The image of Japan is one of a land that is in constant motion as it tries to deal with these changes to its self-image that make it question it true identity. From the race to modernize with the west at the turn of the 20th century, to the aftermath of the second world war, to the boom of the post-war years, one sees a nation that is is constant turmoil as it tries to come to terms with these new forces that are changing its identity in a very fast manner. Throughout it we can identify specific examples of how these changes affected in particular the dietary habits of the Japanese nation. Food took on a greater meaning than just a source of nourishment source. Changes in diets also came about at times that great social changes were affecting the nation. Beginning with the Western Food, Politics, and Fashion reading by Katarzyna Cwiertka up through the film Giants and Toys we are witness through a series of social changes that Japan is going through. With food one is able to witness the constant flux of Japan as it tries address foreign influences. Throughout our readings we are witness to how food can be associated with great upheavals in the history of Japan. From this we are able to understand that by examining food movements we are able to understand some of the issues that the whole of Japanese society is going through.
The Meiji restoration was the beginning of a journey that would see Japan become a colonial power equal to those of the European continent. With this change came about the pursuit, on the part of the Japanese elite, to imitate the ways of European people. It was the belief that by following the manner and ways of the Europeans that Japan itself could overcome what it viewed as its own backwardness. This is to say that Japan needed to catch up with the powers of Europe and the United States to fend of the colonial interests of these groups. This meant a radical campaign that would change the entire Japanese society all in the name of modernization. Food played an important role in this campaign as the idea of beef eating took on a greater importance. Prior to the twentieth century Japan was a nation of people who ate very little meat. Diets consisted heavily of roots, vegetables, and rice. To this we can also add some sources of animal proteins like venison and wild boar. Eating meat actually had been declared illegal in 675. “The main reason for the ban was to prohibit the eating of beef and horse meat and protect the livestock population, as well as to prevent drought, insect damage and famine.” (Cwiertka, 24). Over centuries this ban would heavily shape the nations dietary practices and their attitudes toward the idea of eating beef. “…by the late sixteenth century the eating of the domesticated animals acquired a status of a taboo in Japan.” (Cwiertka, 26). This idea changed quickly as the opening up of Japan in 1854 brought about it into this competition to become like the five nations( US, UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands). Forced to come out of its self-imposed isolation, Japan worked feverishly to catch up with the rest of the world. In the case of meat this meant doing away with the avoidance that the Japanese had of eating it. This movement undertook a great leap forward with the announcement in 1872 that the Emperor himself had decided to eat meat. This symbolic announcement signified the government’s push towards becoming like the west. “The consumption of beef by the emperor, in turn, elevated it into the symbol of Japan’s transformation into a modern nation.” (Cwiertka, 33). Although the idea of eating meat still faced opposition from some up to the nineteenth century, its acceptance by the general public began to grow. Supporting this idea was the push by progressives that eating meat was good for the body. “They argued that the lavish consumption of meat by the westerners was responsible for their superior physique, and they tried to convince the Japanese public that by adopting Western dietary habits Japanese would be bolstered as well.” (Cwiertka, 33). The meat came to symbolize the move forward into the modern age and the end of the pre-Meiji era. Food came to symbolize the drastic changes that were occurring in Japan in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Dietary changes came to symbolize a move towards the west and the modernization of the country after several decades of isolation. Later decades would show once again how changes in food coincided with great changes to Japanese society.
The film Giants and Toys by Matsumura Yasuko is a critique of 1950’s Japan’s incredible economic recovery in the aftermath of the Second World War. Food plays a change to this film by presenting it as a part of the economic growth that is occurring. With these changes one also is present to the demands that are placed on workers throughout the film. Dedication to one’s job is seen as both dehumanising and fast paced all in the name of profits. The norm for this period.
We are witness to these changes to Japan through the eyes of the protagonists Nishi and his work at the advertising department of a caramel making company. The sale of caramel, and in turn the advertising department that Nishi works at, is dominated by these new capitalistic trends that demand that all the dedication of its workers. “Nishi’s predicament is is framed in specifically national terms: the frenetic pace of the advertising world is explained by the Japan’s domination by consumerists trends from the United States.” (Raine, 160). This is to say that people live for their jobs. That one loses their own identity and just become a worker of a greater entity that in this case is the corporation. Yasuko would later on use Charlie Chaplins “madness of modern civilization” from his comedies in order to present the dehumanization that took place during the period that this film takes place in. “…Chaplin ‘escapes the automation machines and disappears over the border with the girl he loves’, but in Japan escape is impossible: one can only ‘work like a madman until till he dies’.” (Raine, 161). No longer do traditional ideals and relations stand the test of time to this post war Japan.Even relations between people have a price or profit. Nishi proves this with his relation with Kurahashi. To him their relationship is simply to obtain information on a rival company in order to help his own. Nothing is what it seems. The sweet candy that is caramel becomes the symbol of all the bad changes that are occurring in Japan during this period. That is to say that it is at an intersection where no one can recognize the old signs that could identify Japan. Kurahshi describes this places as “…a Japan that is not the US,but also, at the same time, no longer Japan.” (Raine, 162).
Food is a tool that we can use to gauge many of the social forces that a nation has experienced or is experiencing. In the case of Japan the eating of meat came at a time that saw far greater changes to country in just a few decades than anything that had occurred in the past centuries. This trend continued into the twentieth century with the end of World War Two and the post-war boom that saw Japan become the second biggest economy in the world. A simple candy like caramel came to symbolize a Japan that was being altered forever. What resulted was, according to critics, a nation that was profit driven, but at the same time thought little of the workers who brought it its wealth. Food thought these periods serves as a tool to help us better understand the changes that both the nation, and the people in it, are going through during different times.