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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Asian Miscellany (13)—Food and Drink in Heian Japan

[a] Modern food RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For the next dozen or so posts, I have been asked to write about Heian Japan (794-1185). It is one of the most fascinating periods in world history, so I trust that the topics will "connect" for readers of the first ten "Asian Miscellany" posts (almost all of the topics—children, family, urban/rural—are the same). They work well for people interested in a brief introduction to Heian Japan or for people interested in comparative issues. Although an introduction to the Heian period in Japan would require its own introduction, I trust that a reading of these "Heian Japan posts (11-20 in Asian Miscellany) will encourage a few of you to read a bit of the literature of the period.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter
Food and Drink in Heian Japan
Anyone who has studied even a little bit of history from various parts of the world knows that food has value in every society far beyond it caloric and health-sustaining benefits. People think about, argue over, and remain fascinated by the food they eat, and as much time goes into the many layers of preparation of a meal as the eating of it. Even that does not begin to approach the overwhelming cultural significance of food in Japanese history. What people ate and drank is actually quite well documented, even for the Heian era a thousand years ago. As has been the case for centuries, the story begins with the all-consuming importance of rice in East Asian culture.
[b] Mixed modern RF

The Staple Grain

The archaeological evidence about early Japanese society shows a transition from a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture to one dominated by rice cultivation in increasingly stable village patterns. Introduced from China, rice has come to be more powerfully associated with Japan than any other Asian society, and the grain evokes a wide array of cultural ideas that go far beyond its role as a staple food. The earliest ritual texts in Japanese history are closely associated with the agricultural patterns of rice growing and the implications for livelihood to be found in the ears of the rice stalk. 

Few stories in Japanese history speak as clearly of the relationship between wealth and rice (throughout Japanese history, rice was a standard measure of “salary”) than a folktale from the early Heian period. Called “How a Sparrow Repaid Its Debt of Gratitude,” it tells of a nasty young boy who threw a rock and broke a sparrow’s leg.[1]  A kindly old woman scolded the boy and cared for the bird, which flew away when it had recovered. Weeks later, the bird returned with seeds in its beak for the old woman. She planted them, and at harvest time enormous calabashes filled with never-diminishing supplies of rice continued to pour forth, making her first comfortable and then wealthy. The story goes on to show that only the well intentioned and caring will be rewarded, and not the stingy and calculating. The lasting image, however, is rice. In Heian Japan, no other image of wealth would make as much sense for listeners.

Food Variety in Heian Japan
[c] Shabu RF
It is scarcely possible to speak of Japanese food—in Heian times or today—without mentioning fish. A nation of islands, not even the locations farthest inland are particularly distant from the seas. Even with the slower travel of Heian times, the seas dominated the practical and imaginative dimensions of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, freshwater fish in the region of the capital was plentiful, found in various rivers as well as Japan’s largest lake, only sixty kilometers away, Lake Biwa. In Heian times, however, seafood was balanced with a wide range of game, nuts, and other items found in the dense forests beyond both villages and the capital. Nonetheless, even a thousand years ago the forests and streams were being depleted, to the point where several emperors decreed bans on hunting certain animals. Increasingly, Japan came to be dominated by a cuisine founded on rice, vegetables, a bit of game, and fish. 

At about the same time, and for reasons that had as much to do with borrowings from China as eating preferences at home, chopsticks became the standard utensil, first among aristocrats and later, by the end of Heian times, in the provinces as well. Four kinds of food formed the mainstay of elaborate dining in Heian Japan—dried foods, fresh foods, pickled or fermented foods, and desserts. Within each of these categories, a large array of varieties could be presented at any one festival banquet, and it is possible to see this pattern of cooking and presentation today in the more elaborate meals one might enjoy in various lodgings in Japan.

The drink of choice in Heian times was sake, a fermented beverage that is often referred to as rice wine. This is a slight misnomer, because the brewing techniques more closely resemble the fermenting process used throughout the world to make beers rather than wines. Some of the earliest Japanese texts refer to this beverage in the context of festival entertainment, and its use had been solidified by Heian times as an increasingly common drink among wealthy families. 
[d] Wagashi RF

It would be a mistake, on the other hand, to think of tea (what we often think of in the West as “green tea”) as a common beverage. The first seedlings were brought from China during the great period of borrowing from the Tang dynasty in the sixth through eight centuries. In Heian times, tea was a relatively rare but highly esteemed beverage that was admired as much for its medicinal qualities as its taste. What came to be known as the “tea ceremony” grew out of this relationship between distinctiveness, healthfulness, and taste. Nothing like the tea ceremony that would develop in later centuries was apparent in the Heian, but the first glimmers of it were found in the festival banquet life in the capital city of Heian Kyō. 
***  ***
Foods and beverages are cultural. They are also situated historically in sometimes surprising ways. Items we often think about today as “Japanese food and drink” (rice, seafood, sake, and tea) were only in the opening stages of their introduction to Japanese society, and the ways in which we observe them today would likely seem overly “comfortable” to a Heian banquet host. While none of these linchpins of Japanese cuisine would seem “new” to them (except, perhaps, tea) all were in such a process of mixing, matching, and elaborating that it would take many more centuries to create the ways we think today of Japanese cuisine. In Heian times, it was new and ever changing.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter
[e] Modern variety RF

[1] David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 77-78.
Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.


  1. Hi Robert, You will hate me for writing and I probably should not hit the send button but I always react to food articles…you know I always was interested in food culture. You’ve written a delightful series on the H period and it sounds very glorious….perhaps too glorious? I see that you cite David Lu and I haven’t read his book, nor do I have any citations to offer, nor am I interested in pursuing a research project. That being said, I question whether some of the assertions are really substantiated by evidence or, like so much of Japanese history, based on common mythology. I read this as if I were helping my kid do a report on the H. period and asked myself if I am walking away with an accurate portrayal of Japanese culture. Being the skeptic I am, and fed up with Japan, I felt like it painted a more grandiose image than is justified.
    As you said, most of the written evidence of the era comes from the aristocracy, so it has to be clear to the average reader, who might consult this site for information, that these descriptions apply to a very small percent of the population – one percent? That begs the question, what was H. Japan like for everyone else? If there isn’t enough documentation to write about the general population, then the title should reflect that this is about the court life during the H. era.

  2. Thanks, Karen. I apologize for not replying earlier, but I just noticed this (for some reason, the software doesn't tell me when there is a new comment). This is, of course, the nightmare of anyone who tries to write for a general audience. As I do even more of that in the coming months, this is a very useful cautionary note. The one thing you won't hear me say is that "it's for a general it doesn't matter." No, I hold myself to higher standards than that, and generally accept your criticisms. I especially regret not making the rice discussion more complex. I only had 1,000 words with which to work, but I could well have at least mentioned the great scene in Seven Samurai when the farmers are eating millet. It is ironic that a huge part of my teaching on Japan emphasizes the subtleties of rice as symbol and (perceived, imaginary) staple. In fact, my entire midterm assignment is based on this. Alas. As for fish, I'll just take my knocks. I could try to defend it, but you've anticipated (rightly) some of the angles. I would say, finally, that the pictures have more to do with copyright laws than anything else. I never even thought of them as trying to back up my argument. I only can use free images, so all of them are meant more as little baubles than attempts to augment the argument. Absolutely you are right about wagashi. It hadn't occurred to me that the pictures were anything but occasionally anachronistic little figurines.

    I do think that your points are well taken. I would recommend the Lu source reader, even though it is (as my students always say) very "dry." I really have to think about general readership writing, though. This is truly a cautionary tale for me. Thanks again, Karen. This is helpful (and necessary).