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Food and Pop Culture:

The Influence of Pop Culture on Traditional


Japanese Cuisine

Edgar S Mendoza
JAPN 308
Dr. Takahashi
12 December 2014

Table of Contents
I.

Introduction ... p.1

II.

Bento ....... p.2


a. Ekiben and Convenience ......................................... p.3
b. The Influence of Charaben on Society............ p.3-4

III.

Vending Machines...................................................................... p.4


a. Origins of Vending Machines in Japan................................ p.4-5
Modernization of Vending Machines......................................... p.5

IV. Conclusion ................................................................................. p.6

INTRODUCTION

Consumer trends and pop culture are two inseparable concepts, one can even make the
argument that they are one of the same. In analyzing the effects of consumerism and pop culture
in society we begin to see how old traditions are changed and maybe even forgotten. Here we
will analyze the effect that pop culture has had on traditional Japanese cuisine. How food in
Japan has changed to incorporate pop culture features and become part of the trends, but also
how food itself has managed to change trends in pop culture.
One can argue that changes inspired by pop culture has allowed certain aspects of
traditional Japanese cuisine to survive in the modern world. Through the spread of technology
and positive trends, pop culture has preserved the essence of traditional Japanese cuisine. There
are those who argue, however, that fads inspired by pop culture do little to preserve traditional
values and in turn erode the presence of traditional foods in the Japanese marketplace.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between pop culture and
traditional Japanese cuisine we will narrow our focus into one particular aspect; the meal on-thego. The mobility of food has been a problem for every civilization since the beginning of
civilizations. The way that a society dealt with feeding its people often times played a critical
role in its development and cultural growth. In Japan, we begin to see the use of boxed meals
during the Kamakura period and thus began a tradition of commuter meals that we see until this
day in the modern era.
Is the traditional form of Japanese cuisine at odds with the growing demand for food in
todays Japan? How is pop culture driving consumer trends and what effect does this have on
food?

BENTO

The idea of boxed meals existed in Southeast Asia long before it became popular in
Japan. The origins of the traditional Japanese Bento meal could be traced back to the Kamakura
period (1185-1333). During this time, these meals were used by pretty much anyone who needed
a meal on-the-go. Workers who labored in the field all day would carry a convenient box with a
simple meal with them. Soldiers who had to travel far away from their home region also used
similar types of meals. Eventually, the upper part of the society began to use boxes to carry
meals to picnics or to other social events. One such form, Makunouchi was served during
interventions in Kabuki theater performances. It is around this time that we begin to see meals
that resemble contemporary Bento.
Traditionally, Bento consists of three elements; rice, protein and vegetables. The sheer
simplicity of these elements highlights an important part of Japanese culture, its practicality. The
rice is very particular variety that only grows in Japan known as uruchimai or Japonica rice. The
protein portion could consist of fish, chicken, pork or even egg. In most cases the region where
the dish is made determines what the type of protein would be. For example, a coastal village is
more likely to include fish rather than chicken in their Bento. The third portion of the Bento meal
are vegetables. These vegetables could include anything to fresh picked greens to pickled treats,
even seaweed. The vegetables serve a dual function, not only do they add a distinct taste and
boost the nutritional value of the meal, they also serve to accentuate the food being served and
enhance presentation.
Even with these simple elements, Bento has grown to incorporate to a plethora of different
themes and accommodate different lifestyles.

Ekiben and Convenience

Ekiben is a type of Bento that serves best to analyze the relationship between pop culture
and food in terms of availability and demand. It is a type of meal that is usually sold at railway
stations or on trains. This type of commuter meal became popular in the eighties, a time when the
Japanese railroad system underwent a system wide upgrade and more and more people were able
to use trains.
This type of food arose from a necessity. People needed to travel and naturally they also
needed to eat. Without having the time to prepare their own meals or to stop to eat at a restaurant,
Ekiben solved many of the commuters problems. Even though this food was meant to be eaten
on-the-go, it didnt necessarily mean that it was going to be produced as fast food. Many train
stations became famous for their Bento thanks to their elaborate use of local resources in their
Ekiben. This gotochi concept helped foster tourism to certain areas and allowed for Ekiben to
become something more than a mundane dining experience.
The Influence of Charaben on Society
Perhaps the most easily recognized link between Japanese cuisine and pop culture is
Kyaraben. Kyaraben or Charaben is a type of Bento that transforms the ordinary boxed meal into
a styled representation of a character, typically in reference to something kawaii although not
limited to it. They can depict anything from mythical stories to anime and manga.
During the last few decades Charaben has grown in popularity not only in Japan but all across
the world.
Charaben began as a way for a mother to brighten their childrens day and send them with
a colorful lunch to school. Nowadays there are many accessories that make even the most
intricate designs of Bento possible and in much less time to prepare.

