Tag Archives: Culture of Japan

Japan: A Nation of Lost Identity (My Year of Meats Extra Credit)

In order to survive in this planet of ever-growing changes, shifts and changes are often made, leading to the discarding of past values and tradition. In Ruth Ozeki’s novel, My Year of Meats, Ozeki indicates a shift in Japan as a country, as a result of influences in capitalism, consumerism, and overall American Culture. Ozeki makes it increasingly evident that Japan is losing its identity amongst nations as Japan seeks to conform with societies which have been deemed successful and prosperous. Japan is shown to seek adaptations of cultural lifestyles with a change to a diet richer in meats and shift towards desires of the “American Dream.”

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Modernization of Japan into a Meat Culture

Clear resentment is presented towards past Japan through Akiko’s husband, John, who displays a growing loss of interest in his wife due to her small figure and infertility, which he views to be due to a meat-deficient diet. The remedy in such situation is concluded to be a change to a more American lifestyle, one that incorporates large consumption of meat. In such way, Ozeki utilizes meat as a linkage to American consumerism and culture, displaying shifting tides in Japan, as Japan becomes further accustomed to meat consumption through the cooking show, My American Wife, that Jane (the Protagonist) helps to produce. Ozeki essentially hints to the failure of infrastructure in Japan as a whole, as Japanese culture has caused its people to pale in comparison to American people.

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Large Portions of Meat (Symbolizing American Culture & Consumerism)

The Protagonist Jane can be seen as the bridge between Japan and the America, as she is of Japanese and Caucasian decent. In presenting this duality, Ozeki is able to further the idea of American health and stature through both the successes of Jane with her TV show and Jane’s figure itself. John who comes into contact with Jane, in one passage, commends Jane on her height and intelligence, which he attributes to her Caucasian side. This sort of American favoritism that Ozeki incorporates into her novel, creates a sense of a dying Japanese culture that people seek to abandon for something of greater nourishment and prosperity. In My Year of Meats, this nourishment comes in the form of the meat that is cooked on the show and the meat that is sold to the Japanese people through BEEF-EX. The early Meiji Era values of 19th century Japan, values that include buddhist ideals of being frugal, low meat consumption, and overall moderation, are discarded and replaced with American values of excessiveness and high consumerism (in particular with that of meat). This new 20th century Japan, illustrates Japanese high regard toward a state of modernity, which is thought to be only possible through the mimicry of “American culture.”

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Cover of My Year of Meats Novel (displays Japanese Chopsticks which pick up Beef Cow)

My Year of Meats is a novel in which Japanese progression towards modernity in the 19th and 20th century is displayed through Japanese adaptations toward the American lifestyle. Ozeki displays such shift through the symbol of meat which becomes an increasingly common part of the Japanese peoples’ lives. American consumerism is placed at the utmost highest pedestal, as it emanates and produces prosperity and health which is shown through the juxtaposition of American and Japanese women.

Momotaro: The Symbol of Propaganda

The tale of Momotaro is widespread and has long been established as one of Japan’s classical heroic folklores. Due to its widespread knowledge amongst Japanese society, many derivations have been created from the original folklore in the form of intertextuality and intermediality. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is but one example of intertextuality that achieves its propagandist goal through its manipulation of the original folklore of Momotaro. The commonalities between Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and the original Momotaro are quite evident, as both stories contain themes of unity, themes of triumph over evil, themes of leadership, as well as themes of animals as soldiers. Although these two stories contain similar themes, their driven purpose is drastically different.

The folktale of Momotaro tells us the story of a boy sent by Heaven, birthed inside a giant peach, to be the child of an elder couple. The boy then grows up and leaves his parents to combat a group of notoriously evil demons on a nearby island. On his journey there, Momotaro befriends a dog, monkey, and a pheasant, who ultimately help Momotaro defeat the island of demons and return home with the pillaged treasure. The main themes that are presented in Momotaro are simple: they’re traditional themes that are common with folklore stories, such as themes of unity, themes of triumph in adversity, and themes of bravery against unmatched odds. Momotaro’s purpose is also simple: it doesn’t quite have one! As folklore stories tend to simply be stories of pleasure and culture building, Momotaro did not have a directed purpose to its creation.

