Written by Genki Hase
Food is essential for human existence. What you eat, cook and taste are all constructing the one. Anthropology of Food touches upon various elements biologically and psychologically such as identity, memory, self-consciousness, and social stratification. Food is an indicator to measure yourself as well as others. This journal, written for the course Anthropology of Food, explores the life of one man focusing on foods.
Introduction: Food-Centered Life History
When I asked Koji Sakamoto, “Why do you eat salad that often?” He replied,
What I think is that it is important to define who you want to be by choosing what to eat and inform the body that message, in this fluctuating globalized society which people move around the world. Therefore, what I need to eat is the salad, not the Chinese food.Koji Sakamoto (2019)
Food-centered life history is an interview methodology invented by anthropologist Carole Counihan which attempts to reveal subjective remembrances and perceptions of individuals through a lens of food. This process involves communication with willing participants through the ethnographic fieldwork, and exploration of all food-related topics such as producing, processing, serving, trading, and eating.
Using this methodology, I have interviewed a Japanese old man, Koji Sakamoto, who experienced hardship during his young age, who was born in Kwantung Leased Territory in 1935, and who locked his thoughts and feelings into food. The reason I have interviewed him is that he knew me since I was born but I have never asked him about himself, so I thought it was a good opportunity to explore his life story through talking about food. In this food journal, I will explore: How does he think of the connection between eating and identifying the self? How does his history relate to his worldview? Does he have any particular food he pays attention to? What does food mean to him?
“Tofu” as a symbol of suffering
Sandra Soo-Jin Lee discusses how “bodily memory” prescribes who we can be and who we are through the case of Korean residents in Japan who experienced, “the kimchee dilemma”, inability to eat kimchi. Before Korean residents in Japan moved to Japan, they were able to eat kimchi but after they got used to life in Japan, the body started to resist kimchee and felt
the pungent odor of kimchee—the hot peppers, the salt, the garlic—makes my stomach ache…not in the way that the doctors think.
Kimchi in this context symbolizes the ruthless displacement from the Korean peninsula and its culture; they are proud of their Korean identity but at the same time, rejected by their own body.
When I introduced the case of Korean residents discussed by Lee, Koji said “it is not like bodily memory, but I certainly have food that symbolizes my life”, and added “tofu.” According to Koji, tofu was a food eaten by many peasants during the war period and post-war period so that it was always the main dish of his family. At that time, his father was trapped by the Soviet Union in Siberia as a Japanese prisoner of war, hence, Koji and his twin brother must go to work to afford the living of two younger siblings and his mother. “I went to work from morning till evening and studied at high school at night. This life continued until my father came back from Siberia” says Koji. After his father started to work in a trading company, Koji entered university and studied engineering while working at night. When I asked if he continued eating tofu or not, Koji answered “the frequency to eat tofu has extremely declined” in a calm tone.
As I continued conducting the interview, I realized that Koji was less willing to talk about his feelings during the time he worked hard to afford to live, but rather focused on what he did and what were the situations in an objective viewpoint. This stance of Koji towards the interview and why did he mention “tofu” as food that symbolizes his life indicate that “tofu” is being an attachment that links him to material and immaterial worlds. In this case, tofu is linking Koji to the physically and mentally struggled world, and the reality that he has a massive responsibility to afford him, his siblings’, and his mother’s life while the absence of his father.
Although Koji mentioned the food “tofu” as food that symbolizes his life, he said he will experience an ambiguous feeling of unconformity when he faces or imagines tofu. From his way of speaking that focuses on facts rather than the individual feelings despite the fact that he mentions “tofu” even though he could not figure out himself why he mentioned it, it can be said that “tofu” is containing his hard time experiences and concealing his emotion during that period. Therefore, the reason Koji does not know why he mentioned “tofu,” but still explained the situations clearly, is that Koji outsourced his personal memories including his and his family’s struggle and poverty into “tofu.” Hence, his memories are not in his body anymore. This idea of food being a storage medium of an individual perhaps can be named “food memory”.
“Salad” as a Descendant of “Tofu”
After the “tofu” period, Koji was employed by a Japanese machine manufacturing company and eventually ended up becoming the president of the same company’s Taiwan branch. As a result, he got access to a variety of foods, especially Chinese food. Koji describes the experience of tasting many foods as “it was like eating happiness” and emphasizes “I feel some kind of satisfaction when I eat Chinese cuisines.” Thus, in this context, Chinese cuisines are the food memory which stores his happiness and satisfaction of eating a variety of foods contrasted with the “tofu” experience.
However, when I asked for a particular cuisine that Koji eats now, he replied “I am now preferring salads. I eat once a day.” Why doesn’t Koji prefer eating Chinese cuisines which contain happiness rather than “salad”? The response to this interest goes back to the beginning quote.
What I think is that it is important to define who you want to be by choosing what to eat and inform the body that message, in this fluctuating globalized society which people move around the world. Therefore, what I need to eat is the salad, not the Chinese food.
“Choosing what to eat” sends a “message” that “who you want to be”, and “define” who you are. From this statement, it can be understood that Koji prefers salad than Chinese foods because he wants to live healthily and what he wants to be is a healthy-living man, not a man who pursues individual happiness and satisfaction.
At the end of the interview, I asked: “did your perspective on food change from before I began the interview?” Then he replied:
Certainly did. I thought food is just a sub-field of life and never be featured in order to discover one’s viewpoint. But it was the main character in my part of life.
Food can be the hardware and software that defines someone. Koji, a man who ate “tofu” when he had a hard time affording his and family’s living, and a man who contained happiness inside “Chinese food”, and a man who now prefers eating “salad” certainly reflected his life history on the view that “choosing what to eat” defines the present and future self-image of “who you want to be.” For Koji, the hardware was the food he faced during his life, and the software was the memory stored in the food. In his case, his memory was outsourced into out-body-material. Then how about us? What food-centered life history provides us an opportunity to reflect on ourselves by referencing food. Now, why don’t you pick up something to eat or imagine some food, and reference your “food memory” to know yourself?
The article was originally submitted for Anthropology of Food, Winter 2019 as “Food-centered Life History.” The interview with Koji Sakamoto-san was organized and conducted by Genki Hase. Illustration featured is by Nanda Illahi, photo belongs to Koji Sakamoto.