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Wa and yo, and nihon no pan: The Traversing of Self and Other

Besides deployment of the flag as a means of evoking nation, several kinds of breads have been embraced as Japanese, similar to the foods and folk culture Eriksen argues become reified as symbols. Such breads elevated to the status of nihon no pan (Japanese breads) include (1) kashipan (sweet breads) such as: anpan (red bean bun), meron pan (bread with cookie-crust topping cross-hatched in melon rind pattern), chokokorone (chocolate cream-filled horn-shaped bread), kurimu pan (cream bread); (2) savoury breads such as karepan (curry-filled bread) and yakisobapan (soba-noodle sandwich); and (3) shokupan (pillowy white bread, often sliced for sandwiches). I call these standardized forms of Japanese breads [mostly soft, with sweet crumb (bread interior)] so as to differentiate them from the new wave of breads moving beyond these established forms, their makers combining European methods and imbuing this bread making knowhow with a Japanese sensibility.

As I mentioned, these standardized breads are often referred to in bakery publications, bread dictionaries, mass media and in conversations with bakers and consumers as nihon no pan (Japanese bread) as well as other words signifying a national Self. In each instance of evoking nihon no pan is another banal reiteration of national sentiment.[1] It is worthwhile here to discuss this designation of nihon no pan in the greater scheme of washoku (traditional dietary culture of the Japanese) and nihon ryori (modern Japanese cuisine).

Wa (literally: harmony), as a prefix, is a discursive term signifying Japanese, a kind of notion of Self as opposed to the Other, yo (Western). Yet, wa and yo are far from timeless terms - although their daily reflexive usage may make them seem so. They are constructed terms, fabricated during the Meiji Period as a means of marking the Self in response to a foreign Other. They arose in the context of a greater consciousness towards national identity through food.[2]

In addition to the wa/yo binary is the term nihon ryori, also referring to Japanese food. Both wa and nihon ryori signify Japanese food; however, nihon ryori is a wider term that includes imported foods adapted to Japanese palates. While bread has been most often relegated to the yo (Western) side of the equation, calling certain standardized breads nihon no pan seems to circumvent this wa/yo binary and instead align this canon of familiar bread nihon no pan to that of nihon ryori, in a kind of categorical discursive mechanism that allows bread to be understood as Japanese.

Yet new groups of bakers, self-styled bread educators and event coordinators discuss ‘Japanese-style’ or ‘Japanese’ bread in these various terms which have different nuanced meanings that include not only nihon (Japan) but also wa: wafu pan, wapan, washoku no pan, nihon rashipan, nihon no pan, as well as others. Some of these bread culture purveyors generously apply even the wa prefix to bread.

In her work on coffee, Helena Grinshpun remarks on bread culture in Japan: ‘Bread, which today constitutes an integral part of the Japanese diet, is still associated with foreign food culture, as manifested by bakeries’ foreign-sounding names, representative more of the “abstract West” than of any particular bread-related tradition.’[3] While I indeed find it to be the case that some bakeries adopt foreign names to market this vague notion of the West, there are still others in the recent phenomenon who follow closely a particular European tradition, most often French or German, while claiming a certain Japanese aesthetic to the production and taste of their breads. As I have mentioned, these new movements in bread culture involve adopting the style of European breads, while simultaneously shaping and marketing them as structurally coherent in a Japanese meal to be eaten on an everyday level.

In emphasizing the categorical rigidity of Japanese and Western foods, Merry White makes an assertion on what can be served with coffee: ‘In adopting foreign foods and particularly in the malleable space of the cafe, coffee can go with anything, from peanuts to ice cream. What it usually cannot accompany, however, is “Japanese” food. Curry rice, having become in some ways “Japanese,” seems an exception.’[4] Naomichi Ishige also argues in a similar vein with respect to this division between the Self (Japanese-style foods) and the Other (Western-style foods) regarding bread in Japan. He contends that bread cannot structurally be paired with anything else but Western-style food (in Japan), insisting that there are particular foods associated with rice and particular foods associated with bread. ‘[T]he menu of bread-associated dishes is a closed system, consisting entirely of Western-style foods and excluding Japanese or Chinese-style foods. This shows that bread meals have never been modified to a truly Japanese form, but have retained a strongly foreign character.’[5] He later concedes that wine is sometimes eaten with rice, and is therefore in the process of traversing categories.[6]

If he waited another 15 years to comment, he would have seen that bread has also been traversing boundaries and is not strictly relegated to the ‘foreign side’. Similar to the curry rice described by White, these breads paired with food associated with the wa side of the category have become in some ways, ‘Japanese’.

Thus, if we consider new phenomena in bread culture, we can see that bakers and self-styled bread event coordinators in Japan are penetrating these structural boundaries that social analysts have drafted through their analyses. In short, these bread pioneers promote bread paired with Japanese food and drink (fish paste, pickles and sake are some examples) as not only possible but also as delicious and fitting.

Drawing up what Japanese bread may mean to these bread pioneers is not limited to concrete food items and their pairings, but involves the art and process of preparing and offering food. Some informants emphasize the importance of attention and care in the process of preparation - the consideration afforded to bread making and the assembly of sandwiches as particularly ‘Japanese’ - while drawing parallels with the care required in making sushi and foods such as dashimaki tamago, a delicately rolled omelette made with dashi broth. These purveyors of bread and sandwiches consider this care as a crucial part of food service and hospitality in conveying Japanese sensibility.

The efforts to promote these new breads and creations are ways to develop a kind of nationally inspired or nationally representative style of bread, while simultaneously emphasizing regional and local specialties and seasonality. Not only centred on single individuals, formed networks of people across Japan gather to discuss how to innovate and create breads that reflect a Japanese sentiment and aesthetic. To give a better sense of such efforts in bread innovation and collaboration, I provide here three examples of the varied networks discussing bread in Japan. While one of the networks I mention here is listed as a non-profit organization, the other two point to their projects as central to defining their presence and aims. One non-profit organization calls itself a relay- race team, handing over the baton from wheat producers to distributors, to bakers, to consumers and to all the people and steps in between. They come together as a ‘team’ during certain festivals and seminars to discuss ways to advance ‘Japanese bread’. Another related network of local farmers, millers and bakers promotes self-sufficiency in wheat and teaches families and individuals about bread history, culture and industry in Japan through hosting educational events. Yet another network led by a fermentation and bread specialist focuses more on the transformative aspect of bread production, especially in the fermentation stage, and categorizes bread in Japanese culinary culture among well-established fermented foods in Japanese cuisine such as soy sauce, miso and sake, while promoting these foods including bread as part of a regional revitalization. These are but a few examples and there are more - but they have all cropped up recently and are quite intertwined, as members traverse different organizational spaces. The breads that they promote are charged with notions of national identification of Self and Other, especially in combining bread with the prefix wa or in using terms like nihon no (Japanese).

  • [1] Billig, Banal Nationalism.
  • [2] Rath and Assman, ‘Japanese Foodways’, 7; Kushner, Slurp! 10-11; Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self,106-108; Theodore Bestor, ‘Washoku on the World Stage’; also Tatsuya Mitsuda’s chapter in thisvolume.
  • [3] Grinshpun, ‘Deconstructing a global commodity’, 360. See on coffee also Helena Grinshpun’schapter in this volume.
  • [4] Grinshpun, ‘Deconstructing a global commodity’, 359.
  • [5] Ishige, The History and Culture, 169.
  • [6] For wine see also the next chapter in this volume by Chuanfei Wang.
 
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