Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

I am a big fan of MUJI, the simple Japanese housewares company. So I was quite interested to read a post by their art director Kenya Hara on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate.”  Hara argues that Japanese people have

…a special ability to focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore what is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage.

Hara believes that Japanese simplicity is a function partly of this narrow focus. Beautiful designs are better appreciated because of this focus, in Hara’s opinion. (Well known design guru John Maeda also weighs in and argues that the dearness of Japanese food is the primary issue).

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch: New York Times

Philosopher Dennis Dutton argues, interestingly, the American lunch box is of the same instinct: Americans have attempted to make their lunch beautiful but in distinctly different ways. Dutton leaves the symbolic interpretation of these competing “lunch beautifying” methods up to the reader’s imagination.

This reader thinks that by using exterior packaging instead of the food itself, Americans are not beautifying lunch as much as they are obscuring it. Indeed, they even commodifying it by making each lunch, regardless of content, look similar. The content of the lunch itself is irrelevant; whether it is fresh, healthy food or rotting, cheap, fast food, every lunch looks the same in a lunch box.

Perhaps this is indicative of the American spirit if industrialization. Mass production in the Fordist tradition (“You can have whatever colour car you like, as long as it’s black”) is an American value that has been spread around the world. Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity. This is what Ritzer means by the “McDonaldization of Society.” When the content of a thing matters less than how much of it is sold or how efficient it is to sell it, this is the height of capitalism — and perhaps of American culture.

This is perhaps the essence of why Americans can accept truly horrible food, while the Japanese and the French famously reject it. But it doesn’t explain why Hara thinks Japanese aesthetics are ruled in part by the ability to “focus” on one thing.

Is the Japanese form of capitalism less in need of obscuring and masking than the American? Is ugliness more tolerated by Japanese society and therefore, less of a threat to its form of capitalism?

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5 responses to “Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

  1. I’m not convinced. I think there is a tendency for western orientalists, enamored of Japan, to see everything that Japan does as being somehow superior. In some cases, this may be true. But in the case of Japanese fetishization of cute little portions, I think it is the Japanese who are obscuring things (and, having spent a good deal of time in China as well, I think it is the Japanese who have a special talent for this).

    In particular, your sentence, “Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity” describes perfectly the Japanese approach to food marketing. Talk to anyone who has lived in Japan for any period of time and attempted to follow a clean diet of unprocessed foods with tightly controlled macronutrients. It’s particularly rough for bodybuilders or powerlifters, since good cuts of red meat are almost impossible to find. Even if you go heavy on fish, it’s exceedingly difficult to get 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight in Japan — instead, you get expensive tiny portions with tons of stuff you don’t want mixed in there.

    Seriously, the Japanese are the last people on earth I would expect to be accused of caring about the nutritional content of their food. Most of the foods are highly processed, produce and fresh meat are scarce, and the fad diet right now is the “banana weight loss diet” (highly evolved concept of dietary fitness right there). There is a reason that the Japanese are not known for exporting fitness or dietary science. I mean, this is the nation that invented ramen.

    Now, you can make the case that the Japanese care very much about the aesthetic beauty of their food, and that they are supreme among the world for elegant simplicity. They make uniformly mass-produced food items that are elegantly simple and beautiful. But that is completely different from caring about the “content” of the food, as you asserted.

    • Hi Josh,

      thanks for the detailed comment!

      Your note about “content” made me think. Perhaps “content” was not the right work. I hoped to convey the difference between something of substance and something of no substance. The Japanese lunch, in all its beauty, has substance because its beauty and allure are crafted out of the food itself.

      The American lunchbox, by contrast, has allure through its mere packaging. Moreover, its packaging is symbolic of a mechanized, standardized, and portable product.

      By contrast, the Japanese lunch is one of a kind. Now perhaps it is not as nutritious as I may have intimated, but its is nonetheless uniquely crafted. My point was not about fitness or diet or wholeness of food but of standardization, portability and art.

      Your points are well taken, and interesting to boot! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Ah, when I consider “content” to be “substance” rather than “nutrition”, it makes a lot more sense! I guess I shouldn’t be so quick to assume a specific meaning for a word like “content”. I love the blog, BTW.

  3. BTW, check out this recent article from TOL about consumer culture in the Eastern Bloc prior to and after the fall of the Berlin wall. He makes a number of observations that would probably resonate with you:
    http://www.tol.cz/look/TOL/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrIssue=344&NrSection=3&NrArticle=20924&tpid=43

  4. I particularly agree with Josh that “there is a tendency for western orientalists, enamored of Japan, to see everything that Japan does as being somehow superior.”

    My comment was less an attack on Japanese taste than a defense of generations of American moms who have tried in their ways to make their children’s lunches nutritious and attractive. A lot better than giving your kid a couple of bucks and telling her to buy pizza and Coke. And I do think that as corny and commercial as a movie tie-in lunch box may be, it still counts as decorated — as opposed to a used brown paper bag.

    There is much to admire in Japanese culture, but I dislike using it as a mallet to bop other cultures on the head.

    Denis Dutton

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