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In Japan, connoisseurs are defined by “a not inconsiderable attention to freshness, visual appeal, seasonality, and purity (in terms of both food safety and of ritual meaning) - but also a host of other factors such as the salience of secular seasons and ritual holidays, the aesthetics of food preparation and presentation, the regional identities embodied in specific cuisines…and the delicate balancing of culinary authenticity and national identity with desires for cosmopolitan consumption” (Bestor, 127). I could not think of a better description of the focus of the entire Oishinbo manga series.

The series follows the culinary adventures and personal journeys of a group of journalists looking to create the “Ultimate Menu”. Through the two main characters – the disagreeable but knowledgeable Yamaoka Shirō and his intelligent and compassionate partner Kurita Yūko – the manga “assumes the role of guide, steering its readers through a dizzying array of culinary possibilities in a time of rapid change” (Brau, 37). In the process, it instructs the reader on proper devotion to all of the criteria for Bestor’s Japanese connoisseur listed above. The series offered few examples for my project, primarily because it goes out of its way to explain each concept to the uninitiated, including even a foreigner with no background in appreciating Japanese cuisine. The 2006 English-language compilation volumes that bring together episodes based on subject matter (with little regard to the overarching storyline) even include definitions and cultural notes at the end of each. So while it was not replete with potential for misunderstanding, it did give this foreigner some starting points for figuring out where those misunderstandings might occur.

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Perhaps its teaching stance was one of the reasons the series was so popular. The people of modern Japan, like the rest of the “first world” nations, have access to nearly anything they could want in whatever season they want. This is no great matter for most of us; in fact, we enjoy fresh vegetables year round and most of us probably are not even aware of the seasonality of our favorite fish. But in Japan food is traditionally founded in aesthetics that place a great deal of importance on seasonality and freshness. The world of preserved and frozen food from all over the world dismays some. “Much of the seasonal awareness has been lost. Now you can get anything in any season. … [Y]ounger people want to satisfy their cravings at all times. As a result, they have lost a sense of the changes of the seasons” laments the owner of a small drinking establishment (Ashkenazi & Jacob, 127). In The Joy of Rice volume of the series, a wealthy patron storms out of a restaurant because its dishes lack seasonality, declaring “There’s no way people as insensitive as you could possibly understand art!” (13). In the vegetable-themed volume, when a man laments that - although he used to love vegetables - he can no longer eat them because “they just don’t taste good anymore,” Yamaoka takes him to a farm to reintroduce him to fresh domestic varieties (Vegetables, 160-162). The series in many ways represents a return to traditional values. The pendulum between embracing the new and spurning it for traditional values is one that has often swung wide in Japanese history. It might be a little harder to see in the modern world, where the serenity of the quiet teahouse is so often drowned in the glare and noise of the pachinko parlor across the street, but series like Oishinbo prove that nostalgia for the ideals of Old Japan still exists as a way of anchoring national identity in a chaotic global world. 

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Traditionally, it is not enough to simply serve seasonal food; the seasonality must be further evoked by everything from condiments to method of preparation to dishes. Tanizaki Junichirō discusses this in his essay “In Praise of Shadows”, a brief treatise on the finer points of Japanese aesthetics. His cultural bias is obvious when he supposes that in any country “efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and the walls” (Tanizaki, 16). I am no expert on traditional Western meals, but the notion of having my dinner match my décor made me chuckle. In traditional Japanese meals, however, this was by no means a stretch.

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In Oishinbo, Yamaoka’s father and rival, Kaibara Yūzan, greatly values the harmony of dish and food. In fact, he makes plates himself, and his artistry leads a diner to make this observation: “The beauty of this plate is drawing out the flavor of the sashimi even more” (Fish, Sushi, & Sashimi). This follows with the reflection “that foods cannot be…detached from their surroundings” in traditional Japanese meals (Ashkenazi & Jacobs, 164).

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In a somewhat subtler note, the ideal that “the natural qualities of the food are disturbed as little as possible” (Ashkenazi & Jacobs, 164) in Japanese food archetypes makes the grapefruit jam in Ogawa Yoko’s “Pregnancy Diary” even more suspect than it already is. The pregnant woman devours this wholly unnatural food, visually unrecognizable as a fruit, in large enough quantities to gain a great deal of weight. While the meaning here does not necessarily change – there is something wrong with both the pregnant woman who eats the jam and the sister who makes it for her – the depth of the symbolism increases.

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In an interview about his translation of Ogawa Yoko’s collection of novellas titled The Diving Pool, Steven Snyder talks about what he perceives as the Japanese “fetishizing purity of food” (“Yoko Ogawa Discussion”). (Freshness is so important, in fact, that one way of serving sashimi involves keeping the flayed fish alive long enough for the diner to pluck flesh from its still-twitching body.) The idea of rotting food as a symbol for an imperfect life, a malformed soul, or secret that eats away at a family is certainly not limited to Japanese literature, and Westerners are likely to feel a sense of horror when they read about Ogawa’s teenage narrator deliberately feeding a spoiled cream puff to the unsuspecting toddler Rie. However, a Japanese reader may get an even deeper feeling of disgust, because the culture places such importance on food freshness. Murakami Ryū uses spoiled pineapple as a metaphor for the lives of young drug-addicted and promiscuous men and women in Almost Transparent Blue, and again, a Japanese reader may be more deeply affected by the detailed description. Tawara Machi uses the motif in Salad Anniversary to represent loneliness: “Living alone – rotten lemon in my right hand hardly an event” (148).
In the Fish, Sushi, & Sashimi volume, Oishinbo touches on the topic in a very interesting way, pitting freshness against purity. Competing against his father to create the best salmon dish, Yamaoka serves the judges thinly sliced salmon sashimi. When the judges are ready to award him a win, his father steps in to remind everyone that raw salmon can carry parasites. Yamaoka has risked everyone’s health by focusing exclusively on the freshness factor, even though, in this case, that is not the most pure option. A foreigner, who may already have a dread of consuming raw fish, could easily find this to be a simple validation of Western food norms wherein meat should almost always be cooked. But a conflict between two ideals is presented for the Japanese reader, one that has been brought to the fore by a modern world that can detect microscopic parasites in raw food.


Notions of freshness, purity, and seasonality add layers of subtle cultural meaning that most foreign readers will likely miss.

 
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Food and Kitsune-chan Copyright © Dirk Macorol 2011 || All Other Content Copyright © Elizabeth Bennett 2011