Japanese Food in Anime and Manga and Reaching Students

Japanese Food in Anime and Manga and Reaching Students

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 guys from TabiEats show off a dinner from a 7/11 in Japan- vastly different from the offerings at our North American convenience stores.

The key is that Japanese people have more options if they’re too busy for home cooking.

These panels from the Girl Food manga anthology show a young girl delighting in her kawaii (cute) bento (lunch box).

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.

Jughead displays the typical American cartoon gluttony.

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?

Kagome, the protagonist of InuYasha, revels in the presence of oden, a type of nabemono dish consisting of various fishcakes, proteins, and vegetables in dashi broth.

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.

From Little Miss Bento.

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.

Resources

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.

Blogs

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.

YouTube Channels

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.

Just One Cookbook: The YouTube channel for the blog listed above.

Books

Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond: A Cookbook by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Published by Ten Speed Press. 2013. ISBN: 1607743523

Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Maki Ogawa and Crystal Watanabe. Published by Quirk Books. 2010. ISBN: 9781594744471

Moe: A Quick Primer

Moe: A Quick Primer

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.

A shrine to Mio from K-On!, courtesy of Reddit.

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.

Next up, though, is The Ancient Magus’ Bride.

Manga and Women: Buying Manga for School Libraries in the #MeToo Era

Manga and Women: Buying Manga for School Libraries in the #MeToo Era

When I talk to other school librarians about manga and anime, many of them voice a similar concern: the manga they see has horrible treatment of women. These are not invalid concerns, especially as school librarians are working to make their collections more inclusive and affirming. And when students are requesting series that depict sexual harassment and assault as comedic occurrences (I’m looking at you, Seven Deadly Sins), or at the very least, series which treat women solely as sexual or romantic beings, I can’t blame my colleagues for their hesitation.

That said, there’s a lot to unpack with this debate. There are elements of Japanese society that are inherently different from American society. Many school librarians also know nothing of the distinctions between genres of manga, or have only heard of what’s most popular among their patrons. Manga is often seen as the way to get boys reading, and so masculine titles tend to be extremely popular for purchasing. What I’m going to do is try to unpack these things, piece by piece, to try and provide some context- and maybe show my peers that the stereotypes of shōnen manga are not all there is out there to purchase.

Societal Differences in the Perception of Gender

If we all work from the supposition that gender is a social construct, then perhaps it might be easier to understand that Japan’s constructs are similar and different to Western constructs. Japanese media can come across as being both freer and stricter with gender roles. Here are a few things you need to understand about Japan in relation to women:

  • Japan is ranked 110 out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s annual report on gender equality.
  • There is only one female member of the Japanese Cabinet.
  • As of 2017, only 3.4% of executives in Japan were women.
  • The ratio of female-to-male physicians in Japan is 21%.
  • Japan has been trying to improve the standing of women in society, but it’s been difficult.
  • Japan is only recently starting to think critically about these issues.

Japan has a long history of having a traditional gender balance of labor wherein women are expected to raise children and take care of housekeeping, while men are expected to work. Japanese society generally has a very heavy line down the center in this division, much more so than there currently is in the West. Since 1986, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law has been in place to try and provide more gender equity in the workplace in Japan, but it’s been a struggle. Part of the problem is that there was no penalty for employers who did not adhere to the changes.

Japan, also, has a serious problem with the way it handles and reports sexual harassment and assault. Certain occurrences which Western women consider assault are not necessarily seen as such by Japanese women. In her article, “Shifting attitudes toward sexual violence in Japan”, Masami Ito describes her experiences:

When I was in junior high school, a young man who lived in the same apartment building flashed me in an elevator, blocking the entrance as he did so.

When I was in college, a middle-aged man cornered me in the box seat on a train and masturbated in front of me.

When I was in my mid-20s, a man pressed himself against me in the aisle of a convenience store and then followed me home. I had to call my father for help that time.

And, of course, I have been groped on trains many, many times.

Until recently, I never considered these incidents to be sexual assaults, nor did I ever view myself as a victim. I told myself that such things happened all the time and I was never physically hurt. I compared my experiences to those of other women and I considered myself lucky.

