A JALT colleague shared with me a story about his university students and ice cream. As a class project they’d taken a poll of which flavor ice cream was the class favorite, and it turned out to be matcha, or green tea. When asked why, they responded, “Because we’re Japanese”. My colleague wondered then, “So why do you eat ice cream?”
(Is the reason marketers prefer the term matcha (powdered green tea, rarely drunk) rather than sencha (infused green tea, the most popular) or ryokucha (just “green tea”), the same as the reason all tomato-flavored things in the US are invariably described as “sun-dried tomato”?)
There is a process of domesticating unfamiliar or clearly foreign products which involves adding one or two “Japanese” ingredients and marketing them as reborn in Japan. This is a way of compensating for their foreignness, a kind of ablution to prepare foreign products for the Japanese marketplace. I buy a kimchee that happens to be vegetarian that advertises itself as “suited to Japanese mouths”. Bakeries sell bread made with rice flour, and not because of gluten-phobia. MOS Burger and McDonald’s periodically bring out ostentatiously Japan-themed burgers marketed with all the subtlety of a July 4th fireworks show. All manner of creamy desserts and pastries use either matcha or the combination kinako (a kind of powder made from soybeans which tastes like very finely crushed peanuts) and brown sugar, which for some reason is thought to be Japanese. All of these function as the spoonful of wa to help the Western food go down.
You may have noticed that these foods are about as far from traditional Japan as you can get. The feeling seems to be, you can go as far from Japan as you like foodwise, so long as you nod in its direction after you get there. This allows for some patterns of consumption and behavior that may be very unexpected for the newcomer, who may take the overwhelming abundance of burger joints and other “Western” products like jeans as signs of decreasing Japanese identity, inside and out. In fact though, in my thinking, the Japanization of products with non-Japanese origins betrays a type of insecure nationalism among the population, where one must always keep one foot touching the homeland no matter where one tries to go.
This is quite a different phenomenon from what I said many posts ago about Japanese culture and language being regarded as too precious to be in the hands of ordinary people (hence kimono and calligraphy requiring certificates to practice and only showing up in public a few times a year). Rather than being too august for the hands of commoners, Japanese food serves as a daily reminder for the people of what they really are, and therefore needs to be in everything.
There is surely an element of pure aesthetics to this as well, but that alone can’t explain the proliferation and especially presentation style of this repatriated food. Yes, certain segments of the population are still more used to the taste of miso than balsamic vinegar, mustard, or thyme. Green tea ice cream really does have a unique flavor, although it’s not everyone’s cup of … ice cream. People unused to spicy food may actually need a kimchee that is sweeter and less spicy (as the one mentioned above is) than that consumed in Korea. If I am right though, the patterns of consumption and especially the patterns in advertising of Japanized products shows nationalist reasons for their existence as well as gustatory ones.
In my colleague’s example, students claimed matcha as their favorite, but actually Baskin Robbins (called サーティワン, saati wan, “31″ here) makes known the sales rankings of their flavors, and #1 is ポッピンシャワー poppin shawaa “Poppin’ Shower”, as far as I know a Japan-specific flavor but certainly not a “Japanese” one. My interpretation is that because it was an English class, students may have felt additional pressure to assert and confirm their Japanese identity. If he had actually served ice cream, it seems likely that more of them would have chosen matcha in his class than if the choice were made in a context where national identity were not salient. Hence green tea and other signs of reappropriation may be especially popular when eating “Western” foods in international contexts.
For comparison, sushi served in the USA sometimes has chili sauce, mayonnaise, and avocado in it; but no one considers these a buttress to their American identities and many sushi fans are disappointed to hear that these would be consider bizarre in Japan (except the mayonnaise; that’s as common as oxygen here). It seems likely that Americans in the presence of Japanese nationals would err on the side of sushi they consider authentically Japanese rather than Dynamite Rolls and Caterpillar Rolls. Unless I really don’t understand Americans, they generally prefer the unadulterated “real thing” when eating ethnic food, not something they know to be refashioned for their supposedly duller palates.
Perhaps the difference between Japanese food and Japanese culture that allows food to be in the hands of normal folk is that everyone needs to eat everyday, and it doesn’t take a degree in art appreciation to declare something yummy or prefer one flavor to another. Food is a display of nationalism that is always at hand and fits into probably universal human tendencies to sort foods by preference and stake an identity around one’s favorites. No such universal exists for, say, flower arrangement.
Food is an exception to the rule that Japanese culture is too important to be left in the hands of ordinary Japanese – it is a part of Japanese culture that everyone not only has access to but needs constant contact with. Contrarily, people’s daily lives can drift very far away from esteemed traditions like kabuki, in fact the more distance the better if kabuki is to maintain its status as revered capital J, capital C Japanese Culture. The small c (well, middle C) culture that is most cuisine demands more visible signs of loyalty, and if a given food isn’t Japanese yet, it needs to be loudly reclaimed before some people will admit to liking it.