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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

COUNTERPOINT

All hail the wonders of Japanese cuisine — if not what Japanese eat


Ask almost any Japanese living overseas what they miss most and they are more likely to say the food than their relatives. Ask virtually any tourist what excites them most about Japan and you are apt to be told "Japanese food."

Ah, the sumptuousness of a sensational sushi, the tempting tenderness of tempura, the rousing rapture of a ramen when you're ravenous — I will tell you, dear reader, that nothing brings out the alimentary alliteration in me like Japanese cuisine.

Just a few decades ago, Japanese food comprised a niche market in the outside world. But thanks in large part to the bloated economic boom of the 1980s, every man and his dog started to crave the stuff; and, as a result, sushi, teppanyaki, tempura, ramen, sukiyaki, soba and even takoyaki (often rendered somewhat unappealingly as "octopus balls") became household words.

There's no doubt about it: This country's political parties may look like a dog's breakfast; but Japanese meals are healthy, delicious, nutritious and exquisitely presented.

Are they? Well, a book from the leading publishing house Shinchosha last year convincingly puts paid to this notion. While Japanese restaurants may be serving fine and dandy meals to their patrons, what ordinary Japanese people are eating at home appears to be consummately unpalatable, hideously presented and blatantly unhealthy.

This week and next in Counterpoint, I will be looking at the Japanese domestic table as described in that book by Nobuko Iwamura, titled "Kazoku no Katte Desho."

The title puns on the word katte, which here means both "as one pleases" and "kitchen." Possible translations of the title are "My Family's Stomach is My Business," "Don't Tell My Family What to Eat!" and "Keep Your Nose Out of My Kitchen!" The subtitle of the book translates as "The Comedy of the Dining Table as seen in 274 Photos."

However, the "comedy" of the subtitle hides the brutal truth that processed foods with dicey ingredients, frozen foods of little or no nutritious value and fat-clogged, salt-saturated takeaways have become "the health food of a nation."

The 274 photographs in "How to Eat Your Way into an Early Grave" (admittedly a rather free rendering of the title) are not those gorgeous close-ups of delicate, mouth-watering and aesthetically arranged dishes that you see in magazines, but instead badly lit and out-of-focus shots of positively revolting, clumsily arranged, stomach-wrenching fare that your average Japanese homemaker is serving up to her husband and children.

If you want to understand why child obesity in Japan is on the rise, why children at school fall asleep in class and can't make it once around the sports field without panting like a geriatric Jack Russell, and why more and more Japanese are simply skipping meals, then just go to a bookstore and have a look at the photos in this edifying book.

Iwamura, who has studied data from a survey of the country's home cooking collected annually over the past 13 years, writes that "the home dining table is a mirror reflecting today's Japanese family and society."

This brings to mind the locals in a developing country who are being studied. Says one native lady to another: "The anthropologists are coming tonight. What are you going to wear?"

Similarly, domestic cooks in Japan being surveyed put on the dog, as it were, for the social scientists coming to check up on the state of their domestic cuisine. So, the survey now studies each family's home cooking for a full week.

Iwamura found that "the food served in the first few days of the week was vastly different from that of the last few days, so much so that you wouldn't think it was prepared by the same person."

The tendency "to put one's best food forward" in the beginning was evident in the breakfasts consisting of fruit, salad and an egg dish; or rice, miso soup and vegetables. For dinner they served up their "specialties," such as fish dishes and Japanese-style stews. Family members made it a point to eat together for the benefit of those studying them. The resulting picture was a rose-colored one of what is called in Japanese ikkadanran (one big happy family in home sweet home).

"Early in the week people ate on spotless tablecloths or shiny place mats," writes Iwamura. "Toward the end of the week, we saw dirty stained tables. The flowers beautifully arranged withered and died day by day. . . . In other words, the homemakers were showing us an ideal of what they wanted to be like. If the survey had ended on the third day, our view of people's 'daily routine' would have recorded only what people are striving for, not what they are really like."

The photographs depict the meals presented on the first and last days. Only by looking at the last day, says Iwamura, "can we see the state of the family's nutrition and health, as well as the relationship between husband and wife, on the one hand, and parent and child on the other."

One mother who made a breakfast on day one of rye bread with cheese, sausages, fried egg, cherry tomatoes and baked sweet potatoes for her 11-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, served the boy only chocolate-flavored corn flakes and the girl diet cornflakes on day seven. "I'm in a bad mood in the morning," said this mother, "and besides, my husband says he can chill out more if I stay in bed."

If this book were made into a movie, its title would be "Honey, I Starved the Kids!"

In fact, the presence or non-presence of the male breadwinner seemed to have a marked effect on the kinds of meals served by mom. "When my husband stays late at the office," said one mother quoted here, "we can get away with no fuss at all." She described how, at such times, she puts dry instant macaroni in the microwave, adds mixed frozen vegetables, a can of tuna, a consomme cube, flour and water and chings it all up into a "gratin." "No dad day is gratin day," she smiles.

When hubby is away, other mothers get by on instant ramen without anything added or plain fried rice; or chicken without the peas and mushrooms "I put in when he's there," as one homemaker confided. She added: "When my husband doesn't eat with us, I don't have to serve any vegetables, which the children hate anyway."

One wonders if husbands coming home in time for dinner might not actually save lives.

One of the photos shows two tiny rice balls that a mother served her two children for breakfast. The rice balls had no flavoring inside or nori wrapping. Said the mother, "The kids said they didn't like them with flavoring or nori, and I don't want to force them to eat what they don't like."

It is clear that here we have a book that reveals not only the slapdash, erratic and grimy realities of the daily Japanese dining table, but also some startling home truths about domestic life in this country.

Watch this space next wek for the piece de resistance — if you have the stomach for it.



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