Mediations of Japan: Food

Kani tabe (ni) iko, Ha ni kan de iko. “Let’s go eat crab, Let’s go bite [crab…”

So goes the refrain of Puffy’s Nagisa ni Matsuwaru etcetera (Lingering on the beach) — the 1997 follow-up to their mega hits, Ajia no junshin (Asian purity) and Kore ga watashi no ikiru michi (This is the way I live).

With the duo endlessly crooning about crustaceans over radios, on variety shows, as backing in television commercials, through speakers in elevators and restaurants, via CD rentals, and in karaoke boxes, Puffy had Japan from Hiroshima to Hakodate singing the praises of scarfing shellfish along summer shorelines.

An extraordinary flight of imagination? Is that what accounts for Japan’s infatuation with crab? Far from it. Success was likely a reflection of cultural comfort. Puffy’s lingering is not the only instance of food entering Japanese popular culture — not by a long shot. In fact, in contemporary ReDotPop, food is everywhere — most especially on TV. Morning, afternoon, night…on variety shows, game shows, talkies, comedies, dramas, and educational programming, food preparation, discussion, knowledge and consumption is everywhere your remote dares click. In the realm of ReDotPop, cooking is a round-the-clock obsession.

At the same time, food is not the main dish. Because these shows are in the province of ReDotPop, they are about more than morsels for consumption; they end up engaging deeper social themes. Such as? Historical practices, preparedness, organization, aesthetics, pleasure, competition (whew! But wait: the list goes on…): professionalism, intelligence, westernization (not done just yet…): Japanese uniqueness, star culture, even (hell, why not?): sexuality.

“Give us a taste,” you say? You’ve got to see it to believe it?

Consider this:

Competition for Kisses
SMAP is one of the longest-running, most successful idol groups in Japan. At least one of their members can be found on TV every day. On their own variety show, they host a segment called “Bistro SMAP”. There, the leader of the group, Nakai-kun, welcomes a (generally female) guest — a star of stage, disc or screen — who requests a dish, watches the other four band members prepare it, then decides which tastes best. During preparation, Nakai interviews the idol — a standard feature of almost all cooking shows. Once her preference is declared the camera captures the reactions of anguish and glee from the four chefs.

The reason for the joy and disappointment is that winners receive a kiss from the guest — as well as a set of red lips affixed to the side of the chef’s white cap. The culinary equivalent of buckeyes on American college football helmets — or else notches in a gunslinger’s belt. After a number of months the kisses are tallied and the SMAPster with the most kills — er, lips — is declared the show’s cooking stud. In last week’s show, however, the matter of the kiss became problematic, as the guests were twin brothers who are openly gay. Laying the burlesque on thick, the guests delighted in the prospect of planting their lips on the winning SMAPsters; the audience tittered at the visible discomfort this caused the winners. All of this was pre-planned of course, and after a little mediation by Nakai-kun, it was agreed that in lieu of kisses, gifts would be bestowed. A well-wrapped designer tablecloth and goblet quickly materialized.

In Bistro-SMAP, then, food is a prelude to sexuality, which is a pretext for measuring skill, success… and, another rung in the ladder of SMAPster popularity.

Measuring Taste
In a show called Ninki mono de ikou (Let’s go with the popular people), food also plays a weekly role. The ostensible purpose is to observe five famous people appraise a series of paired items: guitars, cellos, works of calligraphy, writings and photographs — each seemingly identical. Which of the two is authentic and which is a bargain-basement copy? One suspects that the deeper point of the show is to reveal just how unsophisticated, bumbling and downright foolish idle idols can be.

The show operates via hidden camera — enabling the audience to witness the guests’ decision-making process, as well as their time spent (often in giddy discomfort) in an isolation booth waiting for other guests to make the same foolish decision. Every week at least one item of food is presented: a pasta dish, cat food, an egg-based plate, Japanese noodles. One week, with red wine as the object, contestants employed smell, taste, swirl, hue, sound–even the pattern of dispersion on a napkin — to appraise the beverage. The hosts, sequestered in a viewing room, offer caustic commentary on the intellectual capability of each guest. One effect of such criticism is a virtual leveling: stars may be beautiful, rich and popular, but their brains are no more (and often much less) functional than those of the viewing audience. Food works as a tool for chipping rungs off the spire of stardom.

