Author Archives: maroondragon

The Legendary Kobe Beef

Just hearing the words “Kobe beef” evokes feelings of awe and prestige. Ironically, for more than a thousand years prior to 1868, Buddhism prohibited consumption of any four-legged animal in Japan. In 1868, the Meiji period began, and the Japanese wished to become more “modern”. They emulated Western culture, changing their fashion, government, even their diet. However, beef was neither popular nor easily accessible until 1955. So how did it become so popular, not only in Japan but also worldwide?

Cattle were brought to Japan in the 2nd century as work animals. Starting in the late 18th century, the Japanese began interbreeding native Japanese cattle with many European breeds. Cattle from the Kobe area became known as the “Kobe beef” cattle in 1943. In 1983, the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association was formed in order to define and promote the Kobe beef trademark.

Today, Kobe beef are generally recognized as cuts of beef from wagyu cattle, literally “Japanese cow”, raised in Hyogo Prefecture. The Kobe beef can be from any of the four breeds of wagyu cattle- Akaushi (Japanese Red), Kuroushi (Japanese Black), Japanese Polled, or Japanese Shorthorn- but is generally from the Tajima strain of the Japanese Black. However, to qualify to carry the Kobe beef trademark, the beef has to meet conditions set by the Kobe Beef Association.

The extensively marbled Kobe beef stamped with the official chrysanthemum seal of the Kobe Beef Association.

The extensively marbled Kobe beef stamped with the official chrysanthemum seal of the Kobe Beef Association.

The cattle must be born, raised, and processed in the slaughterhouses in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan. The cattle also must be a steer or a virgin cow in order to purify the beef. The gross weight of beef from one animal cannot exceed 470 kg, and the beef has to earn a meat quality score of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. These stringent conditions means there are only about 3,000 of these animals per year. To heighten its rarity, Kobe beef wasn’t even exported until February 2012. These conditions also uphold Kobe beef’s reputation for flavor and intense marbling.

To meet these standards, farmers invest a lot of time into raising only few cattle. There are several methods that farmers use to fatten meat. However, generally, the cattle are hand fed high-energy rations and prohibited from regular exercise to produce high quality, extremely marbled beef. They are also fed beer to stimulate their appetite when they are on the high-energy diet. The cattle are also massaged to evenly distribute the fat. The result is the cherry red meat thoroughly marbled with white fat characteristic of Kobe beef.

Kobe beef prepared in traditional thin slices.

Kobe beef prepared in traditional thin slices.

It has a very buttery texture that is completely different from American beef. These cuts of beef can cost about $150 and up per pound, a testament to the prestige of Kobe beef.

Even though the Japanese have only recently started to eat beef, they have managed to raise the status of beef to new levels. Legends of Kobe beef have spread throughout the world, telling of the beer fed to the cattle and its melt-in-your-mouth texture. The exclusivity and quality of Kobe beef have rendered it a popular, expensive delicacy.



Momotarō and Food: Unifiers of the Japanese

Although Momotarō originated as a simple folk hero in the early Edo period, he has transformed into a national symbol capable of creating strong bonds within the Japanese people. His portrayal has also changed with his evolution. The adult themes of the Edo period transformed to become more child-friendly before again morphing to a more militaristic attitude in war propaganda. However, the use of food in Momotarō stories has remained consistent: the establishing and strengthening of strong community bonds. Between media and through time, Momotarō is a national symbol and the use of food in his portrayals act as a way to cement community bonds.

In the original tale, Momotarō uses food to establish both camaraderie and loyalty among his vassals. The original story narrates how an old couple finds Momotarō in a large peach and raises him. “Peach Boy”, as Momotarō translates to, grows up and journeys to Oni Island to defeat the demons living there. On his voyage, he enlists the help of a dog, monkey, and pheasant using the millet dumplings his parents prepared for him. He returns from his expedition triumphant and laden with treasures. The food in the original version is instrumental in the story. The millet dumplings Momotarō gives to the animals wins him their loyalty. While winning their support, he also establishes dominance and leadership between him and his vassals. This is especially apparent when he “[places] himself between them [the dog and the monkey] and carrying in his hand and iron fan, according to the custom of all high military officials in those days […]” (28, Iwaya). Momotarō clearly establishes himself as a strong leader and the dominant figure of his vassals. He is seen as an assertive person to be looked up to and trusted. The comparison to a high military official furthers this idea s well as hints at Momotarō’s coming military might against the demons. His leadership is also apparent when he “pushed them [the dog and monkey] both apart […]” (26, Iwaya). He is responsible enough that he stops them from fighting and even has the foresight to recruit the monkey as another one of his vassals. The millet dumpling shared between the dog and monkey establishes camaraderie between the two. The food also binds the band together on their journey to Oni Island. Not only do they no longer argue, they fight alongside each other with loyalty and bravery. The millet dumplings convey the theme of camaraderie and loyalty on their journey.

