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Reviewed by:
  • Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan, and: Japanese Foodways: Past and Present
  • Constantine Nomikos Vaporis
Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. By Eric C. Rath. University of California Press, 2010. 258 pages. Hardcover $49.95/£34.95.
Japanese Foodways: Past and Present. Edited by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. University of Illinois Press, 2010. 304 pages. Hardcover $80.00; softcover $28.00.

Foodways—a multidisciplinary approach to the study of all things culinary—has developed slowly but steadily over the past decade, as evidenced by several works that have appeared since 2000; a number of studies in progress and two forthcoming; and, of course, the two books under review here.1 While one of these two volumes is a monograph, the other is a collection of individually authored essays by no fewer than sixteen scholars and specialists; this fact in particular appears to signify the promise of future engagement with the subject.

Much of the present work in English-language studies of Japanese foodways seems to stem from scholarship in the 1990s by Japanese researchers such as Harada Nobuo on Japanese material culture.2 This work itself was greatly stimulated by the intense, but brief, period of archaeological excavations of historical sites in Tokyo during the later 1980s and early 1990s, which unearthed countless premodern artifacts of daily life. Many of these artifacts— such as ceramic ware (plates, bowls, sake jars), chopsticks, and animal bones, to name a few—were important elements of Japanese food culture. Much of the research performed by the archaeologists and historians who studied the artifacts was spearheaded by the Edo Iseki Kenkyukai; representative of its scholarly output is its edited Edo no shoku bunka (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1992). Some of the research, as it pertained to the areas of the city that [End Page 173] had been occupied by hundreds of daimyo residences and warehouses, has been discussed elsewhere by this reviewer.3

The first book under review, Eric Rath's Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan, builds on some of this scholarship, particularly the important work of Harada Nobuo. Basing the volume largely on a study of culinary manuscripts, published culinary books, and menus, Rath's principal aim is to understand cuisine as an intellectual and artistic practice and to address the question, how did people—specifically, professional cooks, diners, and readers— feel about food? His secondary aim is to "discern the characteristics of premodern cuisine for its own sake, not simply as a precursor to modern cuisine" (p. 4). While his intent was not to write a history of Japanese cuisine, as Ishige Naomichi has done,4 the sections of the book discussing the characteristics of early modern cuisine are somewhat unsatisfying, illustrating just how difficult it is to treat this topic fully without making greater use of a considerable body of diary literature, as well as studies based on archaeological evidence. In contrast, the sections that focus on the principal aim of the book are much more comprehensive and, moreover, quite creative and engaging.

In seeking to discover the meanings that Japanese people attached to the preparation and consumption of food before there was "an imagined national identity and cultural homogeneity" (p. 5, quoting p. 175 of the above-cited study by Cwiertka), Rath explores the connections between the late medieval and early modern periods in chapters 2 and 3 and concludes that a defining characteristic of both was the culture's "ability to make food signify something invisible." The significance of cuisine, he explains, lay in "what was not eaten, or could not be eaten, as much as it was about what was actually consumed" (p. 7). It was during the late medieval period that cooks—hōchōnin (lit., "men of the carving knife")—began to fantasize with food. They displayed their skills in knife ceremonies, the subject of chapter 2, turning the meat and fish prepared into visual displays that had important religious dimensions. These culinary experts also were responsible for preparing the banquets of the military and imperial court elites, a subject explored in chapter 3, creating a cuisine that included food not meant to be eaten immediately (though it might be disassembled...


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