In Japan, there’s even a word for men who grope women on crowded trains: chikan. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department reported 1,750 cases of groping on the trains. (I attempted to find figures on this particular crime in NYC from the same year, but was unable to find any exact report of figures.) It’s such a common occurrence, it’s often a plot point in manga. In My Love Story!! the protagonist meets his future girlfriend by stopping a man from groping her.

Viz Media. Let me say right now, before I move on, that I absolutely love My Love Story!!.

I want to be clear, and maybe the panels of My Love Story!! do something to show this, that the problems of sexual harassment in Japan are seen as problems by people in the country. There are Japanese feminists and citizens who want things to change. Last year, the BBC released a documentary titled Japan’s Secret Shame, which went into the experiences of three different women who were raped in Japan. It’s not available at the moment, but if you can find a way to see it, it may give insight into the issue if you want to know more.

Shōnen, Shōjo, and So Much More

The complaints I hear the most are in relation to what is known as shōnen manga. Shōnen is geared toward boys between ages 12 and 18. There’s a reason this stuff flies off the shelf with our male-identifying patrons: it’s literally made for them. The longest running series in Japan are shōnen manga, and are household names here in the West (you’ve probably heard of Dragonball Z, I presume). Typically, these are high-action, hyper-masculine stories. And while there are exceptions, such as My Hero Academia, there’s a large history of “fan service” in shōnen. There’s also some pretty big issues with some of the creators of shōnen titles.

For example, the author of Rurouni Kenshin was found with an enormous backlog of child pornography DVDs. Not only did he have this material, he admitted his attraction to young girls. His manga is currently still in publication, after he paid a fine of only ¥200,000 (about $1,800 USD). No, I am not joking.

I don’t want you to come away from this thinking shōnen manga is evil, by the way. What I want is for fellow school librarians to know that what they’re seeing is just a fraction of what manga has to offer. Some shōnen has female protagonists (Yotsuba&! features a mostly female cast with little to no fan service, as its main character is a child). And a lot of women and girls read shōnen.

Shōjo manga is the counterpart to shōnen: manga written for girls between the ages of 12 and 18. Honestly, shōjo can have its own issues. Some titles feature girls whose identities revolve solely around romance or a desire to get married and make babies. Kidnapping and threats of sexual assault can be normal (the idea being that these girls need to be saved by their boyfriends, who frequently are much older than them). There’s a whole slew of manga revolving around schoolgirls having romantic relationships with their teachers. So, I also don’t want you to think that being labeled shōjo makes the content automatically appropriate for students.

I recently reread a manga I loved as a teen, Ayashi no Ceres. It featured multiple rather explicit sex scenes and the main character dropping out of school to have a baby. It was an easy decision to select other series over that one, although I still consider it a classic. I leave it to students to select series with those sort of themes at their own pace through alternate pathways such as the public library, bookstores, or manga apps.

However, I do want to point out that shōjo manga is a category in which feminine fantasy and identity is often at the forefront. And while this is the case, there are many shōjo manga which widely appeal to boys. Titles which spring to mind are Escaflowne and Magic Knight Rayearth.

There are other categories as well: seinan (for adult men), josei (for adult women), kodomo (for children), and gekiga (for adults, with a more “artistic” and “literary” reputation). The differentiation between adults and teens has more to do with the difficulty of the Japanese than the content or target demographic. Gekiga is probably the most “different”, because it strives to be taken more seriously. (I have a plan to talk more in-depth about each category in their own posts).

Look For Women

When purchasing, if you are looking to move away from the pure moe that is popular among certain titles, I’d suggest looking for women who are mangaka. The likelihood that problematic behavior will be present is lower, and honestly, women creators can always use the boost. Series that are beloved by boys are written by women: Fullmetal Alchemist, Inu-Yasha, and Ranma 1/2 are examples (admittedly, the latter two were both written by Takahashi Rumiko).

Note: I kept this fairly pared down, so if you’d like to know more or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment. If you would like me to go more in depth on any topic, please let me know, and I will do an expansion in a future blog.