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Food and Japanese Popular Culture

BROOKE MCCORKLE OKAZAKI, AUTHOR OF SHONEN KNIFE’S HAPPY HOUR, ON FOOD IN JAPANESE CULTURE AND MEDIA. 


Why does Shonen Knife have so many songs about food? In my 33 ⅓ Japan book, Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll, I explore some explanations to this questionIn this series of blog posts, I investigate more deeply the relevance of food and Japanese culture to the Osaka-based band. Building off my book’s argument that Shonen Knife concocts a delicious combination of cute and cool in their music about food, I examine the different ways food plays a pivotal part of Japanese culture and suggest that this laid the foundation for Shonen’s Knife’s culinary-inspired songs. I hope you enjoy and warning, you might want to have some snacks on hand!  

Most fans can agree on two facts about Shonen Knife: first, it’s impossible to be sad while listening to them; second, it’s equally impossible to not get hungry. Ranging from songs about savory ramen to sweet candies, Shonen Knife’s tunes work a synethesial magic on listeners’ tummies. Their forty-plus songs about food give new meaning to the phrase “musical taste.” But why does Shonen Knife have so many songs about food? I develop a couple of answers to this question in Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll; one explanation is that food is a topic that all humans can relate to and take pleasure in, but that is not the only one. Japanese popular culture has a long history of fixating on food; you might say that the topic floats in the cultural ether like the sweet smell of baking chocolate chip cookies. In other words, it is not just Shonen Knife that is enthusiastic about food. The whole of Japanese mass media and popular culture is preoccupied with it. 

For example, variety shows and reality television regularly feature celebrities seeking out local restaurants, trying the latest food craze (the current trend is fruit-filled maritozzi), and competing in iron-chef style games. There’s even celebrities famous for their eating abilities, like the popular competitive eater Gal Sone. Fictional series are equally enchanted by food. Midnight Diner (深夜食堂) serves up stories with emotional oomph along with a series of Japanese comfort-food fare and the Netflix show Kantaro: The Sweet-Toothed Salary Man combines comedy and advertisement for Tokyo’s sweets scene. But shows about food are nothing new in Japan.

Gal Sone, competitive eater and celebrity (https://up-front.fandom.com/wiki/Sone_Natsuko
The title character from Kantaro: The Sweet Toothed Salary Man enjoys some Japanese shaved ice (kakikoori) (https://www.vulture.com/2019/03/aparna-nancherla-on-kantaro-the-sweet-tooth-salaryman.html)  

In the 1980s, a huge economic boom was happening in Japan, known as the bubble period. Tokyo had become a cosmopolitan city and food was an important symbol of urbane-ness, with highbrow French cuisine taking center stage. At the same time, anime and manga like Oishinbo, Mr. Ajikko, and even Jarinko Chie were exploring the relationships between food, cultural, and economic backgrounds in some serious ways. Created in 1973, Anpanman, a manga about a flying sweet-bean bun superhero literally soared to new heights of popularity in the 1980s with a hit anime series. Novels like Yoshimoto Banana’s Kitchen from 1988 attracted international attention and Itami Juzo’s film Tampopo (1985) elevated ramen noodles to an art form.  

Anpanman and his fellow baked good friends (https://www.tms-e.co.jp/global/alltitles/anpanman/060101.html

In sum, by the 1980s, food in Japan could symbolize lots of things beyond simply its ability to satiate hunger. This was a crucial transition for the role of food in J-Pop. For the previous generations that had experienced World War II and its immediate aftermath, the trauma of severe food shortages and starvation lingered in the collective cultural memory. It was in this context that post-war songs like “The Apple Song” (りんごの歌) became popular, as did “Minnesota Egg Seller,” both of which I outline in my book. So, when Shonen Knife formed and began singing songs about luxury sweets like chocolate bars and ice cream on Pretty Little Baka Guy (1985), they were participating not only in contemporary mass media’s enthusiasm for food. They were also subtly dealing with the economic evolution of Japan over the second half of the twentieth century and its emergence as an economic powerhouse in the 1980s. 

Brooke McCorkle Okazaki specializes in opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, film music, and the music of modern Japan. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, she is the co-author of Japan’s Green Monsters: Environmental Commentary in Kaijū Cinema (2018)and the author of Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll (2021). In the 2019-20 academic year, McCorkle Okazaki received a Japan Foundation Fellowship to complete her monograph Searching for Wagner in Japan. She currently splits her time between Osaka, Japan and Northfield, Minnesota, where she serves as an Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College.

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