As humans, a species among many others that walk the earth, we also breathe, eat, and drink to survive, and live. Just like air and water, food is an integral necessity that fuels our civilization. Thus, food has become the subject of glorification across time and cultures: food used as traditional treatment for special holidays like turkeys for thanksgiving, candies for christmas; food used as ceremonial treatment like the Eucharistic bread for solemn Christian ceremonies. Food possesses in itself the cultural richness so vast and powerful that enables it to connect people within and across different cultures.
I. Food and the tale of Momotaro
The tale of Peach-boy Momotaro, a traditional folk hero well-known among the Japanese, tells the story of a boy born to an old couple from a giant peach the old woman found floating down the river. This boy, Momotaro (Peach-boy), later becomes a young brave general who sets out to defeat the Orges by forming a small army of him, a dog, a pheasant and a monkey. Momotaro was frequently used to symbollically depict the might of the Japanese army in Japanese propaganda cartoons (G. Eigasha, Momotary’s Sea Eagle). The tale also reflects the unifying power of food present in some key events of the story.
As he himself admits to the old couple, Momotaro is no mere human (Momotaro, p. 16 – 17). When Momotaro reaches adolesence, he proposes bravely to the Old Man to go find the Orges and slay them. The old couple make no attempt to stop him and so they do the best thing they could: give him food for his voyage. (Momotaro, p. 18)
It is not uncommon that people leaving for long journeys often carry things that remind them of their homes and families; especially with people who form strong bonds with their upbringers/ parents. Here, food becomes the unifying object that reminds Momotaro of his parents. He describes the millet dumplings as the best ones of all Japan (Momotaro, p. 20); perhaps they may not be so, but for the millets to qualify for such entitlement, they carry the passive values that only Momotaro can discern.
On his way to slay the Orges, Momotaro encounters with different animals, who challenge but later yield to Momotaro, knowing his popularity. Their relationships with Momotaro are further enhanced thanks to the millet dumplings that Momotaro decides to share with the animals. They eventually cast aside their quarrels and whole-heartedly entrust him as their leader. A strong community of voyagers is formed through this unexpected unification. From strangers, Momotaro and the animals become friends/ battle comrades, combining their strength to resist the evil force. Such image is once again featured in a modern version Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.
Although it is amidst the war, the animals still take time to enjoy meal with one another. Such activity establishes strong sense of camaraderie among them. Food, as distributed by Momotaro, once again displays its power and vital role in building friendship within the community of resistance, and suffering, which are inevitable in every war.
But how so can something like food can possess that much power? First and foremost, food itself is a treatment, it wards off the hunger and embrace the raw ecstatic feelings as we bite down and swallow the food. Sharing the food is the act of sharing the ecstasy of consuming it, and, in certain case, sharing one’s survivability with the other. It is no longer a mere object, but trust and care are also infused within. On a long voyage swamped with the unknown dangers, no one knows what comes next, power lies in the union, and, thus, food manages to become the unifier within the voyage community; and with that power, the animals find security when they stand against sufferings together.
The unifying power of food against suffering is not just fabrication from a children’s cartoon. Throughout history of Japan, food came to unify people under one banner.
II/ Food and revolts in Minamata
The blight of Minamata disease (also known as Chisso-Minamata disease) still remains to the present day. First discovered in 1956 in Minamata city from the sights of abnormal behaviors of diseased pets, Minamata disease soon struck fishermen and people who came into contact with the water or contaminated food supply (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). Minamata disease was no mere bacterial disease, but proved to be caused by methylmecury, a lethal chemical dumped into water. The Chisso chemical factory was responsible for this pollution, making 2265 victims fall ill (of which 1784 did not survive) (Wikipedia, Minamata disease record).
Despite the obnoxious effects that methyl mecury had on the fishermen populace, the Chisso corporation chose to avoid the problem by bribing and working surreptitiously with higher officials to cover the issue up. They tried to scare the fishermen into silence by saying that exposing the problem will cause great decline in fishery market. Yet suffering persisted because the cause of illness laid nowhere else but in the food the people consumed itself. Seafood had always been a major source of food in Japan, also being embraced as the symbollic cuisine that represented the Japanese culture. For this reason, food became the unifier of the communities with people suffering from the disease and people who chose to stand up against the wrongful industrial practice.
“Can you imagine legs that can’t walk; eyes that can’t see; mouth that can’t taste…?” said Mayami Sakamoto (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World).
The Chisso corporation tried numerous way to stop the protests by launching a counter-protest against the fishermen. They also offered contract for compensation to ease up the situation, meanwhile trying to abandon the Chisso factory in Minamata to expand to other regions. However, the compensation
proved to be too insignificant. The will of the community was so strong that the people would not let Chisso get away with their crime. Many campaigns were launched and planned out to demand Chisso for justice: large scale fundraising, public speeches, getting in touch with Minamata patients, etc. They formed a Litigation Group to file a suit against Chisso, which, after 4-year and the impactful last testimony by Hajime Hosokawa, successfully demanded Chisso to compensate a total of 3.4 million dolars to the victims of Minamata.
The tale of Momotaro and the stories of the Minamata disease, in which food played a vital role, still remain remembered today. Beside being just a mere object of satisfaction, food contains the essence of cultures, of human connections and of the entities that it comes from. There are stories of people who also seek to glorify and understand those values like Count G. In The Gourmet Club, whose passion in food brings him closer to the Chinese food-lovers and an unexpected dinner that inspired him for life. Movies likeThe Cove made by social activists trying to save dolphin also mentions the food aspect coming from dolphins that relates to the Minamata disease in Japan. Even in daily life, underlying all the food we have for lunch and dinner are fascinating but no less profound stories.