Technique, Preparation and Procedure? Old Values Give Way to New
There are two cooking shows hosted by the comedy team known as Tonnerus (Tunnels). The first asks two guests — a male and female — to guess which among four prepared dishes is an item that the other guest absolutely detests. All the while each chirps between nibbles, answering unending, but inane queries about career and personal life.

A couple of cultural dynamics are at work here. First is the “tatemae/honne” (frontstage/backstage; appearance/reality) intrigue involved in one engaging in banal banter, while seething beneath the surface is his gut-retching — but invisible — encounter with an unpalatable foodstuff. Therein lies the second dynamic: the gleeful sado-masochism of forced/acquiescent consumption. In many ways this plays to the Japanese cultural value of gaman, the idea that one must bear up under intolerable conditions.

The second Tonnerus show, Tonnerus no nama de daradara ikasette (Tunnels’ allow us to go aimlessly, as we are), has the comedy team separately seeking to master various crafts. For instance, for a good part of last season Kinashi Noritake (or “Nori-san”), the diminutive, impish one, learned ballet — in particular the role of prima ballerina — while his counterpart, the strapping Ishibashi Takaaki (or “Taka-san”), studied flamenco. The process was grueling, with professionals subjecting the stars and their support teams to endless, uncompromising rehearsals. Their weeks of work culminated in actual performances: a live ballet recital for a hall full of Japanese glitterati and an international flamenco competition in Spain.

The duo has since moved onto new challenges. While Nori took up karate and soccer, Taka learned to cook, accompanied by his new foil: Sadaoka Hiyoshi, a ne’er-do-well, former Yomiuri Giants’ baseball player. The crux of the cooking segment is for the apprentices to receive instruction from a master chef, then prepare the dish for a young female talento, who judges which tastes better. In one segment, the men learned how to prepare croquette, striving to master the proper procedure for mashing, rolling and flouring the potatoes, beating an egg (believe it or not, there’s technique involved), breading the ball, heating the oil, then frying, draining, and drying the food. Throughout, the master stressed method, process, and care as the heart of the task; in short, Taka and Sada had to inculcate the ki (the aura, the essence) of cooking.

In a second episode, Taka took copious notes and prepared his shortcake to perfection. Even the master chef was impressed. Sadaoka, who tends to be klutzy, uncouth, slow on the uptake, and ludicrously approximate, clearly bollixed his effort. Nonetheless, the talento, a spry 20-year-old, chose Sadaoka’s version on the premise that “shortcake is always soft, but this one is hard.” (So hard, in fact, that she originally wondered whether it wasn’t cheesecake.) Taka, who had been certain of his own victory given his scrupulous attention to detail and unwavering professionalism, was devastated to learn that, in this case, different was better. For years a popular host of youthful shows, he concluded: “I guess I just don’t understand today’s young people.” Change, breaks from rigid convention, idiosyncratic taste: these staple themes of ReDotPop are au courant in food shows today.

“We Japanese”: messages of distinctiveness (or: old values NEVER die)
On the other hand… there’s Douchi no ryori shiou: (Which one? cooking show) to consider. Like the Tunnels’ shows, like almost all Japanese cooking shows, Douchi involves competition through food. In this case, the winner is determined to be the dish that captures the hearts of seven singers, actors, writers and athletes (one of whom is usually a SMAPster). Douchi‘s difference is that two hosts front for the rival dishes, seeking to sway the panel both with word and deed during the in-studio preparation. The meals are of roughly comparable ilk: for instance beef curry versus beef stew, or omuraisu (seasoned rice folded into an omelet) pitted against katsudon (breaded cutlet over rice, covered by scrambled egg).

On the surface this is a standard infotainment show. Video tours of the places and ingredients associated with the dish entertain the audience and assist in making the guests’ decisions that much more agonizing. The chefs both come from a major cooking academy in Osaka (Tsuji ryori kyoshitsu) and during preparation they do their best to argue their case, seeking to sway the guests with comments about their methodology, as well as how rare and succulent each ingredient is.

