I love cooking and eating and that is largely because of anime and manga (and video games).
It’s only recently I made this connection. Food and the act of eating is something that was fraught with anxiety for me as a teenager. In middle school, my shifting body and American standards of beauty in the 90s and early 2000s collided to give me an eating disorder. I struggled with it into my twenties, and even now I have to work hard to avoid slipping into disordered patterns of thought. This is a frequent reality for our students, who also contend with unhealthy options and food deserts wherein junk food with dull flavor profiles mean that their relationships with food are inherently problematic, political, and often unhealthy.
It was only through the act of learning about Japanese food and food culture that I found myself building a positive relationship with food, and in turn, the body that food nourishes.
American society ascribes a certain level of shame to the act of eating and the enjoyment of eating. We’ve gotten better in recent years, but students may often feel disconnected from food or the experience of trying new food. I want to explore how food and its portrayals in Japanese media can help students build a more positive relationship with the fuel we put in our body, deepen student enjoyment of these media, and even provide opportunities for personal enrichment and career opportunities.
First, though, let’s talk a bit about Japanese food culture.
You can’t talk about Japanese food without cooked rice, or gohan (ごはん). Rice is the center of Japanese food culture, to the point that the word for meal is the word for cooked rice. Japanese households are almost guaranteed to have a high quality electric rice cooker. These appliances cook rice perfectly and keep it warm for days (if necessary, although the odds of the rice not being eaten in that time span are slim). Rice is eaten for all three meals, and Japanese cooking has a variety of methods of eating it, from a plain side dish to onigiri (rice balls).
There’s a lot of talk about what it is that makes a Japanese diet so healthy, although it basically comes down to a diet high in fish, fermented foods, and vegetables. As an island nation, meat and dairy products are less accessible. However, Japan has its fair share of sweets and junk food. Some of my favorite Japanese foods are patently unhealthy: karaage (a fried chicken dish), tamago sando (an egg salad sandwich which has the benefit of using Japanese mayo, which is lower in fat, but also calls for an addition of sugar to the mix), and an unending list of sweet “pans” or breads. What seems to play into the relative health of the Japanese as a nation, though, is that healthier options are just as readily available as the less healthy options. At a Japanese 7/11, you can get all of those dishes, but you can also get a variety of far healthier options. YouTube is filled with videos documenting the offerings at conbini (convenience stores), if you’re curious. I personally recommend videos by TabiEats, run by a couple living in Japan, which is comprehensive and also includes very accessible recipes.
The key is that Japanese people have more options if they’re too busy for home cooking.
But what stands out to me is how joyous manga characters are when eating. Food is seen, through this lens, as a gateway to bliss. In American media, a character actively eaten is seen as piggish and greedy, or at the very least, irresponsible. Think of Homer Simpson and his donuts. Think of every time you watched a cartoon character eat. Generally, it would have been to excess, and other characters would regularly deride that character for poor decision making.
What Japanese media does, in general, is to celebrate food. The Japanese (and, honestly, most Asian countries) simply have a different relationship with food. Perhaps it has to do with food being integral to ceremonial aspects of Japanese life, or to a complex history involving famine and times of economic hardship. My husband, whose mother lived through famine in North Korea, has instilled within him a need to clean his plate and not put food to waste. Americans, nowadays, are perhaps removed enough from our Depression-era anxieties that we have lost our great-grandparents’ anxieties.
An important early scene from my life as an anime fan was the below scene from InuYasha. Upon returning to her world after many mishaps in feudal Japan, Kagome is ecstatic to find out her mother has made oden. At the time, my relationship with food was probably the worst it ever was. I was in treatment for an eating disorder. I didn’t bring lunch to school, opting instead to just eat the crusts from my best friend’s turkey sandwiches. I was given lunch money, but I was blowing it on Mountain Dew. Seeing Kagome so eager to eat made me curious. What was this magic food that caused such effusive joy?
The episode I saw had a bad translation, and it translated oden as udon. So, I went on a hunt to get udon noodles. Udon is very different from oden. Oden is a hotpot or nabemono dish, so it’s closer to a stew. It also has fishcakes in it. Oden, is, honestly not the most approachable to an American palette. In a Japanese context, it makes perfect sense for a scene of homecoming and celebrating home cooking. It’s a comfort food, traditionally eaten on cold nights. It would have been fairly impossible for me to try at the time, so the mistranslation was almost helpful. Udon noodles are insanely versatile. Thicker than popular Italian pastas, it’s really good at being simple and filling, and grabbing onto sauces. A quick search for udon on Google will bring up a seemingly infinite number of dishes.
The ease with which udon could be cooked and simply put in a simple sauce made it a perfect beginner dish. I also tried soba and somen, and of course I ate ramen. I began to develop a positive relationship with food based in curiosity: can I like food the way that character likes food? I wanted to know what made food less fuel and more joy. And for me, anime was what got me there.
