Food can bring the wildest of characters together. In the folk story “Momotaro” Momotaro, a young boy, is found inside a peach that was floating down the river. Momotaro sets out on an adventure with millet dumplings that was given to him by his parents. Momotaro uses these dumplings to convince a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant to join his ranks as his containers. Momotaro then goes to Ogre Island and conquers it and he takes back the riches that were once stolen from the Japanese people. Finally, after conquering ogre island, he returns back home to his parents. The folk story, “Momotaro” shows food being used as a representation of life, unification, and cultural understanding of the world around them.
Food is how life is maintained, and “Momotaro” uses the peach and Momotaro’s birth to represent life. All living things on this planet, in order to stay alive use nutrients. Each living organism gains its nutrients from another source. These sources can be many; water, dirt, animals, fruits, and etc…. The story of “Momotaro” uses a peach to symbolize the need for the consumption of these nutrients to maintain, and create new life. One version of the story, told my Professor Mc. Knight, is that the old woman finds the peach in the river, eats it, and then becomes young and fertile again. This is one example of this concept that came out of the many retellings of the “Momotaro” stories. The other versions still have the peach symbolism of life, but it is told in a different way. In a lot of the modern retellings of the “Momotaro” story, he is born from the peach. Even though the old woman doesn’t turn young and fertile from eating the peach, one can still make the connection that life comes from nature. Humans consume things from nature, which people would either protect or exploit depending on the intention of the person. This theme of consuming food for survival is a major part of daily life.
In the documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, directed by Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Tsuchimoto portrays this theme of the need to consume to maintain life by having a fisherman explain how he prepares and eats octopus. It’s a simple explanation from a person about his desire for a specific way his octopus is prepared. This octopus is this fisherman’s peach. He also mentions how others like to eat octopus raw. The octopuses are fished out of the Minamata bay. If the octopus is this man’s peach, and also other people’s peach, then the bay must be the river that carries the peaches. The peaches go bad if the river is bad. Life cannot be sustained and maintained if the things that maintain life go bad. Tsuchimoto knows this, and this concept is shown through out many Japanese texts. These text usually call for a balance among nature and human progress because life starts with nature, and ends with nature.
Food is the great unifier. In the “Momotaro” story, Momotaro uses millet dumplings to recruit his followers. Food is a limited resource. This is represented in the Momotaro story as his millet dumplings and the scarcity of them. Momotaro’s parents use their resources to make these dumplings for Momotaro, which symbolizes as an inheritance. Momotaro uses his inheritance, which is finite, to recruit enough labor force to conquer ogre island. This shows resource management of goods for services. This same idea of resource management has been used by great nations through out history. An example of this is the resource management was with the construction of the pyramids. Egyptian elites would pay workers a day’s worth of work in bread and beer. There are many articles and papyrus scrolls depicting their complex counting and rationing to workers. Humans still do a form of this system today, but instead of bread, beer, or millet dumplings, it is money that is exchanged for services. This money is now exchanged for food, or services, which everyone can relate and unify under. Just as in “Momotaro” and in Egypt, food can be a unifier of people because of the need to survive.
Bad resource management can also bring on unification. In the film Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein the crew mutinies because of the lack of usable resources such as good meat. Unification can happen at either extreme. Resource management on food can be very affective in persuasion, but it is a dangerous. If one gives out too much of their resources, they will not complete the task before they run out of the resources, which damages the self preservation of the person. Groups of people will unify out of necessity if there is not enough resources being distributed. Bad resource management is also present in the story, “The Factory Ship,” written by Kobayashi Takiji. The distribution of resources on the factory ship was dependent on how much work was done and the status of the individual. The lack of good food was one of the many reasons the crew of the factory ship unified and created their union. Resource management, good or bad, and control over resources, such as food, unifies people to complete the goals of the person who distributes the resources.
Food culture is a culture that provides people with an understanding of the world around them and can provide them with a sense of belonging to a group, or nationality. In “Momotaro” the millet dumplings themselves are a representation of Japanese food culture. Culture is what binds all humans to a specific nationality, or group of people. In the “Momotaro” nationality plays a huge role in the stories. Momotaro, the dog, the monkey, and the pheasant all have three things in common. The first thing is, they all eat the millet dumplings. The second thing is, they are all warriors. The third thing is, they are all from the same land, Japan. These three things tie them together even though they are dramatically different entities. In the Momotaro animated movie this theme of nationality can be seen. This theme is realized as objects in the film, such as, bandanas with Japan’s flag on them and the koi fish. In the movie they unit to destroy Ogre island, although the aspect of creating unity through food is lost.
Being united by food does not mean you are of the same nationality. “The Gourmet Club” written by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro is an example of food unity in food culture. The characters of this story are very unique and are unified by their love of food, not by nationality, but being part of a club is similar to being part of a nationality. Both a club and being of a nationality both have an in-group and an out-group. The in group could be drawn from any factor of commonality; like mindedness, skin color, sex, sexual orientation, language, and similar tastes. The out-group is everyone else who does not fit the ideology of that specific groups view. Food consumption is an easy way for a lot of people to distinguish like-mindedness and build interpersonal relationships with each other, such as the group of individuals who are apart of the gourmet club.
The sick at Minamata fit this description of cultural unity because they are the in-group and Chisso is the out-group. In the documentary Tsuchimoto included a scene about an older gentle man making the statement that he would not be so angry if the executives at Chisso would sacrifice some of their own by drinking polluted bay water. This is an example of the in-group, which is not a desired position in this case, being unified by food consumption, which was the main form of transmission of the Minamata disease. The man who said this was using this situation to illustrate that people would not willingly accept being apart of this in-group if given the choice. The sick people at Minamata formed an independent culture from the main stream because of the food they consumed. These people in the documentary meet with each other, laughed with each other, and felt unified by their common experience of eating contaminated food.
Food is life, unification, and an understanding of where one belongs. In “Momotaro” it shows these three aspects. Life and the desire to survive come up in the symbolism of the peach and the similarities of Minamata and the marine life. Unification is shown by the control and distribution, or lack, of resources such as food. Cultural understanding and the sense of belongingness can and is created by the food that people consume. Food has the power to control, persuade, bind, unify, and destroy.