[Food] In Japan, the food celebrity tends to be a fictional character

Yutaka Matsushige (1963 - present) plays the protagonist of 'Kodoku no Gurume'

Yutaka Matsushige (1963 – present) plays the protagonist of ‘Kodoku no Gurume’

Perhaps due to the persistent image in Japanese culture that a master artisan should be a man of few words who just shuts up and makes things, for all the country’s obsession with good food, Japan has not yet given rise to the Jamie Oliver type of food celebrity (who probably talks more than he cooks). Indeed, one may say that (to use a marketing lingo) the ‘influencers’ of the food industry tend to be fictional characters rather than real people.

This was the impression I had when I watched the hugely popularly TV series Kodoku no Gurume [孤独のグルメ] (‘The Solitary Gourmet’) based on the manga of the same name. The protagonist Goro Inogashira is a salaryman who visits his clients all over Japan, and sometimes overseas. His one hobby in life is to eat delicious food by himself at a restaurant. He makes of point of eating all by himself because he wants to eat without bothering about other people or being bothered by other people. Although he mostly eats at low-to-mid price range establishments, he has become an iconic symbol of a growing trend in Japan where it is becoming an acceptable thing to eat alone at a restaurant – these days, even the high-end ones adjust their menus to accommodate patrons who eat all by himself or herself.

Vol. 1 of 'Wakakozake' by Chie Shinkyu

Vol. 1 of ‘Wakakozake’ by Chie Shinkyu

Wakakozake [ワカコ酒], another TV/anime series based on the manga of the same name, also follows a similar same vein. The protagonist is a young female office worker enjoys eating and drinking all by herself, and when she is done eating and drinking, she goes home by herself. This defies the cultural bias that a woman drinking by herself must be ‘looking for company’.

The Lone Diner as a theme has been taken up by other manga artists. For example, Otoriyose-ouji Iida Yoshimi [おとりよせ王子 飯田好実] by Shiho Takase [高瀬志帆] is about a young IT worker who orders expensive gourmet food by delivery. He enjoys eating at home, all by himself. Another example would be Bokyaku no Sachiko [忘却のサチコ] by Jun Abe [阿部潤]. In the story, a female office worker tries to forget a past relationship by consciously creating moments of eating something so delicious that she forgets herself.

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Vol. 1 of ‘Sanzoku Diary – Riaru Ryoushi Funtouki’ by Kentarou Okamoto

Among works of manga that give an alternative spin to this necessary act of eating, one series that I personally find interesting is Sanzoku Diary – Riaru Ryoushi Funtouki [山賊ダイアリ ー リアル猟師奮闘記] by Kentarou Okamoto [岡本健太郎]. This manga is a semi-biographical account of Okamoto’s own experiences as a hunter. He hunts, and eats what he has hunt. He does everything from stalking on an animal in the wild, hunting it down with a gun, skinning it, disemboweling it, to cooking different parts of the animal in different ways. Okamoto has a unique outlook on life, in that he feels through hunting for his own food, he feels himself to be more integrated into nature’s food chain. He has very rich and deep knowledge of various animals and their behaviour in different parts of the woods at different times of the year, as well as how to process the parts of an animal so that nothing goes to waste.

Eurasian bear sukiyaki

Eurasian bear sukiyaki

It may come as no surprise that la cuisine du gibier is becoming a food trend in Japan. Recently, TV Tokyo’s 11 o’clock news programme WBS reported that the number of restaurants that offer wild game as items on the menu has quadrupled in the past two years. Now you can have Eurasian bear meat for sukiyaki. It is said that perhaps due to industrial farming, some consumers are beginning to feel that chicken all tastes the same; likewise for beef and pork. Hence they seek out more exotic flavours.

In the past, Japan has seen her share of shounen manga that evolves around cooking competitions where the protagonist and his rivals vie for victory. While these stories persist to some extent – Shokugeki no Soma [食戟のソーマ] being one of them – it seems to me that more and more food stories are becoming statements of life attitudes.  And typical of Japan, instead of individuals coming forth to evangelize an idea (think all the ‘life coaches’ in America who set up their own businesses to promulgate the law of attraction from The Secret…), an idea tends to be embodied in a fictional character. Given how fast fads come and go in Japan, it may well be a shrewd tactic to speak through a character in fiction, rather than identify yourself with a movement today and be remembered as a has-been tomorrow.

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