Nowadays, I’m a fairly proficient cook. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur… my brother is a Cordon Bleu trained chef who works for Disney and has won cooking competitions. But I don’t know if I would be so proficient in the kitchen if it weren’t for the curiosity I had.
Students often express that same curiosity. It may be even more pronounced because food based manga and anime has become in vogue lately. I regularly pack bento boxes, and if a student sees me eating from it, they get curious. I’ve even been asked if I can teach them how to do it.
Which brings us to what we can do in the library to foster this curiosity and help our students to have a positive relationship with food.
Bento box making looks complicated, especially if you’re looking at what’s called “decoben”. These are works of art, and are either for making food more appealing to children who are picky eaters or for purely artistic purposes.
However, a regular bento box can still look cute but not require hours of careful assembly and cooking. In the resource list, I’ll share some YouTube videos which give a basic rundown. A bento making program would be a lot of fun. I’m lucky enough to have a culinary program on campus, so we’ve talked about teaming up the program and the anime club for a quick bento program.
Trying various Japanese snacks also helps students to experience Japan without cooking. If you’re near a Japanese supermarket, this can be fairly easy to accommodate. If you’re not, your local grocery store is likely to have the most popular Japanese snack among foreign otaku: Pocky. I’ve even seen this once hard to find snack in WalMart. While Pocky isn’t really the best indicator of Japanese food, it’s something to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in. You can also try a Japanese food subscription box or order snacks online.
The following are blogs, YouTube channels, and books related to Japanese food which can help you plan your own programming. I’ll publish a list of manga and anime with descriptions separately later this week.
Little Miss Bento: Primarily a showcase of bento designs, there are recipes available.
Just One Cookbook: An outstanding blog (and YouTube channel) with easy to follow recipes and great explanations.
TabiEats: This Japan-based couple is dedicated to sharing delicious food from their life in Japan and travels around the world. Their recipes are very easy to follow, and they also regularly review strange cooking gadgets.
Cooking With Dog: An excellent Japanese home chef cooks delicious homestyle Japanese food with narration from her dog, Francis. Francis did pass away within the past couple of years, but he continues to narrate the recipes. Honestly, I refer to this channel a LOT in my own cooking. Every step is clearly outlined, and the presentation is all about the cooking.
In my post yesterday, I threw out a word that I realized might have basically no meaning without context. This word was moe (萌え).
Moe is when you feel a strong feeling of affection or attraction toward a character in a piece of media. Usually there is a cuteness or kawaii (かわいい) factor. It’s very emotion-driven term. The word comes from moeru (萌える), which means to “blossom”. There’s a pun involved, though, because the word moe (燃え) means “burning”. If you didn’t notice, these words were written differently in Japanese.
Moe is something that actually gets the anime community a bit worked up. Some people argue that it’s ruining the genre. Others are obsessed with their animated waifus and husbandos. It’s a… complicated thing, to be honest.
Part of the issue is that moe is generally manufactured to explicitly appeal to men. The term started off as just a general affection that cannot be suppressed by otaku, but now tends to mean a very specific type of female character. She’s hyper cute, possibly clumsy, constantly flustered, and innately innocent.
Moe characters can be highly problematic. Some of them are obviously sexualized, which is disturbing when another key element is that they are childlike in most depictions. Moe can also be highly confusing to people outside of the community. For example, there’s a series of manga, anime, video games, and light novels about personified game consoles battling for dominance. It’s called Hyperdimension Neptunia (超次元ゲイム ネプテューヌ). Trying to explain, in depth, what these games are is a daunting task. And if I’m honest, these games are about building up the moe in the fanbase until they reach a fever pitch. It’s how they’ve managed to make sixteen games based off the premise. Fans get figures and body pillows of these characters.
If one’s moe for a character reaches a fever pitch, a fan might consider her his “waifu”. I want to make something super clear, by the way, because this is not a solely Japanese phenomenon. This is unified across many, many otaku from all nations. The idea of a waifu (or a husbando) is that she is who the living human being considers to be their actual significant other. Otaku build shrines to their waifu. They buy them birthday cakes.
Sometimes, they marry them. Kondo Akihiko married Hatsune Miku in 2018. Hatsune Miku is a virtual reality singer designed by Crypton Future for their Vocaloid software. Kondo has a Gatebox, which creates a hologram and AI of Hatsune Miku and their own character, Azuma Hikari. Miku-chan and Hikari-chan are polygamous: Gatebox reports that they have issued 3,700 wedding certificates to owners of their product.
Moe as a concept for which it is difficult for me to come to a definite conclusion. I consider myself a lover of kawaii, or cute, culture. There are characters who are made to appeal to moe fans who I like. A lot of the anime which cashes in on moe depicts a solely female cast, with female friendship at the core. K-On! (a definitively moe title) is a tale of a group of girls learning to play instruments. Three of the songs from K-On! are on my favorites playlist. But sometimes, like when I tried playing Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection years ago, I get the distinct impression that this thing about girls is not necessarily for girls (mostly when I was tasked with giving one of these girls a bath and I quickly turned off the game). And I get uncomfortable with the idea of someone sexualizing these characters, or deciding that they have more value than real women.
