Next in line for the Anthropologies #22 Food Issue, we have this essay by Christopher Laurent. He is currently a Cultural Anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Montreal in Quebec Canada. Laurent’s research primarily focuses on regional food revival in Japan. Check out his blog Chanko Food, and look for him on Twitter: @SFchanko –R.A.
On a vernal Sunday morning, I meet with a group of retired women to travel to the mountains of rural Kochi in Japan. The day is overcast, yet the drive outside the city is pleasant with patches of flowering trees dotting the side of the road. We reach a small windy lane wide enough for one small car. Mitani sensei, the driver, tells me that the road did not exist when she was younger and the trip had to be made on foot. We reach her hometown, a hamlet, also called Mitani where we came to collect wild mountain vegetables called sansai. For many in Japan, spring evokes recollections of a peculiar grassy bitterness that can only be found in these wild mountain greens. This bitter taste is one that Japanese people seek as it reminds them of seasonal flavors from times immemorial. The aim of this essay is precisely to uncover the relationship that exists between unique flavors of the past and the elusive sentiment of nostalgia.
The ancestral village
In Japan, sansai are more than mere edibles as they represent the change of seasons, past traditions and the mountain village. These mountain greens are an important resource for isolated communities that sometimes transform this cultural capital into an economic one (Love 2010). Isolated rural villages have been hampered by a dwindling economy with few jobs, an aging population and a rural exodus that leaves some small villages entirely abandoned. Japan’s national demographic crisis and decades-old economic slump are almost palpable in these rural communities. The Mitani hamlet, for instance, primarily relies on sustenance agriculture practiced by elderly villagers. Year after year, their numbers dwindle as no young people take over the old mountain farmhouses.
Still, the rural village occupies a significant place in the Japanese imaginary. The furusato or ancestral village carries with it the essence of Japanese traditions (Robertson 1988). Far from being a tangible place, this village is a space that exists in the hearts and minds of Japanese people as even long time city dwellers experience a lingering feeling of loss when one mentions it. The furusato is ever present in traditional country songs called enka (Yano 2003) and the tourist industry (Creighton 1997). Although the furusato exists in this rarified state, its image has very real impact on the experience of taste. Products and dishes associated with the furusato possess a distinctive flavor that qualifies as rustic, pristine and unpretentious. These flavors, far from only being a marketing ploy, are the product of a unique context, as these hometown specialties never taste the same when consumed outside the furusato.
If we are to believe popular discourse, the ancestral village is under threat of disappearing. Rural regions, widely considered the guardians of Japanese traditions, are seen as slowly dying as a result of their dwindling demographics. The demise of the rural village means that a whole way of life and the essence of Japanese culture would disappear with it. This now permanent state of fear surrounding the disappearance of the ancestral village is anchored in Japan’s collective consciousness. In “Discourse of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan”, Marilyn Ivy (1995) argues that many in Japan are occupied by this deep anxiety about the loss of traditions of the past. Japanese cultural traditions that are assumed to be continuous throughout time need to be protected because they are part of Japanese identity. In this context, nostalgia for flavors of the past becomes a quest for representation of what constitutes the essence of Japaneseness.
Memory and the sense of taste
The connection between food and memory has been explored in literature (Proust 2006) and in the social sciences (Holtzman 2006). Although widely acknowledged, few have pondered on how memory, in particular nostalgia, affects the experience of taste. We love the food we ate growing up not because of its inherent taste qualities but because we associate pleasant memories with it. One can also be nostalgic for an imagined past he or she has never experienced. Regardless of how we acquire these food memories, the taste of food is enhanced as it incorporates history and tradition in its meaning. After a Japanese plum harvesting trip with a group of elderly people, we were invited for tea and handmade rice cakes wrapped in Japanese ginger leaves (hagedango). Everyone could barely contain their amazement at how delectable the rice cakes were. The rice cakes carried particular significance for people that had eaten them in their youth but still tasted delicious to people that had never experienced them as they could taste the weight of tradition in every bite.
The link between food and personal memory has a tremendous impact on the experience of taste. However, this phenomenon reaches maximum potency when it is experienced by a collective—whether it is national, regional or familial. According to David Sutton (2001), food and taste participate in building a type of collective memory that is referred to as Historical Consciousness. In the region of Kochi, history is remembered in the form of narratives that allude to the past and tradition using the feudal name of the region (Tosa). Following this logic, traditional papermaking becomes Tosa washi, the local dog breed becomes Tosa inu and of course the cuisine is collectively referred to as Tosa ryori. Such historical representations are important because they shape how we experience traditions in the present. As people consume the cuisine of Tosa, they can appreciate a taste that is anchored in a shared experience of the past.
Of course, economic imperatives also foster the creation of a mythical past that only exist in the consumer’s mind. In the remote village of Umaji, farmers banded together to build a Japanese citrus (yuzu) pressing factory. According to local lore, elderly residents of Umaji were unable to produce perfect looking yuzu fruits. This fruit would not sell as Japanese consumers only buy flawless products. The elderly population in a feat of self-reliance decided to manufacture a drink made from pressed yuzu. Umaji is now famous as the village that fought the odds to become a textbook example of rural revitalization. The old-fashioned glass vial drink tastes delicious to consumers as it encapsulates the purity of the mountains, the weight of traditions and the resilience of a rural community. Although the popularity of this drink might be the product of a manufactured image, it has a very real impact on the taste experience of the consumer.