Contrast this to Momotaro’s Sea Eagles however, and many elements and themes are replicated, but not simply for the sake of cultural binding and the quick laugh (as it may seem through the adorable and hilarious animation style), but rather used by Mitsuo Seo to further his propaganda that this army composed of cute and cuddly animals is the “good” army, and their actions against the Americans are justified as righteous simply because “the Americans” are the enemies and who would be so evil enough as to oppose these cuddly animals? Now Mitsuo Seo obviously wasn’t advancing for the rights of cuddly animals by this film, but rather was advancing the propaganda of Japanese victory over at Pearl Harbor.

The film weaves intertextuality by taking the ever beloved Momotaro from common folk legend and making him this respected commander of an army of cute animals.  Contextually, the propaganda’s perfect target audience is the younger Japanese generation, and by the use of intertexuality, Mitsuo Seo really hits home.  The text from the original solidifies Momotaro and his animals as the heroes of the plot, and the demons as obviously the opposing evil force, and this context is indubitably influential and similar to the context in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.

The film also utilizes the original Momotaro’s very vague nature and steers it heavily to transpose a concrete and specific meaning to its audience. There are several mediums between the two stories that differ slightly for the sole purpose of telling a different story. Examples of this include Momotaro’s changed role from a primitive pack leader to a stern military general, the change to represent Momotaro through cartoon-like animations, and also the massive, almost factory-produced army of animals replacing the meager three that accompanied the original Momotaro. This use of different mediums is what conveys the ultimately different message in Sea Eagles. Placing Momotaro as a military general does many things. For one, Momotaro is already established as a credible figure, and placing him as commander of an army that is similar to his target audience is a formula that is made to deliver on his propagandist idea – which is convincing the younger Japanese generation of Japan’s actions as “good” deeds at Pearl Harbor. Placing Momotaro as a military general also has the effect of over-glamorizing, belittling, and ultimately censoring the real brutality that comes as a consequence of war.  Military leaders typically aren’t going to be your favorite folklore hero, but rather the hardened, stern and strong-minded character that would never give an ounce of true respect until proceeded by in rank. This misleading portrayal of a leader ultimately does serve to lure and entice kids to believe in this propadanda.

The censorship of war also goes hand-in hand with the cartoony animation style of Sea Eagles. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles delves knee deep into the very unstable and emotionally charged topic of war, and this topic normally associated with bloodshed and loss of human life is instead sugarcoated with images of cute animals that seem to siphon all the grim seriousness that wartime brings. Death and struggle, which are commonplace issues during wartime, is never addressed as a theme in the film, but is instead replaced by the hilarious antics and mishaps of these adorable animals who face very miniscule resistance in achieving their goal. This cartoony style, innocent and fruitful in nature to captivate young audiences, is another medium different from the original Momotaro that serves to advance Mitsuo Seo’s propaganda that the Japanese’s actions at Pearl Harbor were righteous and dutifully so, regardless of the true massive loss of human life (which was never outright illustrated in the film).

Another aesthetic element that makes Momotaro’s Sea Eagles different from its original counterpart is the film’s portrayal of Momotaro’s companions as soldiers; the “depersonalizing” of the dog, monkey, and pheasant, and replacing these companions with an outright army, a seemingly innumerable, disciplined, factory-produced force. Mitsuo Seo uses this different aesthetic to advance his propaganda of Japan’s superiority as a world power, and to also engrain to the Japanese youth the idea of their “victory” at Pearl Harbor. This army of animals is representative of Japan’s own forces, it is representative of an army constructed in unity and tasked with the heroic opportunity to defeat a foreign enemy. This military mindset of sacrificing oneself for the greater good of your country is certainly an ideal that is illustrated and capitalized on through the army of animals. The selflessness of the animals simulates the amount of selflessness that Japanese soldiers have faced, and in some extreme cases of death for a greater cause (i.e Japanese kamikaze suicide bombers) this military like structure presented in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles serves as a subtle maneuver to get the younger Japanese generation to sympathize with the military’s efforts. This military presence is yet another form of intermediality that transforms the original story’s purpose through the manipulation of this medium.

