Culture in the Kitchen
History comes to life in every aspect of Japanese culture, it even comes into play in the kitchen. If we understand culture in the kitchen we can perhaps understand more about Japanese Culture at large.
Even before social castes in Japan formally divided people into formal groups, women had their specific roles to play in society. From once being Empresses they progressively became ever more connected to the home. During World War Two they were called upon to be “good wi[ves], wise mother[s].” The different castes prevalent throughout the era of the samurai, drew women ever more towards the home. On farms women would struggle in the fields with the men, bent over the rice paddies. Yet they also raised their children and were responsible for shopping, maintaining the home, and often finances. In other fields, though, they were excluded. Actors and warriors were exclusively male, leaving wives little work to do outside the home in those and other exclusive industries.
Although laws changed throughout the years, generally land was passed from father to son, which lead to decisions being made ever more by the male family members. Since women did not have land then, they became ever more expensive since dowries were often required to marry them off.
Even more than the images portrayed of American women on the sitcoms of the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s Japanese women found their domains ever more connected to the kitchen. Even in farm families, men would mostly focus on farming food for sale, while women would be in charge of the gardens for the family’s table.
In today’s society women have found new places for themselves. They work, fewer are getting married, and they are ever on more equal footing with men… Still habits, history, and culture die hard.
Learning to Cook
I learned to cook from my mother. During the big holidays she would cook tons of food and my siblings and I would watch, lick the spoon, and as the years went by take on more important roles. Eventually I became responsible for making certain family recipes. I never took home economics in school, so my education was strictly from watching, and later from TV and the internet.
In Japan, all students take home economics classes where they learn to peel potatoes with knifes and make basic meals. At the junior high and elementary schools I taught at, I would see girls and boys dress up in aprons and cook various dishes. During school outings they had to cook in groups, yet here things began to separate. The girls in the group took charge of preparing the food and the boys would hang back.
Like for me, most students learn to cook at home. With students at school until 7 or later most have little time to see their parents make dinner, even those whose parents do cook it. This means their best chance to participate in cooking are the large events that require the entire family’s help.
Parties and Holidays
In the west as in Japan many boys might stay out of the kitchen, but for those families that still cook all the children will help for the big holidays. For any big family gathering it takes all hands to make cookies, bake cakes, and trim turkeys. In Japan there are major events and parties that will also require the entire family to help.
I lived in a place that showed Japan more as it was, than perhaps as it is, but still my observations might shed light on why things are as they are in Japan. Where I lived there would be several large gathering throughout the year. Men would busy themselves preparing the location, moving tables, getting ice, etc. Women would join together and start cooking, working to prepare innumerable dishes. When they were done setting up, the men would deal with the fish, cleaning, and cutting it for sashimi and sushi. It was interesting to see such clear divisions in the workload. While both groups worked hard (and there was some overlap), for the most the women stayed in the kitchen, and the men outside it.
On a smaller scale, after graduations, individual families would host parties that all the villagers would attend. Fathers would greet guests and sit with them, while most of the women in the family would attend to food and drinks, again staying in the kitchen.
From a young age, girls in Japan are expected to help out at such family events, and learn from their mothers, aunts, and other family members how to cook. Boys most often found reasons to be away.
Why the divisions? One reason might be the social pressures for girls to help prepare the food. From a young age they are expected to help out so it becomes almost second nature. Other women become their ‘in’ group so it is more comfortable for them to work together.
Another reason might be that many Japanese women tend to drink less, or avoid drinking around men. By staying in the kitchen they can socialize with each other and don’t have to spend their entire evening dealing with drunk men. Instead the men and women form their own social groups which creates a cyclical pattern of division by gender that is difficult to escape or change.
In general the lack of skill and knowledge by men, and the historic social divisions keep men out of the kitchen. Oddly enough chefs still tend to be men.
Like any social analysis this is all general and there are many men who do cook with their wives, and many women who don’t cook at all. In general, though, there are still clear gender roles in the kitchen, and understanding them can help us understand other aspects of Japanese Culture.