Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka. London: Reaktion Books, 2006, 240 pp., 89 b/w illustrations, £22.50 (cloth)

While it is true that we are what we eat, it is equally true that we eat what we are — that is, our cuisine often mirrors our condition. Though Japan is credited with having a “native” gastronomy, what it consists of and how it is consumed depends on ideas additional to those of taste and nutrition.

Meiji Era politics labored for the acceptance of Western food, and the policies of “civilization and enlightenment” worked for the acceptance of diets different from those historically customary. The emperor himself was brought in to be observed eating beef. In the same way, the imperialistic expansion into China was as important to the acceptance of Chinese food in Japan as was its gustatory qualities.

Though Japan now boasts of a multicultural food array (as well as a “native” cuisine), in fact, as this very interesting volume suggests, all of this is part of a comprehensive dietary change that accompanied the political, economic and social transformations that the country has been going through ever since it was first “opened up.”

Katarzyna Cwiertka, the author of this accounting of Japanese eating preferences, structures her argument around the policies of the emerging Japanese state and the various groups and individuals pursuing their own agendas but nonetheless shaped by a variety of forces — “from imperialism and industrialization to nationalism and consumerism.”

In so doing, she runs up against a more accepted theory: that the modern Japanese diet merely illustrates an assumed Japanese tendency to borrow from abroad and then adapt the product into a “uniquely” Japanese form. Here she argues against the idea of such an adaptive Japanese culture. Rather, the multicultural character of contemporary Japanese cuisine is the result of the specific circumstances in which Japan found itself.

Such primary movers are identified — the embrace of the West as a model for development; the rise of new urban mass gastronomy; the modernization of military catering; the dietary effects of Japanese imperialism; and the impact of the rapid economic growth on postwar Japan.

The examples supporting these assertions are many and convincing. The Meiji abolishment of the meat-eating taboo “fitted perfectly with the principles outlined in Charter Oath.” Military conscription was a powerful factor in homogenizing taste preferences in Japan. So were military shortages. As though preparing the way for Japan’s postwar shift from rice to bread, from 1940 the authorities had prohibited Tokyo restaurants from serving rice dishes, and after 1941 boiled rice had become a luxury.

As food became scarce, “substitute foods” were discovered. One such was buttered toast sprinkled with shrimp powder. Another, and one still much with us, was the potato sandwich.

This scarcity had other effects as well. Too little food (back then) could sponsor dietary change as well as too much (right now). For example, returnees from Manchukuo were responsible for the postwar popularity of gyoza dumplings. They found themselves jobless, in the midst of ruins, and saw that gyoza sold well to the hungry. Also the originally Chinese dumplings were suited to current realities. They were made of wheat flour (much easier to get than rice) and almost anything at all could be used for the stuffing.

Postwar demographics also defined the diet. With more automobiles, dining out eventually became the most popular leisure activity in postwar Japan, prevailing over even TV and karaoke. This further altered dietary preferences. The family meal now seems to take place more at restaurants such as Skylark or Denny’s or even McDonald’s than at home. In turn this created, then fed, a national appetite for hamburgers, french fries, shakes and other finger-lickers.

Cwiertka here gives us a history that not only illustrates Japanese cuisine but also exposes the sociopolitical supports upon which it rests. Though properly scholarly, her account is also juicy in details that reveal the “traditional” diet to be something of a modern invention, and diet itself to be the work of sociology, economy, politics and other blind forces.

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