Instead of simply cheering the spirits and putting children to sleep at night (which is the effect that a perfect folklore story like Momotaro has)  Sea Eagles conveys a different story, and ultimately a different purpose by drilling the subliminal message in the young audience’s mind Many mediums  differ between the two stories,  and in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, each medium is tactfully integrated to advance their different purpose.

Food, specifically millet dumplings, is also a common object amongst both the text and the film. In Momotaro, millet dumplings serve as a powerful symbol of trustworthiness, and stands strong as a symbol of unity. Each animal that accompanied Momotaro initially were skeptics of him and it was only after a slight battle did they decide to join his ranks and consume half a millet dumpling. In the original context, half a millet dumpling was sacred to the animals and symbolized a strong connection with Momotaro.  In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the context of the millet dumpling changes a little. Millet dumplings still do symbolize a form of community, but is altered so that the millet dumplings seem to be crucial, almost drug-like and heavily relied on as a source of strength and comfort.  There was a humorous scene in the film with an animal refusing to take off without his generous bag of millet dumplings, which signified how different the millet dumplings are perceived in both the text and the film. In the text, a single dumpling is split amongst the dog, monkey, and pheasant, as if it is some sort of church communion bread, holy in all its glory. In the film, dumplings are taken and consumed with quickness, for a sense of strength and security, but also with a strong level of dependence, it is almost drug-like. Ultimately, millet dumplings serve as a symbol of unity for both Momotaro and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. Intertextuality amongst both the film and the text adds a far deeper meaning to the millet dumpling, which otherwise would appear to be just a simple food. Through the original Momotaro, we can interpret just how complex and symbolic this simple dumpling is.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Momotaro have the same themes, and in context, the film is repackaged with different elements to really hit home with its propagandist message. Intermediality as well as intertextuality allows certain elements to be changed and manipulated while still retaining the base themes and story, and this film is a classic example of that. Minutiae details come in to result in such a largely different story, as we see an original, classic folklore story with a simple enough premise transformed into a propagandist tool used to captivate and sway an entire young Japanese generation of millions.

The Truth About Kobe Beef

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Cattle are not native to the island of Japan and no one knows exactly when they arrived, but historical records like the Zoku Nihonki and Kokugyu Juzu first indicate their presence during the Kofun Jidai (Tatsumi). According to the Nihon Shoki, Buddhism was also introduced and slowly matriculated Japanese society during this same period (1213, par. 2). Buddhist doctrine strictly prohibited the eating of meat and cattle were strictly used for spiritual rituals and manual labor (Wagyu). Furthermore, the emperors of Japan issued a series of decrees banning meat consumption entirely (Wagyu). Consequently, aside from “so”, a dairy product eaten by aristocrats between the 8th and 10th centuries, beef products were absent from the Japanese diet until the mid-19th century when all laws prohibiting the consumption of beef were lifted (Wagyu).

As beef began to gain in popularity, clearly distinct Japanese beef dishes began to evolve and there was a sudden spike in beef consumption for the first time. As a result, during the Meiji era foreign breeds of cattle were imported and interbreed with “native” cattle to increase their overall quality and yield (Wagyu). Subsequently, four unique hybridized breeds of cow emerged – the Japanese Brown found in Kumamoto and Oichi prefectures, the Japanese Polled found in Yamaguchi prefecture, the Japanese Shorthorn found in cool northern prefectures like Tohoku and Hokkaido and lastly the Japanese Black which is found throughout Japan (Wagyu).

