Inventing Japanese Food Identities

'They Should Be Called Gluttons and Be Despised': Food, Body and Ideology in Kaibara Ekiken's Yojokun (1713)

Andreas Niehaus


Eating habits and choice of food are generally considered to be an individual’s choice. Yet, they very much depend on geography, culture and time, are subject to cultural politics and are thus subjugated to and formed by power relations. This also holds true in cases where food consumption and eating habits are related to the discourse of the healthy body. The obsession with health, with dietary lifestyle and with controlling and regulating food intake as a means to attain health is not exclusively limited to modernity, but can also be found in pre-modern societies. In the early eighteenth and nineteenth century, Japan witnessed a boom in health manuals, books on life nourishment (yojo) and house books, which brought basic medical and dietetic knowledge into the households of the

A. Niehaus (*)

Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_2

general public.1 Certainly one of the earliest and most influential treatises on health of that period is the Yojokun (‘Regulations for Life Nourishment’) written in 1713 by the Neo-Confucian scholar, physician and botanist Kaibara Ekiken (also Ekken 1630-1714). It combines elements of pharmacopoeia (materia medica, Chin. bencao, Jap. honzo), kampo (Chinese medicine) and Neo-Confucianism. The text must be situated in the Chinese tradition of yangsheng or cultivation of life and can best be characterized as an educative dietary health manual; dietary in the sense of Greek dietetics as being ‘an intimate combination of health, medicine and philosophy of living’. As a guide to a healthy lifestyle, this educational treatise accordingly touches on a variety of topics, including body exercise, sleep, sexual intercourse, general hygiene, bowel movement, urination, treating minor diseases at home (which should not be necessary when following the dietetics rules), choice of physician etc. Eating and drinking, however, can be isolated as the single most important element within life nourishment. The food regulations in the Yojokun focus on the therapeutic properties and the effects of food on health, and as such medicalize, de-sensualize and functionalize food as well as eating as a means of self-cultivation.

In this chapter, I firstly argue that the Yojokun can serve as an example to show how food choices and eating habits during the Edo period (1600-1867) can be linked to social, political and economic changes. Furthermore, I will analyse some of the mechanisms that bind eating, body and ideology as prescribed in the text. The Yojokun provides the knowledge and techniques for leading a long and healthy life, by generating and transmitting an understanding of the body. Yet, this knowledge, which gives the individual a ‘self-disciplining’ or ‘self-governing’ [1] [2]

capability, also has to be contextualized and addressed within Edo period Neo-Confucian philosophy. Although introduced to Japan as early as the Kamakura period (1185-1333), this rationalist ethical philosophy with its strong metaphysical foundation did not leave the monasteries until the Edo period, when it was utilized to strengthen Tokugawa rule and legitimize the stratification of society.[3] Making the ‘right’ food choices and nurturing the ‘right’ eating habits are, in Ekiken’s work, established as moral categories and individual responsibilities, which on the one hand serve the individual’s goals of living in health, but on the other hand serve the objectives of state and society. Incorporating food, it will be argued, is, therefore, a political act, by which the subject subjugates himself/herself within the given order of the Edo period.

  • [1] With respect to the popularity of nourishment of life (yojo) literature during the Edo period, seeKinski, ‘Admonitions Regarding Food Consumption , 140 as well as Kinski, ‘Materia Medica in EdoPeriod Japan . Kinski’s well-researched and very thorough work on Takai Ranzan’s Shokuji kai alsohighlights the parallels between both works. Kabayama finds more than 100 publications on lifenourishment (yojo) since the eighteenth century. Ibid., ‘Yojo ron no bunka’, 435-436 as well as theKokusho Somokuroku (General Catalogue of National Books); for house books, see especiallyRotermund, Sacke der Weisheit.
  • [2] Coveney, Food, Morals, and Meaning, 26.
  • [3] For Neo-Confucianism, its transmission to Japan and especially Ekiken’s understanding of Neo-Confucian thought, see Tucker, Moral and Spiritual Cultivation in Japanese Neo-Confucianism.
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