"And Now for the Main (Dis)course...":

Or, Food as Entrée in Contemporary Japanese Television

1Food is not a trifling matter on Japanese television. More visible than such cultural staples as sumo and enka, food-related talk abounds. Aired year-round and positioned on every channel in every time period throughout the broadcast day, the lenses of food shows are calibrated at a wider angle than heavily-trafficked samurai dramas, beisboru or music shows. Simply, more aspects of everyday life, social history and cultural values pass through food programming.

2The array of shows work to reproduce traditional Japanese cuisine and cultural mores, educating viewers about regional customs and history. They also teach viewers about the "peculiar" practices of far-away countries. Thus, food shows engage globalisation and assist the integration of outside influences and lifestyles in Japan. However, food-talk is also about nihonjinron -- the uniqueness of Japanese culture1. As such, it tends toward cultural nationalism2. Food-talk is often framed in the context of competition and teaches viewers about planning and aesthetics, imparting class values and a consumption ethic. Food discourse is also inevitably about the reproduction of popular culture. Whether it is Jackie Chan plugging a new movie on a "guess the price" food show or a group of celebs are taking a day-trip to a resort town, food-mediated discourse enables the cultural industry and the national economy to persist -- even expand.

3To offer a taste of the array of cultural discourse that flows through food, this article serves up an ideal week of Japanese TV programming.

Competition for Kisses: Over-Cooked Idols and Half-Baked Sexuality

4Monday, 10:00 p.m.: SMAP x SMAP  

SMAP is one of the longest-running, most successful male idol groups in Japan. At least one of their members can be found on TV every day. On this variety show, all five appear. One segment is called "Bistro SMAP" where the leader of the group, Nakai-kun, ushers a (almost always) female guest into his establishment and inquires what she would like to eat. She states her preference and the other four SMAP members (in teams of two) begin preparing the meal.

5 Nakai entertains the guest on a dais overlooking the cooking crews. While the food is being prepared he asks standard questions about the talento's career; "how did you get in this business", "what are your favorite memories", "tell us about your recent work" -- the sort of banal banter that fills many cooking shows. Next, Nakai leads the guest into the kitchen and introduces her to the cooks. Finally, she samples both culinary efforts with the camera catching the reactions of anguish or glee from the opposing team. Each team then tastes the other group's dish. Unlike many food shows, the boys eat without savoring the food. The impression conveyed is that these are everyday boys -- not mega CD-selling pop idols with multiple product endorsements, commercials and television commitments.

6 Finally, the moment of truth arrives: which meal is best. The winners jump for joy, the losers stagger in disappointment. The reason: the winners receive a kiss from the judge (on an agreed-upon innocuous body part). Food as entrée into discourse on sexuality. But, there is more than mere sex in the works, here. For, with each collected kiss, a set of red lips is affixed to the side of the chef's white cap. Conquests. After some months the kisses are tallied and the SMAPster with the most lips wins a prize. Food begets sexuality which begets measures of skill which begets material success. Food is but a prop in managing each idol's image.

Putting a Price-tag on Taste (Or: Food as Leveller)

7Tuesday 8:00 p.m.: Ninki mono de ikou (Let's Go with the Popular People)

An idol's image is an essential aspect of this show. The ostensible purpose is to observe five famous people appraising a series of paired items -- each seemingly identical. Which is authentic and which is a bargain-basement copy? One suspects, though, that the deeper aim is to reveal just how unsophisticated, bumbling and downright stupid "talento" can be.

8Items include guitars, calligraphy, baseball gloves and photographs. During evaluation, the audience is exposed to the history, use and finer points of each object, as well as the guest's decision-making process (via hidden camera). Every week at least one food item is presented: pasta, cat food, seaweed, steak. During wine week contestants smelled, tasted, swirled and regarded the brew's hue. One compared the sound each glass made, while another poured the wines on a napkin to inspect patterns of dispersion! Guests' reasoning and behaviors are monitored from a control booth by two very opinionated hosts. One effect of the recurrent criticism is a levelling -- stars are no more (and often much less) competent (and sacrosanct) than the audience.