It is not uncommon for a foreign dish to square off against a domestic recipe. And it is also seldom that the indigenous food fails to prevail. For, despite the recent “internationalization” of Japanese society, many Japanese have changed little from the insular, we-stick-with-what-we-know-best attitude that is a hallmark of earlier generations. Ironically, this message came across most clearly in a recent showdown between spaghetti with meat balls and tarako spageti (spicy fish eggs and flaked seaweed over Italian noodles) — a Japanese favorite. One guest, former American, now current Japanese Grand Sumo Champion, Akebono, insisted from the outset that he favored the meat balls because “it’s what my momma always cooked for me.” Similarly, the three Japanese who voted for the Japanese version did so because “nothing could possibly taste better than tarako“.

Akebono stuck to his guns and the meatballs won 4 to 3. Nonetheless, one of the clear messages in Douchi is that Japanese food is distinct, special, irreplaceable… and (if you’re not opposed by a 200 kilogram giant) unbeatable.

Continuity Editing
Aside from providing history and geography lessons, or serving as promos for Japanese uniqueness, cooking shows underscore food’s intimate relationship to economy. SMAPxSMAP offers tie-in goods and yearly recipe books for sale; numerous other shows provide maps to and menus of the restaurants where their guest chefs work.

Buttressing this, of course, is advertising: running throughout the day, every day, on all (but the two public) stations. Ads are often used as a device to heighten tension or underscore the show’s major themes, for it is always just before some key moment — a judge’s decision, a punchline to a story, the demonstration of proper technique — that an ad intrudes. As it happens, though, ads don’t necessarily serve as departures from the world of food since a large number of them are devoted to edible items. Like the cooking shows they support, however, food ads are equally attuned to secondary socio-cultural discourse. Ideas about competition, consumption, planning, Japaneseness versus foreigness all come through; as do discussions about health, diet, leisure, body, sexuality and even death.

The Main Discourse…
Over and over, ReDotPop employs food as medium through which intimate glimpses of the lifeblood of popular culture — idols — are spied. In a Saturday afternoon show, Merenge, for instance, famous guests field an array of questions about career, private life, hobbies and likes and dislikes during the course of preparing an in-studio meal. The show’s title makes no bones about its purpose: it unabashedly promises fluff. In likening mood to food one is reminded of another part of Puffy’s crab song: “taking the car out for a spin with a caramel spirit…”

Food is a state of mind, a road to peace.
At the same time, food is not a trifling matter on Japanese television. More visible than such cultural icons as sumo and beisuboro (baseball), the lens of food shows is certainly wider than samurai dramas or even music shows. For this reason, they serve as major conduits of popular culture. And though they constitute only a small percentage of programming time, their near-nightly presence during “golden time” goes a long way toward reproducing traditional Japanese cuisine and cultural practices, not to mention educating viewers about regional customs, serving as filtered “globalizers”, while also reinforcing the audience’s sense of Japaneseness.

The Significance of Food to ReDotPop
Food plays a major role on Japanese television?as both source and medium for filtering the raw material of popular culture. Whether it is Jackie Chan plugging a new movie on a “guess the price” food show, or a SMAP member working as a regular fixture on the Douchi show, or a model hawking her latest nude picture book on a show like Meringue, food-assisted talk enables the cultural industry to persist — even expand.

Why food? For one, food is something that all viewers share in common. It is an essential part of daily life. Beyond that, though, the legacy of the not-so-distant past — embedded in the consciousness of nearly a third of the (rapidly aging) population — is food shortages that have given way to overwhelming abundance. Within less than a generation’s time Japanese have been transported from famine (when roasted potatoes were considered a meal and chocolate was an unimaginable luxury) to excess (where Big Macs and shakes are a common daily meal; day-old convenience store bentos are tossed in the trash bin, and scores of canned drink options can be found on every street corner).

Because of food’s history, its place in Japanese folklore, its ubiquity, its easy availability, and its penetration into many aspects of a citizen’s everyday life, television’s food-talk is of interest to almost all viewers. Moreover, because it is a part of the structure of a viewer’s life, it is a fathomable conduit for all sorts of other (non-food) talk. To use terms from information theory, there is very little noise on the channel when food is involved. Information loss is minimal because food is universally comprehensible. Food is an easy vehicle for information transmission on Japanese television; a comfortable podium from which to educate and entertain. And, during the course of communication, food assists (however unintentionally) in social reproduction.

Food is that important in contemporary Japanese popular culture.

So the next time some ReDotPopper coos “crab, anyone?” you’ll know exactly what to do: just hop in your car with a caramel spirit. Or else flip on your favorite channel with a meringue feeling.