This is my second food post in a row, which may lead my readers (all two of you) to worry that this blog has become Japan, Translated with Anthony Bourdain. Fear not – I’m still gung-ho about many other, un-food-related topics. But food is terribly important in Japanese culture, as even a few hours of watching “food porn”-esque segments on Japanese variety TV will teach you. Japan’s traditional food, washoku (和食), is honored by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural History of Humanity (no pressure). Anything that touches upon food touches upon Japan’s extreme pride in its culture and traditions, and is bound to become a hot topic.
That point was proven in spades recently when bread shops suddenly disappeared from Japanese textbooks.
Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Everything Else (MEXT [English] – a.k.a. 文部科学省; monbukagakushou) is currently supervising the 2018 edition of the country’s standard textbook on ethics. Textbooks are written by various external publishers according to certain themes, and then sent to MEXT for final signoff. The controversy erupted when submissions came in for a given topic featuring a neighborhood bakery (パン屋), and MEXT sent it back to publishers with a note that it failed to satisfy the following criteria set forth by the agency: 伝統や文化の尊重、国や郷土を愛する態度を学ぶ (“To honor our tradition and culture, and to cultivate an attitude of love for one’s country and birthplace”). The publisher submitted a new version in which, among a few other corrections, the bakery was switched to a traditional Japanese candy shop (和菓子屋さん; wakashiyasan). The changes were approved by MEXT.
Needless to say, the country’s 1,500+ bakeries were not pleased [Japanese].
“This is the ultimate rudeness.” Takao Nichikawa, the head of the All-Japan Bread Cooperative, which is comprised of around 1,500 bread manufacturers around the country, was livid. Many of these companies make bread for schools. “Even if they go into the red, there are companies who give their all, saying, “We have to protect kids’ school lunches.” Why do they get treated like this in a school textbook?” The Cooperative plans to lodge a protest with MEXT soon.
This expulsion of bread from the nation’s textbooks has been met with wide derision on social media. Other commentators in the Asahi Shinbun story point out that, while bread may not have its origins in Japan, there are now many variations on it that are unique to the country, such as anpan (あんパン), a sweet bread filled with red beans.
Others, such as Huffington Post’s Hosaka Nobuto, pull a reductio ad absurdum on this line of argument:
If such corrections are going to be imposed, then from next year on, in order to describe the shopping gallery in a town, we can well predict that we’ll have to replace “boutique” with “gofukuya”, “cafe” with “amami kissa”, “shoe store” with “zouriya” [straw sandal store], “convenience store” with “sake store” and “rice store” and “produce store”, and on and on. It isn’t easy for kids to go hunting in the neighborhoods they live for store placards lingering from the Edo era [1603-1868, before the arrival of Perry].
The truth is, if you look far back enough, you’ll find many “traditional” things that didn’t originate in their adopted country at all. In America, we like to say that something is “as American as apple pie”. But apple pie isn’t American! Apple pie recipes date back centuries prior. The first apples imported into the colonies were used, not for pie, but for cider (yep, Johnny Appleseed was an alcoholic). The phrase “as American as apple pie” didn’t come into use until 1928 at the earliest. Apple pie may be “American” now, but it’s a naturalized immigrant, not a native-born citizen.
Similarly, few in Japan would argue against Castella (カステラ) being “un-Japanese”. (I reached this verdict based primarily on how quickly Castella sells out at my local Uwajimaya. Seriously, Japanese expats – let the white boy have some once in a while!) But the fluffy cake is a Dutch import brought to the country in the 16th century. According to Wikipedia, it took hold because it was one of the few cakes at the time that wasn’t made from milk, a commodity not in daily use in Japan in the 1500s.
So what constitutes a country’s “authentic” culture? Are bread stores less “Japanese” than washoku, nishonshu, geisha, or kabuki? Any dividing line drawn here will be arbitrary. Perhaps a better standard is whether something truly represents an outside, baleful influence upon the culture, or whether the culture has absorbed it and brought it in line with its own tastes and traditions, making it uniquely its own. As evidenced from everything from animation to red bean paste bread, that cultural transmutation is something at which Japanese culture excels.