In Mitsuyo Seo’s 1943 film Momotarō’s Sea Eagles, Momotarō and the millet dumplings are used to mobilize the Japanese people for the war effort. In the film, Momotarō leads a “Japanese” army of dogs, monkeys, pheasants, and rabbits against the evil demons of Oni Island, representing the American and British enemies in World War II. The film’s main purpose is to promote World War II and rally the Japanese people; in contrast, the original tale is aimed to teach and entertain children. However, the propaganda film gains power from using Momotarō as a symbol because people already identify with the original folk hero as a good, strong leader. This idea is furthered with the utter defeat of the Western “demons” and the fact that the “Japanese” army is completely unharmed. This idealized view of war only serves the film’s purpose as propaganda. Millet dumplings also rally the Japanese people together. Strong community bonds and intense loyalty are the Japanese’s strengths and the key to winning the war, and the millet dumplings represent this. In the film, the food does not simply establish these bonds, but actually makes the animals physically stronger.

The monkey's muscles become visibly larger after eating the millet dumplings.

The monkey’s muscles become visibly larger after eating the millet dumplings.

The millet dumplings, and symbolically the camaraderie between the Japanese, give strength to Momotarō’s army. The food in the films not only encourages camaraderie but also distinguishes the good Japanese and the demonized Westerners.

The beer makes the demons drunk and cowardly

The beer makes the demons drunk and cowardly

In contrast to the strength the millet dumplings give to the Japanese, food and drink make the Westerners lazy and cowardly. This distinction further unites the Japanese. The biased portrayal dehumanizes the enemies and makes their total defeat more righteous, again typical of a propaganda film. Food in Sea Eagles helps promote enlistment in the war and draws power from the national symbol of Momotarō.

Momotarō is not used only in literature and film, but also as a real world rallying point. In Tsuchimoto’s 1971 documentary, Minamata: The Victims and their World, the citizens of Minamata suffer from mercury poisoning caused by polluted waters. A neighboring factory owned by the Chisso Corporation had been pollution the water for thirty-four years. The film documents the victims’ fight for justice. One scene portrays the march of the victims to the annual Chisso Corporation shareholder meeting in Osaka. In one particular moment, a victim alluded to Momotarō, and the folk hero becomes a rallying point. In fact, the speaker for the victims referenced the corporation as “blue and red ogres”, a clear reference to Momotarō’s Oni Island.

The speaker references Momotarõ as a way to gain sympathy from the strangers in Osaka.

The speaker references Momotarõ as a way to gain sympathy from the strangers in Osaka.

Momotarō’s popularity as a defender of good and a strong leader made him an ideal symbol for the victims. His story is well known; likening the corporation to the infamous ogres serves to unite the strangers in solidarity and bring the issue closer to home. The long journey and gathering of supporters is also a parallel to Momotarō’s journey and gathering of vassals, again around food. However, the poisoned food is a weapon of the enemy rather than something to encourage camaraderie.  The reference to the familiar character of Momotarō as a defender of good also elicits sympathy for the victims, and the strangers as well as the audience join and support their cause. The ability of the victims to garner that much attention using Momotarō is a testament to the folk hero’s power. From page to screen to the real world, Momotarō retains his popularity and power.

Despite moving between media, or even because of it, Momotarō is a national symbol with a lot of influence, and he serves as a rallying point for multiple causes. Food also connects the various genres and becomes a unifier for the people involved, whether through camaraderie, or sadly, suffering. While the goal of each media was different, the three portrayals of Momotarō all shared the folk hero and food as the banners under which people came together. People tend to rally around strong leaders, and Momotarō is the ideal unifier for the Japanese people, even across time periods and media.

Euphoria: An Analysis of Exoticism in The Gourmet Club

Exotic is strictly defined as something originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country. However, to be truly exotic is not simply to have a foreign pattern or single flavor; rather, it is a symphony of different experiences and emotions evoked by the item in question. This idea of a complete exotic experience is dramatized in Tanizaki Junichirō’s The Gourmet Club through the use of food.

