Add a Dash of Cultural Imperialism: Japanese Food and Cooking (1956), Part 1

Japanese Food and Cooking (1956)
Stuart Griffin
Charles E. Tuttle Co: Publishers

This was printed 27 times by 1981. Twenty-seven times!

Via Barnes and Noble
Via Barnes and Noble

Content warning: a lot of causal historical racism, colonialism, classism, and sexism.

My friends, knowing I love food history, gave me a copy of an English-language Japanese cookbook as a parting gift. It’s been quite some time since I’ve written about SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers), the US presence in Occupied Japan from 1945-52. In grad school, I wrote about SCAP decrees regarding film, and the micro-management of Japanese media to “promote democracy.” This is a bit of a different look–not a government decree from above but a cookbook created by and for the post-Occupation (1956) expat who wants to make Japanese food at home in Japan. Griffin’s cookbook is a very telling sociological text in that it captures the general colonialist attitudes of the expats toward Japan as an occupied nation and of gender norms (for both Japanese and American women). Additionally, the book provides insight into the introduction of Japanese cuisine to Americans and to the US through its explanations of ingredients and dishes as well as the translations of some of the terms used.


This book is supposed to be an English-language guide to cooking in Japan for the 1950s American expat housewife and her Japanese maid. Overlooking the obvious sexism here, on one hand, I think learning the foodways of the country where you live as an expat is very important, particularly when you are coming from a place of cultural privilege: in this case, in the postwar period, during and after the Occupation.

Food and colonialism have a deep relationship. In the US, we see a lot of narratives of children of non-white or immigrant parents being shamed in the school cafeteria for not eating the “right” food. Conversely, in contemporary Japan, the food you eat and make as a non-native is also under scrutiny: if you cook Japanese food, you are praised and “aren’t like other foreigners”; if you don’t, it’s obviously because Americans “can’t” eat sushi or sashimi or anko. Most people–Japanese or otherwise– myself included, mix it up a bit anyway, but it’s hard to strike a balance between cost (imported food is expensive), availability, kitchen equipment, and what you want to make (hence this blog). That said, being overly self congratulatory on eating “weird” “exotic” food is also cultural appropriation and imperialism.

While my blog shared the same basic concept with this book, what I personally aimed to do was make cooking in Japan–both Japanese food and the sort of fusion-y food I make–easier by explaining where/how to find ingredients, how to substitute, what flours to use, how to say and read the ingredients, and how to measure in ways that worked in Japan. Likewise, this book is partially an introduction to Japanese home cooking contemporary to its time, and that aspect of it is A Good Idea. It’s fun to see which terms eventually migrated into American English sans explanation, like “miso soup” instead of “misoshiru, or bean-paste soup” (xii). However, the downside is the tone. Actually, the tone is not a “downside” so much as a deep, long look into the nexus of cultural imperialism, Orientalism (racism), and sexism of the era filtered through a cookbook.


It’s bad right from the first line: 

Before Mrs. American Housewife docked at Yokohama or landed at Haneda, her husband Mr. American had scoured the Japanese scene, gastronomically.

Mr. American Husband–sergeant, captain, civilian, diplomat, businessman, correspondent, missionary, tourist, teacher, or student–had really looked aroiud, seeking occasional relief from his dearly beloved steak and French fries, or ham and eggs, in the sizzling meat and vegetables of sukiyaki, the hot, chewy custard of chawan mushi, or the brown crispness of tempura. (xi)


Hell yes! Japanese food is delicious! But while “Mr. American Husband” goes on to discover a multitude of delicious Japanese food, we quickly get back to our food racism:

Defiantly, he could walk past the big, briny tubs of pickles, the fish stands where every species eyed him, and the small stool-and-counter shops with the stomach-turning cooking-oil smells. Mr. American Husband could leave a lot of Japanese food alone. He guessed he’d have to be reborn to sniff, let alone swallow some of what he saw. But he found lots of things that he wanted to eat and did like. (emphasis mine) (xii)

Hey, pickled vegetables, with their neon colors, are delicious! I get that new foods can be scary. It took me a couple years to be able to eat a whole fish with the head and tail on. I always felt bad because I think serving them whole is better, but I wasn’t raised with that culinary background and had to learn–with humility. Trying new things and adjusting to new norms is important, but so is a sense of understanding that just because you’re not used to it doesn’t make it wrong or weird or gross. And you don’t get a proverbial cookie for eating “exotic” foreign food.

 “Mrs. American Wife” shows up in Japan with her American kitchen equipment, and “the rest is up to Michiko or Yoshie under Mrs. Housewife’s eyes, and in English”(xii). There’s no explanation for this given in the text. We’re supposed to know, as readers, that “Michiko or Yoshie” is the family’s maid.

“Mr. American Husband” (ugh) takes out his wife for sukiyaki, which I agree is a good introduction to Japanese flavors and ingredients to ease in someone with no experience with the cuisine who perhaps has some problematic assumptions about it, like the wife, who thinks of “fish heads and rice.” Actual quote! Thanks to sukiyaki, his wife learns to love Japanese food (except for those “weird” things because cultural imperialism), so they throw a dinner party that was indubitably cooked by the maid, yielding us such lines as

“‘What was that soup called? Maybe your Michiko could teach my Sumie.’”


“He feels the crusader spirit [to share Japanese recipes with his American expat friends], the nobility of helping one’s fellowman. He shares this impulse with Wife, now almost as ‘bamboo’ as he.” [which is implied as how the cookbook got its start.]

I have no words for how incredibly gross that “bamboo” “going native” line is. I am deeply embarrassed for Stuart Griffin. I am reading this book making this face right here:

office jim


Next time: “laver”; explaining sushi; and how many times Griffin can write unusual and exotic?


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