Eating Between the Lines   Kitsune-chan yomitoru

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Sashimi
 

Being an island nation, it is no great surprise that Japan’s greatest source of protein is seafood. Even inland, the products of rivers and lakes are the focus of everyday meals. Theodore Bestor points out some of the many ways that folkways and traditions centered on fish shape the way the Japanese consume seafood. Sea bream are valued for a pun on their name (tai in Japanese, which they relate to the congratulatory omedetai), for their lucky red color, and for their association with Ebisu, one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Shinto. Lobster tails are popular at weddings, again for the red color, but whole lobsters are not served on such occasions “because their claws resemble scissors, which cannot be given as wedding gifts.” Women should not be sushi chefs because they have warmer hands than men which could taint the fresh flavor of raw fish (126, 147). (I cover notions of pollution and purity further in the aesthetics section.) Moreover, he tells us that the traders in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market “regard themselves as stewards of Japan’s culinary heritage” (128). Seafood, obviously, is a key component of the culture

In the titular short story of Nakagami Kenji’s small collection, The Cape: And Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, the main character Akiyuki is a strong and somewhat dour member of a complicated family. He gives himself over to physical labor as an escape from the harsh realities of his lower class life. His father – not the father of any of his siblings – is estranged. Tensions between family and friends threaten to draw him in. The shadow of an older brother who committed suicide years ago still hangs over the family. While the foreign reader probably does not need a great deal of subtext to guess that this is not a happy story, there are still foreshadowing threads woven into the narrative that might catch a Japanese reader’s attention, among them a mention of ayu, sweetfish in English.

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 Akiyuki’s coworkers banter, mostly over his head, about a fishing trip he took recently during which he caught ayu. He smashed in the head of one with a rock and caught another “without [leaving] a mark on it” (Nakagami, 15). Akiyuki claims that the fish were small, babies even, but his boisterous friend Yasuo says the fish were huge, suddenly turning the conversation to sexual innuendo (much to Akiyuki’s discomfort). On the surface this scene sets up relationships and shows the reader the marked difference between Akiyuki and the people around him. However, the choice of ayu fishing as Akiyuki’s pastime is significant. In a BBC documentary called “Fish! A Japanese Obsession”, fishermen chat around a fire where they are grilling freshly-caught ayu. To them, the fish represents the evanescence of life, an important concept in Japanese culture, often represented by the famous cherry blossoms. With this symbolism in mind, we can see one of the themes of “The Cape” - the brief and brutal lives of those living in “the Japanese ghetto” – brought into harsh relief by the smashed head of the first fish. That fish might even then represent the dead older brother, while the one “without a mark” could be Akiyuki himself, who appears fine outwardly, but keeps many emotional problems hidden within.

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Howard Hibbett - who edited an anthology of Japanese literature that includes Kōno Taeko’s short story “Bone Meat” - felt that the cultural perspective in Japan on the subject of raw oysters was important enough to include it in the story’s introduction: “It should be mentioned that most Japanese regard raw oysters with the dubious attitude so often held by foreigners toward sashimi”. Taking that into account, a scene where the husband and wife enjoy a dinner of raw oysters becomes almost grotesque. The descriptions are blatantly sexual. The woman rubs the meat against her lips and trembles with anticipation. (As an aside, the whole scene is representative of stereotypical sex between men and women. The man takes his share quickly and decisively, while the woman goes slowly, savoring.) The Westerner might only associate with the raw oyster as an aphrodisiac. The scene still makes sense, but the subtleties are lost. When the couple start complaining about the lack of flavor and wondering if the oysters they have been eating are diseased, the connection is clear regardless: the oysters are a metaphor for their failing marriage, which neither of them is enjoying the way they once did. With the cultural distaste for raw oyster underscoring the whole story, however, a new question arises. Was there always something wrong with the relationship that is only now coming to the fore?

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Another note of interest in “Bone Meat” is the wife’s love of the bones left after her husband ate. She relishes the tiny bits of meat clinging to bone or shell, eating little else while he devours most of the food, and yet she gains weight. When I first read this I found it strange, and I attributed it some great hidden meaning. However, in Oishinbo: Fish, Seafood, & Sashimi a character eating blowfish exclaims “The meat stuck on the bones is great!” (Kariya, 103), so perhaps this is not as odd as it first appeared. This example illustrates that it may not just be difficult for foreigners to catch intended cultural significance; we might also read symbolism into things that are mundane, simply for a lack of understanding.

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As important as fish is to Japan’s food culture, it is a mistake to think that Japanese cuisine does not include meat. Modern Japan’s meat consumption has been on the rise for decades, given a huge boost by the influx of Western dishes and fast food, but even historically, the impression of a meatless society is somewhat inaccurate. There are many records of meat consumption in ancient Japan, although the practice was occasionally interrupted or made less socially acceptable by Buddhist-based edicts, such as shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s Laws of Compassion. But even during those times, people in outlying farmland killed and ate four-legged game, while city dwellers would continue eating meat in various guises – yamakujira (mountain whale), momonji (flying squirrel), etc. – or claimed health issues that made consumption necessary (Shimizu, 92).

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Still, Japan has a dearth of suitable grazing land for cattle herds. As a result, Japanese beef is expensive and specialized to Japanese taste (Ashkenazi & Jacob, 178). Rarity and certain prejudices have often come together to make meat-eating a symbol of the West, sometimes benign and sometimes malignant. For instance, in Tanizaki Junichirō’s Some Prefer Nettles, one of the themes is that of Japan’s traditional ideals versus the “modern” West’s cultural inroads. At one point, two of the characters go out for a lunch of Kobe sukiyaki. To the average Westerner, unfamiliar with the history of Japanese food, this sounds perfectly Japanese and is probably of no note. But being familiar with sukiyaki as a relatively recent dish, a “Japanization” of Western food into something more palatable to national taste, this meal – enjoyed by a successful Japanese businessman who seems to have embraced Western (or at least non-Japanese) ways – has a much deeper meaning, even though it is only a brief mention of where they went for lunch.

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While that use of beef as a symbol of Western influence is rather unemotional, neither for nor against, in other cases meat is used to represent a menace. In “The Restaurant of Many Orders” by Miyazaki Kenji, a pair of hunters goes out looking for game. They wear Western clothes, carry Western guns, and – when their hunt is unsuccessful – are lured in by a malevolent predator hiding behind the façade of a Western-style restaurant. Their hunger and the promise of meat, with its attendant “modern” prestige, make the protagonists more than a little stupid. They nearly die for their foolishness, consumed by a voracious “other”.  In the end they are saved by the dogs they valued only for how much they cost and are given plain rice dumplings by the guide they lost – a return to the safe and to things Japanese.

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