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Unlike most countries that prefer a lean cut of beef, the Japanese prefer theirs to be fattier with a characteristic “shimofuri” webbed marbling effect. Of the four types of Japanese cattle, the Japanese Black has been noted for its ability to retain a fattier content and is typically selected for beef production. In order for this marbling affect to occur, Japanese farmers prohibit their cattle from pasture grazing and partaking in regular exercise that would promote muscle development (Wagyu). They are raised in small byres from birth until they reach approximately 32 months old and fed high quality diets ensuring a succulent and tender meat (Kobe). Since the Japanese beef industry cannot compete with foreign beef markets, Japanese farmers are dedicated to rearing the highest quality beef possible (Wagyu). Through this quality initiative, Japanese beef has gained in popularity and the “Kobe Beef” phenomena thus began.

From the early Meiji era onwards, “gyunabe” and other meat dishes began to appear on the dining tables of Japanese families. Yet, until the late 1970’s, the clear distinction between “Kobe beef” and common supermarket grade meat was not clearly defined (Kobe). There was no way to prove if the meat you purchased as “Kobe beef” was actually real, authentic “Kobe beef”. This was the driving force behind producers, meat distributors and consumers joining forces to establish the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in 1983 (Kobe).

Kobe Beef Stamp

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Through this initiative a strict serialized breeding system was implemented and tending sites were designated within Hyogo prefecture (Kobe). Furthermore, a severe twelve point meat marbling standard was established to grade the “shimofuri” consistency (Kobe). Once the beef has been screened and processed, only the highest quality beef gets stamped by the trademarked chrysanthemum seal from the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (Kobe).

The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association states that their “Kobe Beef” is unique due to “…a harmony of delicate, dignified sweet lean meat and the taste and fragrance of melt-in-your-mouth fat. The “sashi” fatty content of the meat itself will actually begin to dissolve at low temperatures. This means that it will literally melt in your mouth. An abundant content of inosinic and oleic acids have also been scientifically proven to add to its outstanding flavor.”  (Kobe)

In the United States, wagyu is frequently misrepresented as “Kobe Beef”. Wagyu is raised in many regions of Japan, Australia and the United States. “Kobe Beef”, on the other hand, can only come from Hyogo Prefecture (Freemont). Currently the Freemont Beef Company is the only authorized importer of “Kobe Beef” to the United States (Freemont). As of October 2013, the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association has only exported 508 pounds of “Kobe Beef” to the Freemont Beef Company for American consumption (Kobe). With this staggeringly low amount being exported, it is highly unlikely that the average American consumer has ever eaten authentic “Kobe Beef” at their local neighborhood eating establishment.

With the inception of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, many breeders of non tajimagyu breeds have begun to revolutionize their breeding methods to compete with the booming “Kobe Beef” market. Due to this domestic demand for even higher quality meats, the “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics” is held to identify the healthiest and most productive Japanese black stud bull bloodline (Wagyu). In October 2012, thirty eight prefectures competed in the 10th annual “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics” with the hidagyu breed from Miyazaki prefecture claiming best bull, thus, ousting “Kobe Beef” from their top honors.

10th Annual "All-Japan Wagyu Olympics" Image by NHK World Education Corporation

10th Annual “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics”
Image by NHK World Education Corporation

In closing, “Kobe Beef” has become synonymous with the Japanese beef industries perseverance for quality and flavor despite its recent loss at the “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics”. This is in part due to its popularity amongst foreign countries and commercialization through western media outlets. Unfortunately, it has also become a title frequently used by western free enterprise to loosely identify any wagyu breed slaughtered for commercial sale. As most consumers are inexperienced with the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association’s severe grading criteria, they will continue to be duped by the American restaurant industry into paying enormous amounts of money for an inferior mislabeled product.