Technique, Preparation and Procedure? Old Values Give Way to New

9Wednesday 9:00: Tonerus no nama de daradara ikasette (Tunnels' Allow Us to Go Aimlessly, as We Are)

This is one of two prime time shows featuring the comedy team "Tunnels"3. In this show both members of the duo engage in challenging themselves, one another and select members of their regular "team" to master a craft. Last year it was ballet and flamenco dance. This month: karate, soccer and cooking. Ishibashi Takaaki (or "Taka-san") and his new foil (a ne'er-do-well former Yomiuri Giants baseball player) Sadaoka Hiyoshi, are being taught by a master chef. The emphasis is on technique and process: learning theki (the aura, the essence) of cooking. After taking copious notes both men are left on their own to prepare a meal, then present it to a young femaletalento, who selects her favorite. In one segment, the men learned how to prepare croquette -- striving to master the proper procedure for flouring, egg-beating, breading, heating oil, frying and draining.

10In the most recent episode, Taka prepared his shortcake to perfection, impressing even the sensei. Sadaoka, who is slow on the uptake and tends to be lax, took poor notes and clearly botched his effort. Nonetheless, the talento chose Sadaoka's version because it was different. Certain he was going to win, Taka fell into profound shock. For years a popular host of youth-oriented shows, he concluded: "I guess I just don't understand today's young people". In Japanese television, just as in life, it seems there is no accounting for taste. More, whatever taste once was, it certainly has changed.

"We Japanese": Messages of Distinctiveness (Or: Old Values NEVER Die)

11Thursday, 9:00 p.m.: Douchi no ryori shiou: (Which One? Cooking Show)  

By contrast, on this night viewers are served procedure, craft and the eternal order of things. Above all, validation of Japanese culinary instincts and traditions. Like many Japanese cooking showsDouchi involves competition between rival foods to win the hearts of a panel of seven singers, actors, writers and athletes.Douchi's difference is that two hosts front for rival dishes, seeking to sway the panel during the in-studio preparation. The dishes are prepared by chefs fromTsuji ryori kyoshitsu, a major cooking academy in Osaka, and are generally comparable (for instance, beef curry versus beef stew).

12On the surface Douchi is a standard infotainment show. Video tours of places and ingredients associated with the dish entertain the audience and assist in making the guests' decisions more agonising. Two seating areas are situated in front of each chef and panellists are given a number of opportunities to switch sides. Much playful bantering, impassioned appeals and mock intimidation transpire throughout the show.

13It is not uncommon for the show to pit a foreign against a domestic dish; and most often the indigenous food prevails. For, despite the recent "internationalisation" of Japanese society, many Japanese have little changed from the "we-stick-with-what-we-know-best" attitude that is a Japanese hallmark. Ironically, this message came across most clearly in a recent show pitting spaghetti and meat balls against tarako supagetei (spicy fish eggs and flaked seaweed over Italian noodles) -- a Japanese favorite. One guest, former American, now current Japanese Grand Sumo Champion, Akebono, insisted from the outset that he preferred the Italian version because "it's what my momma always cooked for me". Similarly the three Japanese who settled on tarako did so without so much as a sample or qualm. "Nothing could taste better than tarako" one pronounced even before beginning. A clear message in Douchi is that Japanese food is distinct, special, irreplaceable and (if you're not opposed by a 200 kilogram giant) unbeatable.

Society as War: Reifying the Strong and Powerful

14Friday, 11:00 p.m.: Ryori no tetsujin. (The Ironmen of Cooking)  

Like sumo this show throws the weak into the ring with the strong for the amusement of the audience. The weak in this case being an outsider who runs his own restaurant. Usually the challengers are Japanese or else operate in Japan, though occasionally they come from overseas (Canada, America, France, Italy). Almost without exception they are men. The "ironmen" are four famous Japanese chefs who specialise in a particular cuisine (Japanese, Chinese, French and Italian). The contest has very strict rules.

