Tag Archives: Ruth Ozeki

Red Meat: The Bond of the Typical American Family

Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats follows unemployed documentarian Jane Takagi-Little on her experience working as a producer for a Japanese TV show called My American Wife, which is sponsored by a Texas-based meat industry lobby organization called Beef-Ex. To continue the pattern of westernization in Japan, My American Wife features American wives demonstrating the steps to simple American recipes that contain red meat and can be performed at home for a family dinner. At the typical American family dinner table, red meat represents the main dish that unites each family member to bond with each other by sharing the dish. In order to establish a bond for the Japanese family during dinnertime, Jane Takagi-Little emphasizes the modern American tradition of serving red meat at the dinner table.

As the main purpose of the TV Show, red meat, instead of the American housewife, is the star of My American Wife. Sponsored by Beef-Ex, My American Wife wants Japanese housewives to “feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home – the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America” (Ozeki 8). Normally, the typical Japanese family indulges in light-tasting dishes, such as seafood, rice, soup, and vegetables. Although these dishes are light in flavor, the Japanese consider this cuisine as a commonplace in their culture. However, red meat, an “attractive, appealing, all-American dish,” gives the Japanese a sense of both westernization and modernization with the appeal of the American culture. As Japan becomes more of a Western-cultured civilization with the increase of American fast food places and red meat at the markets, it is reasonable for home-cooked meals to include the use of red meat as a main dish.

In order for the audience to gain interest in American red meat cuisine, Ruth Ozeki’s word choice to describe the purpose of the show creates a warm and persuasive tone. For example, the passage emphasizes how red meat brings the “hearty” sense of “warmth,” “comfort,” “hearth,” and “home.” (Ozeki 8) Instead of having the normal Japanese dinner, the Japanese should try something that would provides tons of flavor while producing the pleasant feeling of comfort while consuming the dish made of red meat. Ozeki wants to appeal to the Japanese housewives so their family members can intensify the feeling of comfort at home while enjoying their meal as a family. By intensifying this comfortable feeling, this allows family members to endure in bonding with sharing the amiability of their main dish of hearty red meat.

By emphasizing the value of bonding as a family as well as the use of red meat at the dinner table, the American tradition of the culinary concoction of red meat allows the Japanese housewife and her family to experience the ways at the dinner table of the modern American family.  As a rising country in the westernization of cuisine, utilizing red meat in home-cooked meals allows the typical Japanese family to meet the modern expectations of the modern westernized Japanese culture.

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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.

Wal-Mart

In My Years of Meat by Ruth Ozeki, segmented episodes where Jane Takagi penetrates into the lives of various “american wives” function together to construct one coherently distressful message of the mass producing, profit oriented, mask wearing image of capitalist America. Between these bursts of plot, the one underlying theme of consumption, packaging, and mass distribution in the name of prosperity is represented by a single entity – Wal-Mart; its ugly identity remains static and transcends through each episode of the close inspections. Wal-Mart is shown to be the perfect representation of a falsified face of American culture, both in its shimmering image and its hidden despicable flaws, and in how it corrupts homeland America, as well as deceive Japan.

In America, Wal-Mart is like a disease-filled, brainwashing corporate machine. People are described as zombie like and “spent all their days off at Wal-Mart” (Location 540). Towns are sterilized and equalized into copies of each other, as if Wal-Mart’s giant gloved right hand stamps on the mark of advancement while its rotten black left hand crushes and brushes away the traditional Main street Mom n’ Pop shops. Wal-Mart has the ability to wipe clean any character, there is no race, sexuality, or disability in its eyes, and with the same welcoming embrace it accepts all and contaminates all; it is there that Susie buys her Pepsi, Gracie buys the toys, and Suzuki finds his porn. Ruth also describes the twisted values of the corporation in the case of the Bukowsky family, where “Wal-Mart did the right thing and paid a handsome settlement” (Location 2122). To the cold faced manager who refuses to admit liability, amendments for his mistake did not involve any remorse or humanly emotions. Instead of fixing their wrongs from the root of the problem, Wal-Mart’s attitude of corrective action is simply monetary repayment.

Yet such a flawed creature is glorified in Japan as the “awesome, capitalist equivalent of the wide open spaces and endless horizons of the American geographical frontier.”(Location 559). In reality Wal-Mart is more like a pretty curtain drop in front of a vulgar mess of disturbing meat production and processing; it serves as a filter between the ugly truth, and the dressed up version presented to the masses. However to Ueno, the image casted onto the curtain is precisely what he wishes to broadcast to the people of Japan, both as a means to satisfy their hunger for western understanding, and for his own selfish incentive of promoting beef. Since the Japanese crew’s very initial contact with Jane, “Waru-Maato wa doko?”(Location 538) already sounds like a desperate cry in the pursuit of a falsely constructed wholesomeness.

