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  • Writer's pictureEmily

You are what you eat! Some thoughts on Japan's regional stereotypes

The summer continues to torment those of us cursed with low tolerance for warmth. This has meant many late sleepless nights for me, which also means more binge-watching of TV. And recently, I also discovered that with some searching, it is possible to watch quite a few episodes of one of my favorite Japanese shows, Kenminsho (秘密のケンミンショー).

Kenminsho hosts Mino Monta and Hisamoto Masami

This is something I used to tell my students all the time when I was teaching Japanese history, but unlike everyone in the world is led to believe, Japan is a country of a dizzying array of regional diversity. In other words, there is no such thing as a "Japanese way" of doing things or even a "stereotypical Japanese." I know, I know, I'm sure you were told by a Japanese person (a real one!) that "Japanese people all do X" or "we Japanese love nature" (or something similarly silly) but it's a lie. Until the late 1800s Japan was made up by numerous feudal domains, each one with very firm local senses of identity, local/regional rivalries and feuds, dialects, claims to fame, scandals, political leanings, and of course, FOOD. Oh, the food. But more on that later.

Now back to the show. This show, whose title can be loosely translated as "secrets of people from different prefectures" is a weekly hour-long show with a panel of various and sundry celebrities representing their birth-prefectures who share "secrets" of different regions of the country. And Osaka. There is always something about Osaka because it is so unique and full of so many interesting people and randomly unique things that each episode includes at least a few minutes on Osaka with no sign of running out of new Osaka-specific "secrets."

Here's an example: typically Osaka dude who is talking about that very Osaka food, takoyaki (octopus balls).

Now, here's the irony for me when it comes to this show: I was raised (not born! I was born in Tokyo) in the MOST BORING PREFECTURE OF ALL TIME: Saitama. In one of the episodes, a new guest who is from Saitama was asked what her prefecture was known for and she actually said, "nothing. There's nothing." The regular representative of Saitama on the show always looks sort of tired and pessimistic, as though his birthplace has been weighing on him ever since because he just can't compete with those people from fun places like Osaka who have so much local fun stuff to enjoy.

Guy on the left. See what I mean?

The format of the show is roughly as follows: they go to a specific prefecture and go around asking people on the street (the group of high school girls, the office worker, the house wife, if lucky a couple of adorable little kids) about something. Let me give you an example. In a New Years special episode, they covered ramen in Hokkaido, the large prefecture in the far north. They asked people about ramen in Hokkaido, specifically suggesting that miso ramen, usually associated with Sapporo, is all that Hokkaido has to offer. Of course, each resident (or Do-min) rolled their eyes in contempt before saying "what! Hokkaido is so much more than just miso ramen! There's Asahikawa, Kushiro, Hakodate, in addition to Sapporo!" So the show visited each city (making a huge deal about how long it took to get to each place because one stereotype of Hokkaido is that it is HUGE) and they showed the ramen associated with each city. Meanwhile you could hear the panel of celebrities oo-ing and aw-ing (and salivating) as they showed steamy closeups of each bowl of noodley goodness.

Now, the problem with being a historian is that you expect things to actually be historical when people claim things are historical. Apparently, the very rich soy sauce brothed Asahikawa ramen was introduced in 1947. That's practically yesterday from my point of view. But whatever, I guess that's sort of old. But the point is, each city/region in the prefecture is associated with a very specific kind of ramen. And everyone in that place loves it, eats it all the time, asks for it when they move away, and come back just for that.

This pattern is repeated across the country, at least according to the show. While the show also features odd practices, like how one region that is especially hot offers refrigerated shampoo at salons and barber shops in the summer to help you cool off, most of the episodes revolve around food. There are countless iterations to every type of Japanese food, and if you believe the people on the show, NO ONE CAN BELIEVE that people in X prefecture put Y in their Z!!!! WHATT!!!!!!! What are they, monsters????!!!!! But never fear, the show also features a tasting time, where the celebrities get to try the food that they just exclaimed just shouldn't exist, and usually to more oo-ing and aw-ing and "this is genius! why didn't I think of that!" And while I scoff at these things being called traditions (right...since 1947...that's so "traditional") and I think these are just micro versions of Japanese claims to weird forms of essentialism (not everyone in Japan does this, but everyone in Akita puts mochi in their ramen!--I'm kidding, they're not monsters) I still can't help loving this show.