Many people have said that the true value of something is not in the destination, but the journey; this idea is also prevalent in The Gourmet Club. The five men in the club ceaselessly search for delicious food, wandering the streets of Tokyo in search of that special, exotic meal. “They scoured all the eateries of Tokyo […] like curio collectors rummaging about in dubious secondhand shops on the off chance of making an unusual find” (102). Their quest emphasizes the importance of what they are searching for: food. To them, food is not simply something to survive; it is their reason for living. The comparison to curio collectors also suggests an exotic element to their search and implies a sort of discovery. Both the mystery and the discovery contribute to the idea of exoticism.

Another element of exoticism is the emphasis on beauty and the euphoria of experiencing it. This is exactly what the Count encounters at Chechiang Hall. Even before entering the place, he is thrown into an ethereal reality where his senses of taste and sound combine: “[…] when suddenly the melody became full, rounded, and plaintive like a voice that is thick with tears, he thought of a rich broth of braised sea cucumbers, so full-flavored that each mouthful keeps permeating one’s taste buds to their very roots” (109). Junichirō’s use of synesthesia links the deep emotions of the music to the complexity of a delicious meal; food becomes an emotional experience for both the Count and the reader. The fact that the music alone is enough to evoke such a reaction from the Count is only a prelude to the exoticism he encounters in the Hall itself. There he finds dishes he never encountered or dreamed of before. These dishes serve as inspiration for his exotic meals that can only be truly savored using the entire body: “[…]They did not merely taste the cuisine with their tongues: they had to taste it with their eyes, their noses, their ears, and at times with their skin. […] every part of them had to become a tongue” (131). Not only are the meals exotic, but also the way the men enjoy their food is completely novel. Mind and body must become completely immersed in the dining experience to fully savor the meal, suggesting euphoria in the act of eating. The emphasis on experiencing the food, rather than simply eating it, furthers the theme of exoticism. The ecstasy of food clearly demonstrates exoticism throughout The Gourmet Club.

The complete experience of food, both leading up to and the physical act of eating, dramatizes exoticism in The Gourmet Club. Junishirō demonstrates through emphasizing exoticism, that for the members of the club, food is something alluring, something to be coveted. He proves that food can be more than simple sustenance; it can be a euphoric, exotic experience.

Spirited Away: Beauty of Simplicity

            Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film, Spirited Away, tells a beautiful tale about a young ten-year old girl, Chihiro, who finds herself lost in the spirit world. She is forcefully thrust into a strange world, with a bustling bathhouse, strange spirits, and mysterious magic. However, Chihiro manages to find her place and remain true to her morals in the bathhouse filled with greed and materialism. Surrounded by corruption and capitalism, Chihiro represents the struggle between the modernization of Japan and the country’s struggle to reconnect with its past. Through the use of food, Miyazaki criticizes the excessive materialism rising in modern times.

Miyazaki clearly illustrates the decline of morals from the very beginning. When Chihiro first enters the spirit world, her parents greedily gobble down food that is not theirs. Her dad says, “It’s ok, I have cash and cards”.  They believe that because they have money, everything is fine; it does not matter that they are stealing food. They use their wealth to validate their deplorable actions.

Chihiro witnesses her parents transform into greedy pigs.

Chihiro witnesses her parents transform into greedy pigs.

Then, they greedily gorge themselves until they literally become mindless pigs. Their actions are disgusting, and Miyazaki uses the pig metaphor to criticize the growing materialism in Japan. A horrified Chihiro witnesses her parents’ lack of morals and messy eating. Food is everywhere and they are covered in the remains of their meal. The complete deterioration of the food as well as the transformation of humans to greedy animals symbolizes the degradation of morals and emphasis on materialism.

Miyazaki also uses the character, No Face, and his relationship with food to criticize the materialism in the world. The first time No Face appears he is meek and shy. However, as the movie progresses, he begins to consume food and becomes increasingly greedy. His gluttony escalates quickly until he devours plates of food and eventually swallows workers whole. In a mirror of Chihiro’s parents, No Face uses money to justify his vulgarity. The staff accepts it because the ridiculous amount of gold he throws around, demonstrating the corruption caused by greed. He transforms from a meek shadow to a gluttonous, frightening entity that completely disregards any form of civility.

No Face's gluttony completely degrades the extravagant food he is given.

No Face’s gluttony completely degrades the extravagant food he is given.

Glistening, delicious food is paraded to him, signifying the importance of food. However, when it reaches No Face, the food is indiscriminately devoured and thrown to the ground. The food, once an extravagant banquet, is now trash splattered everywhere. The perversion of food clearly illustrates the vulgarity of greed and the deleterious effect of materialism.

