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Reviewed by:
  • Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity
  • James Farrer
Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity. By Katarzyna J. Cwiertka. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. 240 pages. Hardcover £22.50.

In its first venture into Asia, the prestigious Michelin Red Guide, released in November 2007, awarded Tokyo restaurants a total 191 stars, compared to 64 for Paris and 42 for New York. For those unfamiliar with Tokyo's over 190,000 eateries, the results were probably surprising. How is it that an Asian city was crowned the virtual capital of global "Western" cuisine? And how is it that a city with a relatively small resident foreign population enjoys one of the widest ranges of ethnic cuisine in the world, not only in restaurants, but also on family dinner tables, where hamburger steak, curry rice, and fried Chinese dumplings are among the most popular dishes? Although published before the Michelin rankings, Katarzyna Cwiertka's account of the making of a modern multicultural cuisine in Japan offers a detailed and sometimes surprising historical background to these recent culinary headlines. [End Page 208]

We learn first of all that rather than being a product of recent global culture flows, Japan's obsession with foreign food began in the late nineteenth century and was aggressively led by a modernizing state, by the Japanese military in particular. Ironically, one of the primary driving forces behind this globalization of Japanese eating was an initial fear of foreigners and foreign domination. Japan's desire for self-strengthening resulted in the militarization of its society and eventually a policy of colonial expansion, which contributed to the remaking of indigenous cuisine. The decision to dress the Meiji emperor in Western military garb was accompanied by a decision to nourish him with a Western diet, including beef and pork, foods that had been considered unclean for centuries in largely Buddhist Japan. Consuming foreign food was seen as a way of demonstrating to the Western powers that Japan was civilized and enlightened and hence different from China and undeserving of the unequal treaties imposed on both countries in the mid-nineteenth century. Starting in 1871, foreign dignitaries were invited annually to banquets at Tokyo's first Western-style hotel in Tsukiji to celebrate the emperor's birthday. Modernizing elites widely adopted Western eating habits as well as dress. In addition to its political and symbolic uses, the adoption of Western food items such as meat, potatoes, and bread was also a practical step towards increasing daily caloric intake and thus improving the stamina of both the military and civilian population.

Japan's modern national cuisine has a strong Anglo-Saxon flavor. Although French cuisine was served at the finest hotels in Yokohama, Tokyo, and Kobe, Cwiertka points out that British residents and their Chinese and Japanese household servants had the greatest impact on the development of Western cuisine in Japan. The British—and to a lesser extent their culinary cousins, the Americans—dominated treaty-port life in East Asia, and even the popularity of French cuisine can be attributed partly to the British embrace of French-style fine dining. Japanese modified these Western foods in many cases, creating hybrid classics such as nikujaga, or beef and potatoes cooked in soy-sauce-flavored broth. By the early twentieth century, Western-style food, or yōshoku, had permeated all social classes, and versions could be found at all price levels, ranging from the finest French restaurants serving set menus to more modest yōshokuya serving modified British fare such as fried fish and beef cutlets à la carte. By the 1930s, yōshoku restaurants in department stores attracted the increasingly affluent urban masses, who were introduced not only to new styles of food, but also to sitting at tables, eating with silverware, and Western styles of restaurant service.

Although Cwiertka's account focuses only on Japan, similar changes were occurring in treaty ports and capitals throughout Asia. One might question, therefore, why the changes in eating habits were so much more far-reaching in Japan than in other nations, such as nearby China. Cwiertka gives the Japanese military the credit for adopting elements of Western culinary culture and systematically incorporating them...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 208-210
Launched on MUSE
2008-07-24
Open Access
No
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