lack of government effort and the slow response by the factory itself. The food itself is the reason why the people are in such a bad state yet they continue to share their food because of the rich culture and sense of community that is felt through these eating interactions. The endurance and love they show each other is inspiring, but the conditions for life is so fatefully tragic due to the seemingly endless amounts of mercury found in the nearby water sources. The food that they need to survive is what is actually killing them. This vicious cycle only continues even when they go to the shareholder meeting because of the lack of compassion Chisso shows for its victims. This film is a window into the anger, grief, and agony that lasted a lifetime for the people involved. Family members share the agonies endured by their loved ones before they died of the disease and show the consequences that the food around them had on their lives. However, throughout all the suffering and tragedy, the community grows closer together; the people unite under a common goal, much like in the Momotaro stories, and work hard together to overcome any obstacle in their way. The film serves as a disturbing reminder of the indifference of corporate entities to human welfare and stands as a testament to the power of community in overcoming that indifference.
The theme that becomes apparent in all three works is the ability of food to be a uniting factor within and between communities. Food establishes bonds and maintains those same bonds throughout the test of time because of its cultivation, preparation, and consumption which all represent a cultural act. Food serves as a representative of unity and community. Whether it be the coming together to fight against demons or to fight against an insensitive, corrupt company, the fact of the matter remains the same: food is the facilitator of modern culture. Without food, we are left with a fragile society that lacks the intrapersonal relationships needed for a fully functioning humanity. Food is no longer just a normal material object; it is a symbol of the synthesis required for the successful advancement of a nation.