Nostalgia in Kochi cuisine
In the region of Kochi, nostalgia for tradition of the countryside serves the interest of local entrepreneurs. In a region that has few economic opportunities, businesses tap into the one resource they can readily use. The commodification of nostalgia through the use of imagery of tradition and the past adds value to a product that would be otherwise difficult to sell. Food souvenirs called omiyage are sold in every tourist shop. As these souvenirs are meant to be gifts, the taste of the product is intimately tied to a different place and a time past. In this manner, the image of Sakamoto Ryoma, a famous samurai from Kochi, is displayed on souvenirs to add value to them. Nostalgia is also merchandised in markets and festivals. In the small fishing village of Kure, the Taisho ichiba fish market takes tourists on a trip back in time. Little stalls display freshly caught fish that are sliced sashimi style and served across the way in a tiny, picturesque “tea house”.
Regional food discourse is permeated with the subtext of nostalgia. Books about the cuisine of Kochi must use the vocabulary of nostalgia if they are to capture the essence of tradition. Terms like furusato no daidokoro (the ancestral village kitchen), fukuro no aji (mom’s home cooking) and Tosa no aji (flavors of Tosa) contribute to disseminating an affective image of a cuisine that lives in the past. In the Kochi newspaper monthly “delicious Tosa” section, the reader learns about traditional dishes and their place in daily practices of the past. More than mere nostalgia for a flavor of the past, these columns articulate nostalgia for a way of life. Here, as well as elsewhere with tradition, one grows nostalgic for a cuisine and its flavors because they are intimately linked to a way of life.
Food one feels nostalgic for acquires a deliciousness that transcends the chemical reactions on the palate. Country cuisine (inaka ryori) and farmer’s restaurants (noka resutoran) attract wide numbers because they taste good to consumers in search of authentic taste. This food is good because it is more than a taste of times past. Its taste incorporates a way of life that is remembered with clouded nostalgia by some and awaiting rediscovery by many. The popularity in Kochi of country sushi (inaka sushi) made from mountain vegetables instead of raw fish exemplifies nostalgia that residents feel for life in the mountain village. This type of sushi tastes delicious because it reminds the consumer of days long gone when fresh fish was not available in the mountains and even rice was a treat as it did not grow readily in the mountains.
Traditions and flavors
In rural communities across Kochi, these flavors, like many other traditions of the past, are slowly eroding under the assault of the industrialization of the local diet and an aging population. The prefectural government in concordance with women’s cooperatives and local businesses have taken active steps in trying to reverse this unavoidable process of cultural transformation through a system of regional food certification. This system of local appellations enables the monopoly of a specific dish at the expense of other regions that might have practiced similar food traditions in the past. For example, seared skipjack tuna (katsuo no tataki) is now considered the specialty of the coastal city of Tosa Kure. This tacit monopoly is solidified via tourist food guides, regional food specialties maps and newspaper articles. The process cementing the legitimacy of certain dishes and flavors in particular places can easily become a battleground where political and economical interests are at stake.
In the end, few traditional flavors make the cut, as they are often hard to relate to for those not accustomed to them. Some flavors have lost favor because they are so unconventional that they require a particular social context for the consumer to get accustomed to them. In the mountains of Kochi, older residents eat a traditional dish of brown acorn jelly with a sharp bitter taste (kashikiri). Today, the dish is almost extinct, as younger generations cannot stomach such a flavor. Mushiyokan, steamed sweet potatoes and bean cake, is another dish that is slowly going out of favor. Relatively palatable to the younger generations, it is difficult to incorporate in most meals, as it does not fit the structure of the modern meal being neither a side dish nor a desert. In both cases, the loss of popularity engenders a rapid decline in the lengthy preparation required for these traditional flavors. As the techniques of preparation are forgotten so is the taste for such unusual dishes.
In the region of Kochi, significant efforts are put in place to transmit an appreciation of these flavors. School programs and traditional activities help to a certain extent to stem the tide. However, cultural change, especially when it comes to cuisine and taste, can hardly be stopped. Culture, even traditional culture, cannot afford to remain static if it is to conserve meaning and allow people to relate to it. As these changes take place, one can only feel a sense of nostalgia caused by the imminent disappearance of flavors so unique they defined people’s lives. The preservation and revival of these disappearing flavors through local products and traditional cuisine are in fact an effort to reconnect with a particular time and place. The characteristic taste of nostalgia is epitomized by this desire to reconnect with something lost. The issue at hand here is not resistance to change but instead keeping alive a deeply emotional and intimate pleasure.
Creighton, Millie. 1997 Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry. Ethnology: 239–254.
Holtzman, Jon D. 2006. Food and Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 35(1): 361–378.
Ivy, Marilyn. 1995. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. University of Chicago Press.
Love, Bridget. 2010. Mountain Vegetables and the Politics of Local Flavors in Japan. In Japanese Foodways, Past and Present. 1st Edition. Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann, eds. University of Illinois Press.
Proust, Marcel. 2006. Remembrance of Things Past. Wordsworth Editions.
Robertson, Jennifer. 1988. Furusato Japan: The Culture and Politics of Nostalgia. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1(4): 494–518.
Sutton, David E. 2001. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. First Edition. Berg Publishers.
Yano, Christine R. 2003. Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. Harvard University Asia Center.