Ramen-tic Artistry: Tradition and Artistry in Every Bite

The Japanese comedy, Tampopo, is a ramen western film with multiple intertwining plots occurring simultaneously. Although the most prominent of the plots focuses on the story of Tampopo, a cook and owner of a small ramen shop, who is determined to master the perfect Japanese noodle recipe, the director, Juzo Itami, strategically incorporates additional scenes to enhance the importance food plays in Japanese culture. One scene in particular that exemplified the tradition ramen played in Japanese culture is the scene of an elderly food guru who teaches a young gentleman a valuable lesson on how to appreciate the artistry in a simple bowl of ramen soup.

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A food guru teaches a young man the traditional way to eat ramen soup (two-shot camera method).

 In this particular scene, the elderly man satirically demonstrates to his apprentice the traditional step by step process of eating ramen noodles. The aesthetic of Japanese cuisine is a true form of art.  From the elegantly placed shinachiku roots and chopped spring onions to the delicately prepared shimmering broth, every minor detail is prepared to absolute perfection.

In the setting, the young man and food master causally sit on counter stools at a ramen shop with full bowls of steaming ramen in front of each individual. Itami utilized symmetry and a two-shot, eye-level, medium distance camera set up to display the equality between the ramen consumers. Despite the generation gap between the two men, as the elder is dressed in traditional wear and the young man is dressed in a westernized Hawaiian shirt, the contents of the ramen dish remain identical.  Thus, symbolizing that ramen is a Japanese national dish meant to be eaten by all members of the community, not determinant by age or class. When the young man dives in to his bowl to begin devouring his noodles, the teacher lingers a bit to carefully examine and appreciate the work that went into creating the ramen meal. This comedic point in the film humorously serves to juxtapose the traditional Japanese cuisine culture with more western views on cuisine culture. This provides a prominent example emphasizing how highly respected the Japanese culture has for their traditional cuisine.

As the ceremonial gestures begin to take play, the mise-en-scene shifts to individual close-up shots of the food master and the ingredients of the actual ramen bowl. The food master further tells the young man that he must apologize and caress the pieces of pork. These demands give meat human characteristics. Though these demands seem somewhat outrageous, since meat was considered a sacred delicacy the food master is implying that one must treat their food with the same affection that they would to a lover.  Rather than using food as simply a source of fuel, it is more important to appreciate the journey each ingredient took to get mixed into the ramen dish displayed on the table and enjoy the quality in every tasteful bite.

This scene essentially acts as a foundation foreshadowing Tampopo’s story to greatness in the ramen making industry. The success in her creation of the most delicious ramen stems from embodying tradition and appreciation for the tasteful artistry in Japanese cuisine.

Tampopo: represents more than just a person

Tampopo is a film directed by Japanese director Itami Juzo and showed in theater in 1985. The film screened a story of a widow, who solely runs a leave over ramen restaurant from her husband, overcomes several difficulties and finally achieved her goal at the end. Generally, this film follows a common procedure of storyline which the protagonist, Tampopo, at the beginning, finds herself in a predicament situation and as a sense of revolt develops in her mind, she begins pursuing for her dream and a new form of life, then at the end she accomplishes her dream and ushers in her new life. Although there is no highlight in general storyline, director Itami shows several unique ways of storytelling to his audiences to draw their attentions as well as to express his believes about food and his country at that time.

Egg passing

Egg passing

For example, most of audiences would find this scene has no obvious relation to the main story, and conclude it as an odd sex scene. However, ponder the role position in this film, it somehow seems the females are in position of representing learners, pillars of family and further more may represent Japan itself at that time, as the males are representing mentors, pillars of society and Western cultures. In this scene, the female is urgently longing for the egg, and they have passed back and forth many times to each other’s mouth until the lady broke the yolk, then she swallows the juice. The implied meaning of this scene can be Japan, as in its late postwar period, is in state of well- absorption of western culture and creating its own. Many scenes have demonstrated this idea very straightforward. Examples are like, in a scene where a group of females are learning how to eat spaghetti, likewise in the previous scene where the young man is pretty knowledgeable about French food.

