A Japanese Thing: Yoshoku

28 September, 2009

Here’s an interesting article I found about Japanese Western food from a post on Frugal Traveller.

What has this to do with books? I hear you say. Well, food is a joyous thing in my life and I’m always happy when it makes an appearance in the books I read.

Yoshoku, translated as Western food, became popular once Japan opened up to the West, especially in the Meiji, Taisho and post-war eras. Essentially it’s a bastardised version of Western food revamped to suit Japanese tastes. Most famous are hamburgers (hambagoo), Japanese curry (kare raisu) and katsu (like a Wiener Schnitzel but thicker and eaten with a Worcestershire-like sauce called ‘sauce’ or ‘sōsu’). I always have problems romanising Japanese loan words as I automatically translate them into English, and feel a bit shy about saying it in a Japanese way when I am perfectly capable of saying it in English. Anyone else feel this way?

Recently I finished reading Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki for Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge 3 in which the main characters, Naomi and Jōji, considered themselves ‘modern’ and set themselves apart from their peers by learning Western dance, living in a Western style house and eating yoshoku. A lot of the literature from that period that were trying to emulate the West focussed on the idea of modernity and what it was to be modern. A change in dress style, food and language were the main things they incorporated into their previously traditional Japanese existence. Young mogas and mobos (modern girls and modern boys) were considered fast, often seen out drinking, smoking and dancing.

Now yoshoku is often considered traditional Japanese Western food as there are a plethora of incredibly good, authentic Western restaurants that can be found all over Japan. My friends and I all grew up with hamburgers, Japanese curry and katsu and it often brings back nostalgic memories of when we were young.

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

10 September, 2009

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki was published as Chijin no Ai or A Fool’s Love in 1924 in serial form. Because of the content of the novel, it caused an uproar amongst its Japanese readers and Tanizaki was forced to give up publication. It was later taken up by another magazine and completed.

Reading the novel almost 85 years later, it is indeed shockingly modern. Of course it was a contemporary novel then so that the descriptions of everyday life are sweetly nostalgic now, taking you back to a Japan that was on the cusp of change and which no longer exists. But like today, the Japanese are alternately suspicious of and still in love with everything western. What is still surprising is the daring content of the novel. It is essentially a story of a man in his thirties who falls in love and grooms a young girl of fifteen to become a suitable wife. This in itself is not that shocking in the context of Japanese literature as there are many stories of this ilk, except for its treatment of sex. There is no explicit language or scenes, but the novel is about the sexual relationship between Jōji Kawai and Naomi. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it love. Or maybe it is, a complex, twisted kind of love.

Jōji is a successful company employee who sets up house with Naomi. He marries her and tries to educate her, transforming her from a hostess into a cultured, westernised young woman. Her family background is such that she would probably have ended up becoming a prostitute. Jōji is a respectable and practical man, putting aside money each month and living soberly. This changes with the arrival of Naomi. He whisks her away from her sad, pathetic life and sets her up in a modern artist’s studio in which they indulge in playing house. Jōji is not interested in having a traditional wife, and they spend their days playing, dancing and eating out. Naomi doesn’t cook or clean and spends her time shopping for clothes. Jōji is happy with this and is proud to show her off. As Naomi gets older she makes friends of her own. She doesn’t surround herself with girlfriends, but boys from the nearby university. Jōji slowly succumbs to jealousy as his tenuous hold on Naomi beomes strained. Naomi is someone with her own mind and knows what she wants, cleverly manipulating the men around her. Their relationship and life together slowly breaks down, and when they finally go away on holiday to a nearby town, the situation explodes when Jōji discovers Naomi’s betrayal.

I have to confess that I was actually impressed by the way Tanizaki ended his novel. It didn’t leave me happy, but it was realistic and I could imagine the ending scenes playing out in countless relationships all over the world and throughout time. I felt sorry for almost all the characters that populated Tanizaki’s novel. And even though this novel disturbed me, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Tanizaki leaves you pondering about the nature of love. Not romantic love, but love that grasps you and won’t let you go, no matter how much hurt and betrayal it leaves in its wake. People are essentially selfish, and you make choices according to your needs, regardless of whether it is good for you or not. Ultimately, Jōji and Naomi deserve each other.

The copy I read and which belongs to my sister is the one on the left, but I couldn’t resist posting all three images because they encapsulate the essence of Naomi so beautifully.

Naomi is not a long novel, but the themes Tanizaki touches upon are profound. Overall, I thought this novel was magnificent, even though you cannot fall in love with any of the characters. It is deceptively simple, and the writing/translation subtly draws you in. There’s not a lot of plot twists, but Jōji and Naomi are vibrant characters and you won’t forget them easily. You cannot but applaud Naomi for her resilience, her joie de vivre and her survival instincts.

I, for one, am eager to read more of Tanizaki’s novels. The next one on my TBR list is The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s most famous novel.

Japanese Literary Challenge 3

I was going through my blog list during a particularly dry patch at work a few days ago and happened upon the Japanese Literary Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Two words to instantly grab my attention: Japanese and literary, and although I’m not an aggressive go-getter who’s always out to win, I occasionally like a challenge, and I’m definitely up for some midnight oil burning-type reading. This is Bellezza’s third year hosting this challenge and she has a nice long list of book suggestions. I am familiar with most of the titles from my stint working at a Japanese bookshop during my student days, but I thought I’d try a couple of books that weren’t on the list.

So, the challenge calls for one work of Japanese origin to be read between July 30, 2009 and January 30, 2010. No problemo! I’m going to finally start reading Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore which has been languishing in my TBR bookcase behind a number of other books and also give Tanizaki Junichiro’s Naomi another go. I tried to read the latter several years back but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so only got past the first few pages. Sartre and Beauvoir were great fans of Tanizaki’s whose books provoked outrage due to their morally ambiguious content.


I am also currently reading and watching Bleach by Kubo Tite but it’s a long-running manga and anime series and who knows when the end will be in sight. The manga, about Japanese soul reapers, is so good I don’t actually want it to ever end. But I will write about Bleach another day as it deserves its very own post.