- Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan, and: Japanese Foodways, Past and Present
One might say there was an unacknowledged mind-body dichotomy in the study of Japan in the English-speaking world until as late as the early 1990s. Until then, little serious research on the country’s foodways—and on consumption in general—had appeared in print,1 even though many scholars of Japan—all of them from my own experience—personally enjoyed the enormous variety of food and beverages the country’s creative and dedicated chefs, brewers, and caterers had to offer. Neither the rarified aesthetics of the highbrow kaiseki nor the economy of the humdrum gyūdon—not to mention the simultaneously revered (domestically produced) and reviled (foreign import) unagi kabayaki, the globally popular [End Page 409] and locally morphing sushi, the adored “Kobe beef” and its inevitable clones, and many other appetizing examples—could tempt researchers away from such stolid (and absolutely worthwhile) topics as the Japanese company, the U.S.-Japan alliance, Tokugawa Confucianism, the Korean and burakumin minorities, and so on. Few scholars showed an academic interest in the food they encountered in the course of research: the lunch served at a company’s staff cafeteria, the meals monks ate at a Buddhist temple, the banquet at a ryōtei frequented by the rich and powerful, or the overpriced homemade soba sold at the artistically rustic restaurant in a depopulated village seldom became a research topic. Personal insights on food were usually consigned to conversation during conference receptions or postseminar parties, where the food and drink were again enjoyed but uninvestigated in academic terms. Against this background of simultaneous interest and oversight, the books reviewed here are a welcome addition to the small but growing body of English-language work on Japanese foodways. By shedding light on notable aspects of Japan’s rich culinary heritage, some of which are discussed here in depth for the first time in English, these volumes deepen and broaden the field and, most important, should stimulate further research.
Eric Rath’s Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan is an informative and insightful analysis of Japanese cuisine in the Tokugawa period. It comprises, in addition to the introduction and conclusion, seven chapters dealing with the history and lineage of the Kyoto version of Japanese cuisine (chapter 1), the cutting performance of elite chefs (chapter 2), the structure of high cuisine (chapter 3), the cooking inspired by or attributed to Western influence (chapter 4), the rise of cookbooks and the culinary fantasy they spread (chapters 5 and 6), and the development of the tradition of fantasizing about food in the late eighteenth century (chapter 7). As the first English-language work to interpret seminal texts on food in their social context, Rath’s book lays the foundation for further inquiries into premodern Japanese foodways. It also provides a solid historical background to enable better understanding of modern Japanese cuisine.
By contrast, Eric Rath and Stephanie Assmann’s edited volume, Japanese Foodways, is a loosely organized and uneven collection of articles. Its 14 chapters are grouped into three broad chronological sections: Early Modern, Modern, and Contemporary. Their topics, reflecting the complexity of Japanese foodways, are as diverse as can be: from high cuisine and meat eating and wine drinking in Tokugawa times, to cooking and eating habits in the late Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods, to revivals of local food, ramen connoisseurship, and the autobiographical notes of a chef. Wide-ranging in time, topic, and approach, this book is simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying, the latter a result, first and foremost, of its silence on matters that are too important for a volume like this to bypass. In the [End Page 410] remainder of this review, I discuss some of the ways research on Japanese food culture can build on...