- Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature
The cultural meaning of food and drink is a central field in the fast-growing area of what has been termed culinary studies, namely, the study of alimentation as a social phenomenon and form of communication.1 Whereas the divide between the natural sciences and humanities had for a long time prevented a more comprehensive discussion of this complex entity, the rise of cultural studies, which in the German-speaking world took shape in the works of Georg Simmel and others, has brought this topic to the fore. Simmel, in his seminal 1910 essay "The Sociology of the Meal" ("Soziologie der Mahlzeit"), incorporated anthropological, psychological, religious, and other aspects into his discussion. Literature has been studied in this context with attention to motifs and subject matter related to food and drink, as well as patterns of social behavior. One thinks of numerous studies on French culinary culture in nineteenth-century novels by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant, or of twentieth-century literature by Mann, Kafka, or Grass, or of food symbolism from the Bible employed in world literatures. Japanese literature, on the other hand, has not been subjected to a comparable degree to analyses of this sort, despite the fact that, at least from a contemporary perspective, food appears to be a central factor in Japanese auto- and hetero-images. Recent Japanese policies have stressed "Japanese cuisine" as a "soft power" factor in the international sphere. Given these various circumstances, Tomoko Aoyama's book comes as a timely venture.
Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature is a well-written and balanced study that serves as both an introduction to and a nuanced discussion of a number of carefully selected aspects of food and eating as a code, a sign system, and a leitmotif. From the very first lines, this study draws readers into its subject matter, and it manages to hold our interest throughout its 210 pages of main text plus almost 50 pages of footnotes.
Aoyama chooses her samples from a large variety of modern Japanese texts, from so-called gastronomic novels and food-obsessed diaries to poetry, detective novels, science fiction, horror stories, war literature, and even literary criticism. She has organized the book by grouping her impressively large and diverse corpus of canonical as well as little-known texts into five orientations, with one chapter for each, beginning with "Food in the Diary." One topic is spread over two chapters—"Down-to-Earth Eating and Writing" (1) and (2)—to accommodate all the examples considered, from Ishikawa Takuboku's "Poems to eat" and Nagatsuka Takashi's 1910 novel Tsuchi ("The Soil") to Miyazawa Kenji and more; the writings of Sata Ineko and Kobayashi Takiji are taken up under a subsection titled "Proletarian Eating and Writing." "Down-to-earth" representations of food and eating, as Aoyama understands them, "tend to focus on disempowered, marginalized people" (p. 71)—namely, the "discursively nonexistent," as Noriko Mizuta has put it, "including not only women but also children, [End Page 415] the elderly, the burakumin, exploited laborers, impoverished peasants, dropout soldiers, and 'Apaches'" (p. 92). But as Aoyama explains in her brief remarks at the beginning of the second of the two chapters, this chapter focuses more on issues concerning the body, including food safety, which is the topic of Ariyoshi Sawako's Fukugō osen (Compound Pollution, 1975), a "hybrid of shōsetsu mixed with essays and documentary" and using "comic and polemic elements mingled with social and scientific data" (p. 93).
Chapter 4, "Cannibalism in Modern Japanese Literature," takes up a topic that has attracted scholarly attention across a wide range of disciplines in the West—where cannibalism has been discussed as a "colonialist myth" (William Arens), as a means of "controlling evil or illness" (Jacques Attali), or as an "elementary form of institutionalized aggression" (Eli Sagan). These are just some of the theories that the author lines up (on page 94) as a frame of reference for her discussion of anthropophagy in twentieth-century Japanese fiction. Before discussing a...