Nationalism and National Identity in Terms of Food and Cuisine in Japan

Food although seemingly benign in its mundanity has been implicated in political schemes. Food is mobilized overtly in the case of nationbuilding projects, but mundane acts of consumption and production in everyday life also figure in imagined notions of national identity and belonging.[1] In discussing bread and national identity, I turn to existing scholarly literature on nationalism more broadly, as well as forms of nationalism in Japan. Understandings of nationalism espoused by Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm share the viewpoint that nationalism and nations are modern constructions, not age-old entities.

Ernest Gellner’s influential work on nationalism challenged the natural necessity of nations, and instead argued that nationalism was a function of modernity, where the industrial revolution created conditions for language, communication, social mobility and goals transcending individual selves. Benedict Anderson, too, viewed nations as modern in contending that nations are ‘imagined communities’ of horizontal comradeship. Eric Hobsbawm also draws from Anderson and Gellner in asserting the historical recentness of the nation, and insists that the view from below requires attention, as ordinary people also have other forms of identifications and attachments.[2]

In this vein, understandings of food are also embraced to promote this constructed nation, where the sense of timelessness of customs confers validity in reproducing this notion of nation. For example, Thomas Hylland Eriksen discusses the political use of cultural symbols, such as music, folk tales and food reified as symbols transformed into a constant, in the production of the cultural community that is the nation.[3] In one example, Eriksen raises this phenomenon in the Norwegian context: of peasant music, food, etc. used in fashioning a Norwegian national identity, but his overarching argument implies generality that can be applied to Japan’s case.

The elevation of ‘traditional dietary culture of the Japanese’ washoku as an intangible cultural heritage can be analysed in this light, where food plays a political role. Eric Rath argues that washoku’s acceptance as intangible heritage with a definition that includes the term ‘fresh ingredients’ comes in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and reflects the Japanese government’s need to ensure the safety of the food. He also notes that washoku s definition includes not concrete items like sushi, but more inclusive values like presentation style and attention to nature, grasping at a wider interpretation of cultural heritage.[4] Katarzyna J. Cwiertka and Barak Kushner also discuss the government's mobilization of food as a provision for the construction of modern, strong bodies fit for military engagement. In this case, discourse turned to food of the Other, the West, as exemplar for nourishing fit bodies - meat and bread being prime examples.[5]

Nationalism is not a concept employed solely by the political elites in overt forms of (re-)legitimization, but is also reproduced in the mundane, in ways often overlooked. Take for example, the sumo wrestler bread statue mentioned earlier. The supporters of the Japanese baking team who are watching the sumo wrestler bread statue come into being brandish not only one large hinomaru flag but also small stickers of the same Japanese flag prominently on their faces while waving smaller Japanese flags in their hands. They also hold up plastic blow-up batons with ‘JAPAN’ written boldly on them below the image of the flag, all to cheer on the competing bakers from Japan. This brings to mind Rika Kayama’s assertion of a petit nationalism (puchi nashonarizumu) in what she considered the nonchalant ways in which youths wave the Japanese flag during soccer games and sing the national anthem, without a deeper consciousness of history. What I take from Kayama’s argument here is that the use of flags in competitive games may seem benign and yet it engages in the process of nationalism and in mass expressions of national sentiment.11

Michael Billig also examines overlooked forms of nationalism in coining the term banal nationalism. He brings attention to the ways in which nationalism is reproduced daily, embedded in the routines of life. To illustrate his point, he directs attention to flags: unwaved flags that in turn are ‘flagging’ nationhood, providing mindless reminders of one’s established homeland. While discussing various instances in which flags appear noticed and unnoticed, he raises the subject of bread. He remarks on the symbolic and signalling function of the tricolour flag on bread in France, which ‘signals’ bread made in the authorized method of baking, pain de tradition frangaise.[6] [7] [8]

On motifs of flags on food, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney mentions how the lunch box hinomaru bento, a bed of white rice with a red pickled plum umeboshi in the centre, conjures up the image of the national ‘rising sun’ flag in her discussion of Self and Other in analysing rice symbolism in Japan.1 Curiously, in Yoichi City in Hokkaido Prefecture, for 130 yen, one can buy hinomaru bread that also evokes the red rising sun. The circular bread is topped with freshly whipped cream as the white part and a dollop of strawberry jam as the red centre. In another instance of conjuring up the flag, Hinomaru Seipan Bakery in Hashima City, Gifu Prefecture employs the motif of the rising sun in its company name.[9] In these cases, the flag is a blatant symbol of nationalism, though often overlooked as mundane, rendered into bread form and written onto storefronts, waved vigorously in international bread competitions- routine mindless iterations of the notion of Japan.

  • [1] On food and politics, especially in modernization and industrialization, see: Goody, Cooking,Cuisine and Class; Mintz, Sweetness and Power.
  • [2] Gellner, Nations and Nationalism; Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism; Anderson, ImaginedCommunities, 5-7.
  • [3] Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism, 123-125.
  • [4] Rath, ‘How Intangible?’; see also: Bestor, ‘Washoku on the World Stage’.
  • [5] Kushner, Slurp!; Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine, 33, 68-72.
  • [6] The hinomaru flag only became formally chosen as the national flag in the 1870’s. Previously, groupsfor and against the bakufu used the flag. See Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘The Emperor of Japan’, 205.
  • [7] Billig, Banal Nationalism, 40.
  • [8] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 93.
  • [9] Hinomaru Seipan Bakery’s signature item is not a rising sun bread, but bread called misogipan,in which misogi refers to the Shinto purification rite of washing oneself in water. In this case, thebread is actually two red bean buns skewered on a stick. The concept of the bread derives frommisogi mochi, or rice cakes of the same name famous in that area. Like the rice cakes, the bread isalso lathered with miso paste. The bread is made of domestically grown wheat from HokkaidoPrefecture, as well as rice flour.
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