15The challenger can choose which chef he will battle. Both are provided with fully-equipped kitchens positioned on a sprawling sound stage. They must prepare a full-course meal for four celebrity judges within a set time frame. Only prior to the start are they informed of which one key ingredient must be used in every course. It could be crab, onion, radish, pears -- just about any food imaginable. The contestants must finish within the time limit and satisfy the judges in terms of planning, creativity, composition, aesthetics and taste. In the event of a tie, a one course playoff results.

16The show is played like a sports contest, with a reporter and cameras wading into the trenches, conducting interviews and play-by-play commentary. Jump-cut editing quickens the pace of the show and the running clock adds a dimension of suspense and excitement. Consistent with one message encoded in Japanese history, it is very hard to defeat the big power. Although the ironmen are not weekly winners, their consistency in defeating challengers works to perpetuate the deep-seated cultural myth4.

Food Makes the Man

17Saturday 12:00: Merenge no kimochi (Feelings like Meringue)  

Relative to the full-scale carnage of Friday night, Saturdays are positively quiescent. Two shows -- one at noon, the other at 11:30 p.m. -- employ food as medium through which intimate glimpses of an idol's life are gleaned.Merenge's title makes no bones about its purpose: it unabashedly promises fluff. In likening mood to food -- and particularly in the day-trip depicted here -- we are reminded of the Puffy's famous ditty about eating crab: "taking the car out for a spin with a caramel spirit ... let's go eat crab!"Merengue treats food as a state of mind, a many-pronged road to inner peace. To keep it fluffy,Merenge is hosted by three attractive women whose job it is to act frivolous and idly chat with idols. The show's centrepiece is a segment where the male guest introduces his favorite (or most cookable) recipe. In-between cutting, beating, grating, simmering, ladling, baking and serving, the audience is entertained and their idol's true inner character is revealed.

Continuity Editing

18Running throughout the day, every day, on all (but the two public) stations, is advertising. Ads are often used as a device to heighten tension or underscore the food show's major themes, for it is always just before the denouement (a judge's decision, the delivery of a story's punch-line or a final tally) that an ad interrupts. Ads, however, are not necessarily departures from the world of food, as a large proportion of them are devoted to edibles. In this way, they underscore food's intimate relationship to economy -- a point that certain cooking shows make with their tie-in goods for sale or maps to, menus of and prices for the featured restaurants.

19While a considerable amount of primary ad discourse is centred on food (alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, coffees, sodas, instant or packaged items), it is ersatz food (vitamin-enriched waters, energy drinks, sugarless gums and food supplements) which has recently come to dominate ad space. Embedded in this commercial discourse are deeper social themes such as health, diet, body, sexuality and even death5. Underscoring the larger point: in Japan, if it is television you are tuned into, food-mediated discourse is inescapable.

Food for Conclusion

20The question remains: "why food?" What is it that qualifies food as a suitable source and medium for filtering the raw material of popular culture? For one, food is something that all Japanese share in common. It is an essential part of daily life. Beyond that, though, the legacy of the not-so-distant past -- embedded in the consciousness of nearly a third of the population -- is food shortages giving rise to overwhelming abundance. Within less than a generation's time Japanese have been transported from famine (when roasted potatoes were considered a meal and chocolate was an unimaginable luxury) to excess (where McDonald's is a common daily meal, scores of canned drink options can be found on every street corner, and yesterday's leftover 7-Eleven bentos are tossed).

21Because of food's history, its place in Japanese folklore, its ubiquity, its easy availability, and its penetration into many aspects of everyday life, TV's food-talk is of interest to almost all viewers. Moreover, because it is a part of the structure of every viewer's life, it serves as a fathomable conduit for all manner of other talk. To invoke information theory, there is very little noise on the channel when food is involved6. For this reason food is a convenient vehicle for information transmission on Japanese television. Food serves as a comfortable podium from which to educate, entertain, assist social reproduction and further cultural production.