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Talking Tasty in Japan

BROOKE MCCORKLE OKAZAKI, AUTHOR OF SHONEN KNIFE’S HAPPY HOUR, ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FOOD AND LANGUAGE


In my previous post I outlined some of the ways food permeates Japanese food and popular culture. In this one, I dig a little deeper into the connections between food and the Japanese language itself. As I mention in my book Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll, rice has historically been considered central to the Japanese diet and as a food it is loaded with cultural meaning. Indeed, the word for cooked rice, gohan (ご飯), is synonymous with meal. 

But there are several other words for rice that express various nuances. O-kome, or honorable rice, can mean either uncooked or cooked rice; hakumai and genmai are white and brown rice respectively. Especially delicious is shinmai, or “new rice” that is the first harvest of the season. Meshi (飯) is another word for cooked rice or meal, though it expresses a bit of a coarser attitude than gohan—it’s similar to the difference between food and chow. In formal situations, like at a restaurant, the server will employ some version of the set phrase “Meshi-agare kudasai,” or “Please enjoy the food,” but this “meshi” (召し) is different; it’s a verb used to convey consuming among other things. The usage is a little confusing, but it does make for some nice puns (also common in the Japanese language). Finally, another common word for cooked rice is manma; this is a cute baby word that is easy for infants to say. It sounds very similar to “mama,” which has taken on new meaning for me as a new mother in Japan. For my baby, I am synonymous with rice! 

A dish called “neko manma” or “cat rice”  (rice with dried fish flakes on top) (https://www.diningandcooking.com/289449/neko-manma-as-seen-in-midnight-dinner-s1e2/

In my time in Japan I’ve also learned quite a bit about the different ways to say “delicious” in Japanese. The two most common words, oishii (美味しい) and umai (美味い), both of which use the characters for “beautiful taste,” are frequently deployed. The latter is used a little more frequently by males or young people, but both words convey the same general meaning. But delivery is everything: how one says “oishii” or “umai” matters as much as the word itself. Because food is such a central part of variety shows, celebrities have mastered their reactions to sampling dishes, providing models for viewers to adopt and adapt in everyday life. For example, one might elongate the “i” at the end of oishii or umai to convey the joyful exuberance of a tasty morsel. Alternatively, a devourer might place a brief pause between the first and second syllables of umai to express shock at an incredible, delectable dish. Or the word can be delivered in a single breath that is a bold, instant declaration. 

Additionally, there are phrases expressing levels of deliciousness beyond oishii and umai.  The simplest way to emphasize tastiness is to add a chō (超) if you’re in the Tokyo area or meccha in the Kansai region as a prefix meaning ultra or super (i.e. chō oishii, mecha umai). Young people or those in the southern Kyushu island might say bari uma. Or if you’re feeling fancy, you can politely state oishūdegozaimasu. Lastly, gekiuma (激ウマ) or “extremely delicious,” is at the peak end of the delicious spectrum. In short, how one reacts to food is as much a cultivated art as the preparation of sushi or the serving of green tea. The Japanese language features a multitude of ways to express pleasure in eating. Likewise, Shonen Knife manifests this same jouissance via their diverse musical styles in their songs about food.

*Many thanks to Okazaki Michiko for helping me understand the nuances of deliciousness in the Japanese language


 

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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