In My Years of Meat, Wal-Mart is singled out as a symbolism for the foulness within American culture. On one hand it corrodes individualism within the U.S. and uses mass production as a means of creating the frenzy that lies in the source of unethical meat production. On the other hand to the viewers in Japan, only a craftily manipulated image of western power is put forth.  By planting this central argument within the familiar image of Wal-Mart, Ruth urges us to see beyond what is fed to us, and find courage to peer behind the curtain and see the unpleasant truth.

Meat and Power

Ruth Ozeki’s “My Years of Meat” is set in a historical context before the rapid westernization, which is the time period when rice, fish and vegetables are still the main dining ingredients of a typical Japanese household. Through the portrayal of the public’s and individual’s reaction to the introduction of Western lifestyle, Ruth Ozeki explores the power relation between nation and genders, in which consumption of meat serves as the vehicle of dramatizing such power difference.

First, the consumption of meat becomes the emblem of Japanese people’s ideal of the West, which is satirized through the comical depiction of BEEF-EX’s corrupt advertising method that manipulates the public’s perception towards their beef products, “or selling off the vast illusion of America to a cramped population on that small string of Pacific islands”. The company attempts to attribute the “contemporary wholesome values” to meat by creating a warm image of an American family in order to demonstrate how the nourishment of meat contributes to the health and happiness of a family. The author criticizes the company’s unethical manipulation of such cultural perception and their inauthentic presentation of American family by satirizing the director’s fastidious manner and the artificiality of “American wife”. For example, during the cooking scene, in order to make the process more “interesting” the director decided to take different shots of the same step repeatedly. Consequently, the process becomes rather comical as “they had to go out to the grocery store and buy a dozen economy-size bottles of Pepsi” and “Suzie had to wash off the raw meat in the sink and pat it dry with paper towels and make it look new again”. Also, even Suzie becomes aware of her role as a “social actor” and starts responding to the needs of media by arranging the furniture and telling her kids to “act like they were enjoying their meat”. Because of her “acting”, the relationship between Fred and Suzie deteriorates as the show proceeds. Thus, the author makes fun of the Japanese media’s idealization and stereotyping of a Western lifestyle that symbolizes Japan’s appropriation of Western power, while commenting on the negative influence of such stereotypical perception of Western culture on an American household.

Furthermore, the habit of meat consumption is deployed as male’s enforcement of power in a Japanese household. Akiko’s value and position in her family are determined by her fertility and Jouichi’s affection for her. She is always bothered by her physical weakness and infertility, which contributes to her sense of insecurity as she always worries about Jouichi’s feeling. As Jouichi becomes obsessed with Western culture and starts to introduce the consumption of meat to Akiko, her position and power decline even more because the gap between her traditional trait and her husband’s ideal of white female sexuality broadens. Jouichi admires the “hybrid vigor” in Jane and loves “big-breasted American woman”, which stands for the quality of health and fertility in Western beauty that opposes the physical characteristics of Akiko. Jouichi’s enforcement of his power even elevates to the level of mental and sexual abuse as Akiko suffers from eating beef and having sex with him with a more “abrasive” condom. As Jouichi adopts the habit of meat consumption and becomes more sexually active, Akiko loses her power and dignity due to her failure to adapt to the Western lifestyle and the image of white female sexuality.

In conclusion, “My Years of Meat” portrays Japan’s idealistic and stereotypical conception of Western culture as a product of the corrupt marketing device of meat industry, which reflects the negative influence of Japan’s appropriation of Western power. Moreover, the introduction of meat consumption increases the sexual desire of man and causes them to idealize woman in a stereotypical image of a white female, further increasing the power difference between male and female in both Western and Japanese households.

Meat is the Message, is the Message you heard, it’s got Additives, it’s got Meaning

“Meat is the message.” A simple line, a play on Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” yet it embodies exactly what Ruth Ozeki’s message in My Year of Meats. Within this novel, meat is used as a metaphor in the context of a diary that represents the lives of the various characters introduced. As the meat is molded and tampered so is the life of the main character, Akiko, whose diary section, along with Jane’s, gives us a deeper understanding of Akiko’s character and her marriage.