I would like to point out a series which has moe characters which I believe has a lot of value. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of moe and magical girl tropes. It actually gets quite dark and the cuteness comes with a terrible price. I’ll talk about the series later down the road.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that manga will circ.
Manga flies off of school library shelves when it’s present. We stock up on Naruto, Fairy Tail, and My Hero Academia like crazy, knowing that it will circulate and bring students through the door. But I often hear a lot of trepidation from my peers about manga when they first start to actually look through the pages. In forthcoming deep dives, I’ll go into why this trepidation is not unwarranted, and what can be done to deal with some of the issues many professionals may run into with manga.
In this first post, I really want to focus on my relationship with not only manga, but the general world of Japanese pop culture and where my knowledge comes from on the topic.
To start off, I am not Japanese. I’m a white woman who grew up in Orlando in a lower middle class household. I cannot speak for Japanese people, and my framing is going to focus on taking in the media in an American cultural context, so that we are best servicing our school populations. I’ve studied Japanese culture, and I have basic skills in the language. My husband is half-Korean, which is in no way the same as Japanese. This is a vital cultural distinction which I impress on my students, because there is a history which needs to be acknowledged in Asia between the various cultures and people. We’ll talk in a later post about the rise in interest in Korean pop culture among fans of Japanese pop culture, and what we as school librarians can do to educate our students to be sensitive to those historical and current issues. Studying and enjoying a culture can be fun and positive, but only when it’s done sensitively and with context. Something which all teachers deal with in our classrooms is creating context for comprehension.
So, let’s rewind back a couple decades to when I started taking in Japanese culture. To be honest, I had been “into anime” from an early age, starting with Sailor Moon. The difference was that I didn’t know it was anime. I just knew I liked it. In general, I’m a fan of mahou shoujo 魔法少女 or magical girl content. Sailor Moon has always been a positive energy in my life, and many people my age who identify as women can look back on Sailor Moon as their first exposure to a story about girls working together and supporting each other. I can look back fondly on other shows which were syndicated in the US that I also enjoyed: CardCaptor Sakura, Escaflowne, and others. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered manga and “subbed” anime (anime subtitled by fans for fans). I don’t remember my moment of discovery, honestly. One day, I was just passing manga like Fushigi Yūgi and InuYasha around with my friends and camping out in Borders bookstores for hours. My hours spent waiting for the release of Order of the Phoenix were dedicated to reading a metric ton of shōjo manga (shōjo is aimed at girls, which is actually the translation of the word).
With an interest in manga and anime came an interest in Japanese fashion (I was a lolita, stopped for a while, and now am a classic lolita who only dresses up for special occasions), food, and dressing up in costume. I also was an avid video game player, and my favorite games came from Japan. My rapidly mounting obsession was fueled by the rise on the internet of communities for the sharing and discussion of these interests on LiveJournal and other smaller forums. This is the story of most Western anime fans my age.
Many fellow educators share that they feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the subculture. For a teen who is just starting an interest in Japanese pop culture, the available content is infinitely deeper and broader than what I had available. We didn’t have Crunchyroll or manga available at the public library.
As time has gone by, my interest hasn’t really waned. My preferences for genre have changed. Now, I like what is called josei 女性 manga, which is written for women in their twenties and thirties. I prefer slice of life anime, meaning anime that focuses on the trials and absurdities of daily life. While I used to wear cosplay and sweet lolita fashion, I put my kawaii interests more into my accessories and home decor. I also have learned, through an extensive education and background in literary criticism and librarianship (as well as classroom teaching) to read content from Japan far more critically. And when I offer material to students, even if it’s something they’re already reading, I need to at least browse it. For me, it’s easy. My interest in Japanese pop culture is part of my social life.
I’m not a fan of Black Clover, Fairy Tail, or any of the other titles that students read obsessively, but I’m aware of their basic gist, current status in the community, and creators. I know the tropes of shōnen 少年 manga, and thus what to talk about. Students also know that I’m a fan of manga, and it’s easy for me to say, “Hey, I really loved this title” and guide students toward gentler reads or engage them in conversations about the way they treat female characters.
If I notice an anime is picking up in popularity, I’ll watch the first episode on Crunchyroll or Netflix. And I’ll be honest in my criticism of certain elements when I talk with students. I think my open admission that some titles aren’t for me and why gives students a way to examine these texts. Some will give a defense, some will admit that they also noticed certain things. As a librarian, my job is to provide the text. As a school librarian, my job is to deepen students’ analysis of text.
Moving forward, I’ll be reviewing individual titles, but will also do deep dive explanations about genres of manga, cultural elements, and issues. The first title I’ll be reviewing is one that I feel is great for the high school library: Princess Jellyfish (also known as Kuragehime 海月姫). And our first deep dive will come in a couple weeks, where we examine the treatment of female characters in popular manga titles.