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Japan’s Cuisines (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Eric C. Rath. 2016.
Japan’s Cuisines: Food, Place and Identity
London: Reaktion Books
ISBN 978178023643

In an age when cheapish Japanese restaurants, including sushi trains and bento bars, are commonplace in many of the larger cities across the globe, it is easy to assume that the dishes on the menu at such restaurants are everyday meals and have been so across time. Yet, this is not the case: sushi and sashimi and many other well-known Japanese dishes were for most people only eaten at celebrations and it is quite recently that they have lost their ‘special’ status. Similarly, the naming of the formerly elite pastime of the tea ceremony as ‘traditional’ infers that it was performed more widely than is or was the reality.

In Japan’s Cuisines, Eric Rath unpicks the ideologies behind Japan’s ‘cuisine’ at the national level but also discusses local food cultures in three locations on different islands: Saga in Kyūshū, Kōchi in Shikoku and Hida in Honshū. In doing so, Rath shows the diversity of the Japanese diet across the country. Furthermore, in choosing less well-known locations, he has followed his own criticism of the ideological and not portrayed cities such as Tōkyō, Ōsaka and Kyōto as representative of Japan as a whole. The discussion of food in Saga includes an interesting introduction to the emergence of michi no eki (道の駅) or rest stops along highways which sell local produce (p. 176-181). Two particularly interesting aspects to emerge from this introduction are the involvement of all levels of government in the establishment of michi no eki and how the World Bank has used the model to promote economic growth in local communities in countries as varied as Kenya and China (p. 177). Contrary to Rath’s assertion that michi no eki has entered the English lexicon (p. 176), I have never heard it used in English but that does not detract from his discussion of the phenomena.

Rath begins the book with a provocatively chapter entitled ‘What is Traditional Japanese Food?’. His response is to introduce some of the changes in food production and dishes across time. The effect is a clear demonstration that food cultures/dishes change with the season and across time. It also disrupts the notion of a ‘traditional Japanese food’. Notwithstanding this disruption, in 2013 the Japanese government successfully applied for washoku (和食) to be added to UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. Rath’s analysis of this issue not only highlights the ideological but reveals the complex and sometimes contradictory views held by locals on what constitutes washoku. The highest ratio for a dish considered to be washoku was ‘simmered dishes’ (nimono 煮物). Other dishes cited included kaiseki (56.6%), natto (36.5%) and oden (winter hotpot おでん) (32.4%) (p. 20). Interestingly, as Rath highlights, UNESCO’s description of washoku is ‘less a designation for food and more about customs’ (p. 19). The delicateness of the aura around eating depicted by UNESCO’s definition jars against Rath’s discussion of the Japanese government’s attempt in the 1940s to institute a ‘national people’s cuisine (kokuminshoku)’ (p. 127) which would ‘ensure the health of the population on the home front’ (p. 127). This discussion highlights not only the ideological history of kokuminshoku (国民食) but also the importance of understanding the meaning of terms as they are used at different times because, as Rath clearly argues, the current use of kokuminshoku is quite different (p. 127). Furthermore, in juxtaposing the examination of the Japanese government’s wartime involvement in national cuisine against its more recent ‘soft power’ initiatives, Rath clearly shows the ideologies behind food and the government’s footprint across time.

Japan’s Cuisines is a fascinating look at the ideological underpinnings of washoku in its various historical and contemporary forms. Rath draws on history, folklore and literature to emphasis his arguments. In the Introduction, he writes that the book is a very different one to which he originally planned – and my view is that in making the change, he has written a much needed book on Japan’s food culture. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it is an easy read. The immense detail and inclusion of literature references makes it hard going at times but it is worth the time and effort. My primary criticism of the book is the rather limited number of index listings: a number of the scholars quoted are not listed (e.g. Anne Allison in Chapter 4) and despite an interesting raising the pertinent issue that food preparation is left to women, there is no listing for ‘women’.

Japan’s Cuisines is comprehensive, well written and informative. Due to the level of detail, it is quite scholarly and as such, its main audience are serious food scholars and advanced postgraduate students.

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