Food is one way everyone in Japan (or so they'd have you believe) holds onto micro identities despite all of the forces that try to make them conform to Tokyo. The other is dialects. Sadly, I grew up in a Tokyo-adjacent suburb raised by a Tokyoite and an American so all I know is standard Tokyo dialect (newscaster middle American if you will). But just like in the UK, where going 20 miles will put you in a totally different linguistic region, Japan has a crazy variety of dialects. They are usually just slight variations, with a smattering of different terms for common products and items. The most well-known other dialect is what is spoken around Osaka--the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe area is the second largest population center and once the cultural and political center of Japan (or just THE center of Japan, if you ask someone who is from there--they consider Tokyo an upstart fishing village that's had a few good recent centuries). And then there are the NORTHERN dialects.

I once read that when Japanese immigrants first started arriving in the Territory of Hawai‘i in the late 1800s, the "standard dialect" became Hiroshima dialect because they represented the majority population. And if some poor sap from the far north happened to also immigrate to Hawai‘i, he wouldn't be able to communicate with most people. That's how different dialects are between the North and South. Although most young people (and middle-aged people for that matter) are functionally bilingual in that they can speak the local dialect as well as Hyojungo, which is basically Tokyo dialect, a lot of older residents of rural areas far from the metropolitan centers just, well, don't give a shit about making themselves understood to outsiders. There is something refreshing about this. And nowhere is as unintelligible to outsiders as Tsugaru.

Tsugaru, a region at the very northern tip of Honshu, is associated with cold, windy, barren, lonely sadness. See, for example, the song Tsugaru kaikyo fuyu geshiki (incidentally my dad's favorite Japanese song by his favorite Japanese singer). And on Kenminsho they love pointing out just how impossible it is to understand Tsugaru dialect. They love going around interviewing farmers (who are, let's face it, trying to work and have better things to do than answer idiot questions by some annoying camera crew from Tokyo) and then commenting on how they can't understand A THING they are saying. And then they'll go around asking other people to interpret what other people are saying, even asking "Do you understand them?" This is to people in the same region. And the other person usually says, "Well of course. That's normal!" Nothing like a Tokyo person to embody metropolitan hegemony!

Here, for example, is a translation (the yellow text) of the Tsugaru dialect spoken by someone they interviewed. Each word needs to be translated because NOTHING is intelligible.

The husband of one of my mom's cousins was from one of these northern prefectures, and she always complained that she could never communicate with her in-laws. She literally had to hand the phone over to her husband to communicate with them. They obviously didn't try to speak Hyojungo to her. Maybe they didn't like her? But that's another problem.

In Aomori, where Tsugaru is located, there is a huge difference between Tsugaru dialect and Southern [Aomori] dialect! They take this shit very seriously. At issue is the Tsugaru phrase, せばだばまいねびょん(それじゃダメでしょう)。

But this dialect division of Japan is another way that Japanese people highlight their regional differences. And people in the metropole (those asshole Tokyo-ites) LOVE mocking the quaint speech of their prefectural inferiors. My grandmother, who was in fact born and raised in Yamaguchi and would suddenly bust out Yamaguchi dialect when speaking to a fellow Yamaguchi person on the phone (much to my shock and surprise), would frequently mock the quaint and backward ways of those sad people off in the hinterlands who spoke unintelligible dialects. And yet, so did she. But she was a woman full of contradictions.

So as I try to avoid melting into my couch in the midst of this endless heatwave, I've been ambivalently binge-watching this show and thinking about why it is that in Japan, identifying regional differences--whether they be expressed as food or language or some other practice--is such a common preoccupation. I get into it as much as anyone else even though I know half of these stereotypes and "traditions" are pretty new in origin or apply only to one part of a region rather than the whole. The endless characterizations of Osaka as a particularly unique (and funny and gregarious) place is a special example.

Osaka people explain why they don't like those uptight assholes from Kyoto.

The point is, hours, literally hundreds of hours, can be devoted to the topic of how different Japanese people are from each other, with no end in sight. And each region is just SHOCKED that people even in the neighboring prefecture don't do things the same way. Usually I'd have some nice neat conclusion about what this says about our ideas about culture, or even how these insights help me think about my own craft, or how this is interesting or important. The heat has robbed me of all ability to have a coherent thought besides "do I still have ice cream? Do I need to get more?" But I invite you to reflect on the absurd regional diversity in Japan and, if nothing else, go out and eat some tasty Japanese food. Like cold noodles. Cold noodles are the best.

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