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Chinese Food Research in Japan

by Zhengyu Liu

Research in Japan

Fall Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(3) page(s): 26-27


Research on food studies was started, I was told, earlier in Japan than in China. Now, there are many excellent studies about Chinese food by Japanese historians and ethnologists, among them works by Shinoda Osamu (1899-1978). He was considered a pioneer in this field and best known for his efforts on Chinese food history. His Food History of China was published in Japanese in 1974 and translated into Chinese in 1987. There were also the effortd of Tanaka Seiichi, Nakayama Tokiko, and others who researched and wrote similar food works.

Under the influence of these many researchers, the study of the Chinese food culture has increased. A most important Japanese research institute, the National Museum of Ethnology which is located on the former grounds of Expo '70 in Suita in the Osaka Prefecture was founded in 1974. It has and continues to provide graduate-level training in anthropology and ethnology as well as doing research on societies, cultures, and the many changes brought about by globalization including that of the Chinese.

Their studies about food and foodways are useful symbolic lenses that look into, understand, and analyze groups, communities, and regions around the world. Lots of valuable research on many Chinese topics were done under the leadership of Professor Ishige Naomichi who studied them in China, Japan and Korea. For centuries, China has played a dominant role in shaping Asian foods including the use of chopsticks, the duality structure of fan-cai, and so much more.

There are many cultural differences among these countries. When comparing them, Professor Ishige has shown important characteristics of their different food styles and eating behaviors. His work and that of others including Professor Shu Tassei (1931-2014) have focused on Han and minority cultures in China.

As an Inter-University Research Institute committed to fostering cultural anthropology and related fields, there are many Ph.D. programs at this facility sponsoring these areas of study. Since it was inaugurated in 1988, many Ph.D. students from different countries have come to study and use food or eating behaviors as their lens observing subjects around the world. Following in their footprints, I am enrolled in the Regional Studies Department, and have been since 2013.

My masters courses studied Chinese food and its history. Since then, I have addressed concerns most specifically researching the daily food lives of urban Chinese and their food consumption. I am particularly focused on theoretical/historical/anthropological studies since the formation of the People’s Republic of China and have noted that since 1955 and until recently, urban residents have used coupons to get food materials and find other ways to solve possible nutrition deficiencies and food problems. Some did and still do dig wild herbs, others bought or exchanged foods including meats and/or eggs in black markets, and still others use or used personal relationships to acquire special foods.

With these thoughts in mind, my Ph.D. research aims to outline sociocultural perspectives of Chinese daily food lives under food rationing, specifically what and how they use fan-cai principles to get foods they deem necessary, with whom they eat, and what they think about their food consumption. I hope to link their practices and concepts to what they currently do and to trace what has changed and what behaviors did not.

At this ethnological museum, exhibitions present the latest achievements of anthropological, ethnological and related scientific food research. Main ones are mostly permanent and designed to deepen understanding among visitors about the cultural diversities and the commonalities they live in and eat.

Special exhibitions highlight special topics. These are held several times annually for a limited time period. Among them, are regional and cultural exhibits of China to introduce diverse ranges of Chinese ethnic life. These take into account historical and local characteristics, livelihoods, costumes and customs, musical instruments, dwellings, crafts, religions, writings, marriage ceremonies, ancestor worship, also Chinese minorities and indigenous Taiwanese peoples.

It will not take long for a detailed exhibit of Chinese food culture with lectures and symposia for both the general public and academic scholars to emerge. One international symposium titled: ‘Gastronomic Science and Food Museums of the World’ did occur with academic talks about dietary research and the food museums of China, Japan, Korea and Italy. This two-day symposia was held in 2014; others will follow.

In cooperation with ongoing annual Chinese Food Conferences, the next one is scheduled for Kyoto in December 2016; and there will be others in the future. The one just mentioned will be the 6th Asian Food Study Conference. This meeting started in 2011 in China. The upcoming one is being jointly organized December by the Ritsumeikan University, National Museum of Ethnology, and the Zhejiang’s Gongshang University of China. The topic is Asian food exchanges worldwide.

Scholars from around the world will gather to discuss and exchange relevant issues and information. They will continue their worldwide network of food studies and collaboration. The future of these meetings is anticipated by all who are interested in Chinese and other Asian food cultures. Therefore, on behalf of researchers studying these food cultures, you are welcome to attend; and we hope you will.
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Zhengyu Liu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Studies of the School of Cultural and Social Studies, SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) in Japan. He is a Chinese exchange student and welcomes your attending and sharing your interests in Chinese and other Asian food cultures.
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