The Sounds of Food

Guest post by Henry Johnson

There are many sounds connected with food in Okinawa, just as there are the world over. Whether the sounds are heard during the food preparation process or during consumption, the soundscape of food in its broadest sense does much to connect cuisine and culture. 

Sounds are also connected to food in advertising and entertainment. The musical sounds of touristic Okinawa are particularly characterized by their association with live house venues and their relationship with food. In the urban settings of downtown Naha or Koza, or indeed any other entertainment setting, culinary delights are often accompanied by performances of shima uta (island song), traditional or contemporary, with accompanying Okinawan musical instruments and vocal style. 

Walking along the main streets of downtown Naha or Koza, there are multitudinous live houses, restaurants and cafes, all catering for the touristic appetite, and most of which display music and food of numerous types and settings, whether to entice customers to enter their establishment or to provide live entertainment during dining. (The pandemic has impacted much on Okinawa’s tourist industry.) On Kokusai-dōri (International Road) in Naha, for example, and in many similar locations, business facades are often laced with images of food along with pictures of local performers, offering appetising and enticing settings that have cuisine, culture and entertainment at their core.

But what is Okinawan cuisine? Is it different to elsewhere in Japan? As a Japanese prefecture (the most southerly in Japan), there are many influences in Okinawa from all over Japan. As a site of US occupation, with continuing military bases, and touristic culture, there are innumerable types of global cuisine on offer. But Okinawa also has its own distinct tastes, which are capitalised on as markers of local culture and in contradistinction to national and international flavours. From Sapporo ramen to American burgers, the tastes of the world complement specific Okinawan delicacies. 

Okinawa’s flavours are vast. Local ingredients mixed with Ryūkyūan customs offer a range of items distinct to the prefecture. Such local cuisine as nakami-jiru (soup with pork entrails), jīmamī tōfu (peanut butter), umibudō (seaweed), rafutē (pork), inamuruchi (pork soup), and ikasumi-jiru (squid ink soup) are typical local recipes, but with many others too. There are also dishes that Okinawans have brought back to the prefecture, such as rotisserie chicken from Peru and Argentina, and pork tamago (spam) from the US. Even in Live House Shimauta (Nenez’ base), the menus come with recommendations from the group themselves, such as tako raisu (squid and rice) and jīmamī tōfu

But if there is one notion of Okinawan cuisine that might represent Okinawan culture, then that is the idea of chanpurū (“mixed together”). There are many recipes that literally mix together a main ingredient with others, such as gōya chanpurū (bittermelon), fū chanpurū (wheat gluten), tōfu chanpurū, and papaya chanpurū. With the idea of mixing in mind, chanpurūis directly connected with neo-traditional Okinawan popular music, which itself mixes the sounds of popular music with traditional instruments and vocal styles. While live house settings might include traditional or neo-traditional pop, or even eisā dancing accompanied by an Okinawan pop music soundtrack, the entertainment setting of food, drink and song would typically include much audience participation and characteristic Okinawan dancing. 

Uchinā pop is Okinawan popular music: it defines Nenez’ style, it’s the sound of touristic Okinawa, and it represents Okinawa locally, nationally and internationally with acts such as Nenez, Kina Shoukichi, Begin, and many others.

Henry Johnson is Professor of Music at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He has published widely in the field of Japanese music, including three monographs (The Koto, 2004; The Shamisen, 2010; The Shakuhachi, 2014), edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles in international journals such as Asian MusicEthnomusicology ForumJournal of World Popular Music and Perfect Beat.

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