The novel splits itself into two parts, one being a behind the scene showing of what’s going on and the other being the diary of Akiko. From the background it is seen that the meat that is put on the shows use glycerin in order to make it glisten (42), likewise the meat used for the Coca-Cola roast has actually been doused by Pepsi, which is, “Not the real thing at all…” (30) On the actual show the food looks amazing, but even Akiko has a sense of distrust as she notes that, “…it felt like they were hiding something.” (40) This ties into Akiko throwing up the beef that she eats every night, almost in mutiny of the change in lifestyle that her husband “John” has pushed onto her. (37-38) Jane’s diary also gives us a glimpse of “John” and his relation to Akiko. Jane make’s a list, in the style of Shonagan, of “John” in response to his behaviors noting that he is, “Hateful/Unsuitable/Depressing/Annoying/Presumptuous”. (44)

The story, although having sequences that could are “behind the scene,” is driven by the pseudo-diaries of Jane and Akiko. Taking these three parts into consideration, they make the layers of perception for the story. There is Akiko’s point of view, the view of the audience who witnesses the show about meat.  Then there is the “behind the scene” point of view that depicts what happens to the meat in preparation for the show. Finally there is Jane’s perspective that goes deeper behind the scenes and shows the character of “John” tying all three perspectives together. “John” is seen as hateful and unsuitable along with a myriad of other negative labels in Jane’s diary, symbolizing how “John” by trying to modernize himself has ultimately been perverted. Akiko’s diary shows us the effects of this culture clashing, and essentially her innate struggle to fight off such forces as seen by her throwing up. This creates a contrast between the two characters despite the fact that they are joined by marriage. In a sense the marriage between the two reflects the condition of the meat. On a surface level the marriage between Akiko and “John” works and looks good, but underneath all of the additives lays something unnatural, a something that Akiko innately tries to push out of her life. The diaries thus help to create a cohesive view between the characters and the background view of the show.

A Modern Sei Shonagon?

            Ruth Ozeki incorporates the older genre of diary literature in her book, My Year of Meats, in order to give the reader a more personal insight into the life and personality of Jane Takagi-Little, one of the characters in the book. Diary literature is an older genre used by Heian court lady and writer Sei Shonagon in her well-known work, The Pillow Book. Ozeki opens up each chapter with a short passage from Shonagon’s book and relates it to the rest of chapter, and Shonagon is also a source of inspiration for the character Jane.

            Ozeki uses the first-person narrative of diary literature when she is telling Jane’s story, which allows the reader to connect with Jane and directly read her mind and feelings as she tells her account of her year as a coordinator for “My American Wife”. Jane also goes into her background. She tells us she is biracial, half Japanese and half white, and throughout the narrative the audience sees how she struggles with this but also has come to accept it, and even embraces it. Her struggles mostly come about how other people treat her, for example when an American WWII veteran asks her, “What are you?” she replies, “I…am…a…fucking…AMERICAN!” and it is obvious that she is offended by this question, even though as a biracial person, she probably gets this question often (7). The audience also sees how she is proud of being half and sometimes feels “brand-new—like a prototype” as the world will all be eventually all racially mixed (9).

            Jane tells the reader that she admires Sei Shonagon, who inspired her “to become a documentarian, to speak men’s Japanese, to be different” (9). Just as Shonagon wrote in the “Chinese writings” only used by men back in the Heian era, Jane speaks in men’s Japanese, and dares to be different in Japan, a society which has more emphasis on conformity and tradition compared to American society.

            The third chapter of My Year of Meats opens with a passage from The Pillow Book, “A thief has crept into a house and is now hiding in some well-chosen nook where he can secretly observe what is going on” (17). Jane relates to this thief as she “slip[s] in and out of darkened rooms and steal[s] from people’s lives” but also calls Shonagon the “master thief” (18). In diary literature, the author is not only limited to her own life, but also any lives she comes in contact with, whether the other party wants to or not. Jane can be seen as a modern parallel to Shonagon, who observed and wrote about the happenings in the Heian court as she viewed them without sugarcoating her language, just as Jane accounts her Year of Meats with direct feelings along with her experiences with her Japanese bosses and American families she worked with, withholding no indiscretion.

            Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is an inspiration for My Year of Meats, both to the style and also to the character in the book.

The False Modernity in My Year of Meats

The emergence of western culture throughout the world has had longstanding effects on non-western communities. More specifically, the impacts of the vast spreading western culture has been reflected in Japanese culture since the early 1950s. From Yasujiro Ozu films to the development of fast-paced cities, westernized modernity has had implicit effects on Japan’s native culture with negative and positive impacts being difficult to distinguish. These effects, however, are clearly portrayed as good or bad in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. In her novel, Ozeki utilizes a nonlinear storyline to depict the attitudes of three intertwining women characters who are all products of the relationship between Japanese and American culture. These characters are comprised of an American woman, a Japanese woman, and a Japanese American woman. Ozeki deploys meat as a commonality between these women and displays the hardships that accompany a culture when it is involuntarily imposed on one’s life. Even more so, Ozeki reveals an added layer of pressure that modernization has on women.