Making food in shapes and patterns to fit a certain look begs the question, does Charaben
sacrifice quality of food over design? In my opinion, this matter depends on whoever is
preparing the food. If a parent goes about it the right way, Charaben could be used to encourage
healthy eating habits in children. In a time when fast food companies aggressively market to
children it is refreshing to see food that is inspired by traditional cuisine that actually works hand
in hand with pop culture to have a positive impact on children.

VENDING MACHINES
Vending machines represent a modern day dilemma, not only in Japan but all across the
globe. How do we deal with an increase in demand for food and availability, especially in busy
urban centers?
Modern day Japan is a cornucopia of vending machines and not just for food. One could
find anything from umbrellas to shoes in todays vending machines. The variety of foods
available is also breath-taking. Hot, cold, it doesnt matter, if you can eat it theres likely a
vending machine for it. This heavy presence of vending machines is in large part the result of
urbanization and the attempt to keep up with consumer demand. These machines represent a
cheap and quick alternative to restaurants, something that the everyday commuter could
appreciate.
Origins of Vending Machines in Japan
The first vending machine in Japan could be traced back to the beginning of the 20th
century to a machine that sold postage stamps. These first machines drew inspiration from
samurai clockwork devices that were first made in the Edo period. It wasnt until the 1030s that
their popularity grew and really became a part of pop culture. Machines were introduced that

would dispense a box of candy while playing a short clip of a traditional samurai film, these
machines became widely popular with children.
During the years the followed the war vending machines began to really turn towards the food
industry. The introduction of juice dispensing machines marked the beginning of what is now
today a multi-million dollar industry.
Modernization of Vending Machines
The challenge of serving traditional Japanese food from vending machines proved to be a
tough but not an insurmountable one. During the early 1980s machines were developed that
allowed the vendor to sell both hot and cold beverages according to the season from the same
machine. This type of innovation is really a trendsetter for the entire industry and highlights why
vending machines are so convenient in todays society. As an industry, vending machines are
always trying to progress to healthier ingredients and fresh options. Some critics argue that what
society gains in the convenience of having these machines in virtually every corner, it loses on
the quality of the food.
The prevalence of vending machines all across cities also poses the problem of an
increased lack of human interaction. Is Japan heading towards a society where we have deeper
connections with a machine than with humans? Some machines even have digital displays that
allow you to interact with them. Some also possess 3-D face recognition technology that allow
them to make recommendations based on facial and demographic features. In the end, vending
machines are a facet of society that is not entirely dependent on pop culture but it still maintains
a close relationship with. It is up to the consumer to decide whether the food that is served is up
to their standards and weigh in on whether their convenience out weights their downfalls.

CONCLUSION
Modern society must attempt to strike a balance between the convenience and quality of food.
Pop culture goes hand in hand with capitalism but often promotes materialism. When it comes to
creating food for mass consumption, we have come to expect to sacrifice quality over quantity.
Pop culture trends drive consumerism, therefore, food providers must find ways to adjust to the
meet the increased market demand without sacrificing the quality of the food.

Bibliography
Noguchi, Paul H. "Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan.Ethnology 33.4
(1994): 317-30. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
"Bento." Japanology Plus. NHK World. NHK, Tokyo. 14 Apr. 2008. Television.
"Vending Machines." Japanology Plus. NHK World. NHK, Tokyo. 22 Nov. 2012. Television.
Japan Monthly Magazine. "Whats so Interesting about Japans Vending Machines?" Japan
Monthly Magazine. JNTO, 01 Aug. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Fjapanmagazine.jnto.go.jp%2Fen%2F1208_vending.html>.