The foreigner

The foreigner that eats
spagetti out loud

In addition, director Itami specially contrast appropriate way of eating ramen with eating spaghetti. He put this ironic foreigner in this scene to illuminate his believe of modern Japanese culture as it has transformed through mixture of original Japanese culture and western culture, and became a unique one.

Dying woman cooked the last meal for her family

Dying woman cooked the last meal for her family

There is also an obscure idea that director Itami integrate in this film. He portrays women in the film as they are pillars of their family. This image is clearly shown in characters like Tampopo, the choked old man’s daughter and the dying woman. This is a medium shot so it shows much better setting overall than a close- up setting. In here, director put the dying woman in the middle and makers her whole family centralize at her, which gives a strong visual perception to the audiences. It’s a very unacceptable idea to traditional Japanese culture that woman can be in greater position than man in any family. But in this scene, director deliberately illustrates the dying woman’s unshakable position in her family through the dinner; and when she dies, it seems the whole family is falling apart. This can be the most profound shot in the film.

Recognition, joy, satisfaction, blessing and respect

Recognition, joy, satisfaction, blessing and respect

Overall, director Itami uses food as keystone to link each scene and his perspectives throughout the film. Because of this, the film doesn’t feel like broken in parts even though some scenes have no direct connections to the main story. Moreover, Tampopo, by director’s intention, becomes no more than just a character representing a role in the film, the character has also transformed into a symbol of evolution, and good wish by the director to this newborn Japanese culture. At the end where all five of them give positive response toward Tampopo’s ramen can be a good illustration of that.

Tampopo: Celebrate Food Culture

Culture is closely entwined with food. Through the story of Tampopo and several short scenes that demonstrate Japan’s food culture, Juzo Itami explores this relationship between Japanese culture and food. In Tampopo, food becomes a celebration, hard work, and even a sensual act.

Watch closely, kiddo

Watch closely, kiddo

Perhaps the most important scene that encompasses Tampopo’s themes is the one of two men sitting inside a ramen shop. The elderly teacher instructs his young pupil with the proper techniques to eating a bowl of noodles. The old man tells the young man to admire and caress the noodles. Throughout the scene, the teacher stresses many elaborate steps to savor the ramen. This glorification of ramen, though hilarious, celebrates the food culture in Japan. The etiquette the teacher displays is a way of saying that all food is worth celebrating. What was once a common bowl of ramen noodles suddenly becomes an object of high cultural status to the audience.

Additionally, this scene demonstrates that food can also be connected to hard work. The teacher stresses the effort that one must exert in order to fully enjoy ramen. One scene in the film that counters the scene of the teacher and his pupil is the one in which an older man overindulges in food. He devours his large meal as if he had been starving for days. Choking on his food, the old man has his meal sucked out with a vacuum to save him. From this scene we realize the importance of savoring food. The hard work that goes into the ramen that we see in Tampopo’s quest for the perfect noodles needs to be appreciated with an equal amount of effort in eating ramen. Thus, the elderly teacher shows us that food should be appreciated because of the hard work that goes into any recipe.

Lastly, this scene also implies that eating food can also be an erotic act. Eating is a way to express love or to pleasure oneself. The older man stares at the bowl of noodles in the way a lover would gaze at his partner. He smells the aromas and appreciates the “jewels of fat” that sit on the surface. The old man then uses chopsticks to stroke the bowl of noodles. This scene indicates that caressing the noodles is related to sensual acts like caressing one’s lover. As the old man begins to eat the noodles, he instructs the young man to eye the pork affectionately while eating. All these small details indicate that eating can be a sexual deed. This idea is later reinforced by the scenes of the man pleasuring his lover with food.

This opening scene of the ramen master in Tampopo is essential in understanding the film’s central themes. The scene is the most significant because it gives the audience a peek into food’s role in Japan’s culture.  Every small detail is a hint to the many connections that food has with culture whether it’s celebration, work, or sex.