The beginning of the novel introduces Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese American gender non-conformist woman that works on My American Wife, a show aired in Japan. Its purpose is to represent American families in a positive light that will encourage Japanese families to eat meat. While the show’s layout is meant to portray the honest, everyday routine of an American wife, Jane becomes uncomfortable when she knows the producers ultimately prioritize what will sell over truth. Jane is a clear indicator of the issues that are entailed with involuntarily modernizing a person or culture. Her thoughts and actions reflect guilt and remorse, which derive from her feeling responsible for exploiting American women in addition to knowing that the show spreads a fictionalized image of American families to an eager Japanese audience. Akiko Ueno, a Japanese woman whose husband forces her to watch My American Wife, sees Suzie Flowers, a woman on the show. By seeing how “perfect” the characters on My American Wife seem to be, Akiko’s husband (who goes by “John” because of its western nature) yearns for he and Akiko to become increasingly like them. If only he knew that Suzie Flowers’ smile covered a life filled with a condescending husband that cheated on her, he might have reconsidered pressuring Akiko to conform to the ideology and symbolism of an American wife. By creating a fake depiction of all-American families who love meat, modernity is unnaturally imposed on the Japanese culture.

Ozeki’s novel successfully unveils the adversities that modernity has on a traditional culture. She juxtaposes the lives of the dominant culture with the lives of the inferior culture. With this juxtaposition comes the realization that women in both cultures fill a subordinate role in their homes to their husbands. Ozeki exhibits the hardships that Akiko faces for not fulfilling her husband’s desire for her to adapt as an “American wife.” Suzie Flowers severely lacks content for her life and marriage, yet the artificial portrayal of her on My American Wife conceals that. With backgrounds in both heritages, Jane Takagi-Little symbolizes the issues of modernity and the awkward position it has placed women into. The false illustration of American families instills an untrue message of how Japanese families should behave. This manipulates the process of modernization and ultimately reveals the dysfunctional aspects of both cultures.

Close Reading Paper #1, By Jack Harrison

Behind the Scenes: Diary Literature in My Year of Meats

Emily Buck

Close Reading Paper

Behind the Scenes: Diary Literature in My Year of Meats

                My Year of Meats is a novel by Ruth Ozeki that follows two women over the course of a year and documents how their lives were changes by a television show, My American Wife, about American meat. Despite the modern themes of “the West” and “television”, the book maintains a constant motif of Heian era diary literature. Both Jane Takagi-Little, the production coordinator of the show, and Akiko Ueno, the barren wife of one of the show’s financers, have a special connection to The Pillow Book, a diary written by a Heian courtier, Sei Shonagon. Jane views The Pillow Book as an inspiration to be different while Akiko views it as a late-night comfort and escape from her unpleasant life. The novel is written in split perspective: Jane’s portion is in first person while Akiko’s is in third. Somehow, both portions are equally delve into the private, personal feelings and opinions of the respective character, much like a secret diary would.

In the very first chapter, Jane explains her life up until the beginning of the show’s production – how she gained her compound last name, the way in which Sei Shonagon’s diary inspired her to cut off her hair and speak in men’s Japanese, how her hybrid ethnicity made her feel special, and how she was so poor before beginning My American Wife that she was forced into an entirely vegetarian diet. This autobiography is counterbalanced with records of daily or weekly occurrences, much like a diary would contain both general thoughts and chronicles of specific events.  But the parallels between Shonagon and Jane go deeper.  They are both documentarians, both formally and privately. Neither is afraid to show the masked truths that might not be apparent to an outsider. Shonagon’s diary documents the true character of Heian courtiers, “written entirely for [her] own amusements, and…exactly as they came to [her].” (P. i.) Jane gives the reader insight into the true personalities of her coworkers and the truth behind the American wives. What a viewer might see as wholesome values, the reader knows (thanks to Jane) to be “[n]ot the real thing at all.” (P. 30.)

Akiko is such a viewer, oblivious to the falsehoods that are being fed into Japanese households. As her story is written in third person, it is not so much Akiko sharing her thoughts as a sympathetic outsider (perhaps Ozeki herself) delving into her most private anguishes. Akiko herself admits that she could never write a diary such as that of Shonagon, calling her ideas “too lackluster” (P. 39.) Her “diary” much resembles those of modern times: a place to divulge secret desires and disappointments. It does, however, serve the same purpose as Jane’s. It is impossible to view Akiko as an objective passerby would (perhaps as a normal housewife who is just waiting for the right time to have children) because from the very moment that we are introduced to her, were gain privy to her secret sorrows. The use of diary literature as the backbone of a book gives it an ethos as the truth, as it happens, unedited.