While food symbolizes the greed and materialism, it also demonstrates its role in establishing relationships and community as well as the merits of simplicity. Early in Chihiro’s work as a yuna, Haku takes her to a field to meet her parents. There, he offers her onigiri, or traditional Japanese rice balls, to encourage her and lift her spirits.

Haku's traditional rice balls encourage Chihiro to continue working hard.

Haku’s traditional rice balls encourage Chihiro to continue working hard.

As she eats them, she does, in fact, cheer up, and the food strengthens both her resolve and her connection with Haku. Not only does the setting contrast with the clutter and extravagance of the bathhouse, but the food is also juxtaposed to its excessive meals. The pretentious food of the bathhouse only encourages materialism; however, simple rice balls reinforce Chihiro’s morals and friendship with Haku. The traditional food also encourages the audience to return to their simple roots in order to maintain their cultural and personal identity. The river god’s medicine ball also represents the merits of simplicity. Chihiro first receives the herbal cake when she remains true to her work ethic as she bathes the river god. It is a job no one wishes to do; yet she puts her full effort into it. As a reward, she receives a simple, medicine cake, a contrast to the extravagance of the bathhouse, similar to the rice balls. However, this unassuming ball becomes a savior for both No Face and Haku. For the former, the simple food purges all the food from No Face. The simple herbal cake restores No Face to his original selfless state; this represents that simplicity and strong morals cleanses one from the evils of materialism. Similarly, the medicine ball also purges Haku from the evils within him and further cements the strong relationship between him and Chihiro. Through the use of simple food, Miyazaki implies that simple morals and good character triumph over the evils of materialism.

While many may see Spirited Away as a simple fairy tale, Miyazaki’s use of food throughout the film clearly demonstrates that strong morals and a simple foundation can fortify oneself against greed. In fact, simplicity saves people from the degradation of morals caused by greed. It is crucial to remain true to oneself and ones morals amidst the growing materialism in Japan and around the world.

Tampopo’s Success

The "masters" enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

The “masters” enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a bubble era film about an amateur ramen chef, Tampopo, striving to cook the perfect bowl of ramen. Yet, it is more than that. Along with Tampopo’s main plot, interwoven vignettes demonstrate the various messages Itami conveys in his film: satire of the materialism during the bubble era, nostalgia of the past, the breaking barriers and the establishment of new ones, and the importance of food and its role in establishing bonds, among others. The film’s climax, the moment when Tampopo succeeds in her quest for perfection, encompasses all of those central themes.

The satire of the new materialism of the 1980’s, although not obvious, is present in this pivotal scene. Throughout the shot, there are many close-ups of Tampopo’s anxious face, clearly indicating how much her “master’s” opinion of her ramen means to her. She looks like she is about to cry; that is how important this immaterial judgment means to her. The alternating light and dark lighting as well as the orchestral music further create the tense, heavy mood. This significance of ramen, and food in general, throughout the movie contrasts sharply to the emphasis placed on material objects during the ‘80’s. As Japan moved forward to become a modern country, people looked away from the small things of the past and left them behind. However, Itami’s focus on the everyday miracle of food points out Japan’s gradual abandonment of its traditions and expresses nostalgia for the past.

Ironically, Itami’s film also encourages progress and the breaking of barriers while creating new ones. The various vignettes, such as the manners lesson and the gangster’s inventive way to enjoy food with his lover, demonstrate different aspects of culture. The success of Tampopo also illustrates the breaking of boundaries. The old homeless master notes at the end of the scene that he never expected a woman to become a noodle chef, yet Tampopo has done just that. This is also juxtaposed to the fact that all her “masters” are male. She has broken down an old traditional barrier and has become an independent, successful woman, creating a modern social norm.

However, Itami’s focus on food is not just to support incorporation of the past and future, but also to emphasize the importance of food because of its role in establishing bonds. Throughout the film, this theme is constantly apparent, from the homeless’ union over food to the gangster and his lover’s unusual enjoyment of food. This is also apparent in the snapshot. The bright lighting, as well as the close-up of Tampopo’s tearful celebration, clearly demonstrates the importance of this scene. All five men, all with completely different backgrounds- a trucker and his sidekick, a homeless man, a butler, and a thug- all have come together for the sake of ramen. In the snapshot, all men are doing the same thing: enjoying a delicious bowl of ramen.

Tampopo’s triumph in creating the perfect ramen is not just a private, personal achievement, but she also succeeds in creating a food over which strangers from infinite walks of life can come together and bond.