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Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 1: Separate Menus

Posted by Shaun

This post is the start of a four- or five-part series on the gendered marketing of food in Japan. It’s an assignment for my Japanese Pop Culture Globalization class, but I’m hoping that my regular readers might find it interesting too, so I’m posting it here rather than creating a new blog. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, but if not, just hang in there for four or five posts, and then we can return to your regularly scheduled blog programming.

Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 1: Separate Menus

There's a restaurant near the Waseda subway station that features two banners, proudly advertising in bold, white characters on a black background, "男の油そば otoko no abura-soba" and 女の油そば onna no abura-soba." Men's oil-noodles and women's oil-noodles.

The restaurant itself is downstairs, behind the white and red sign on the right.
What makes abura soba fit for a man or for a woman?

On my first visit to Japan, I remember being struck by just how gendered things were, even compared to the US, where we're not exactly gender-blind (at all).
The bathroom signs were not just male and female, they were pink and blue.
Manga was marketed to boys or to girls, with further subdivisions based on age (young girls, teenage girls, middle-aged women).
I didn't see any women with hair as short as mine.
During my current visit, back in October, I had to buy a pair of tennis shoes. I discovered that my feet were 26.5cm, and women's sizes stopped at 25cm. Realizing I was now confined to the men's shoe racks, I started browsing those selections. The sales guy kept trying to redirect me to styles that said "men's and women's," even though Converse and Van's weren't the kind of shoes I wanted. I ended up with a pair of bright purple Nike sneakers. The only person who was able to tell they were from the men's section was my host cousin, who told me he had the same shoes in red. But that salesperson sure thought it was important that I not buy shoes that said "men's."

Bringing us back to the topic of food, lest you should think the abura-soba example is the only place in Japan you can find food sold by gender, take a look at these boxes of curry mix I found at the grocery store near my host family's house. Bet you can't guess which is for boys and which is for girls.
Featuring Pretty Cure and (I think) Ultraman
I've heard that Japanese curry can be a comfort food for kids, so I guess that makes these the Spongebob macaroni of Japan. I totally get the idea that kids will see their favorite characters and convince their parents to buy this curry. I know I remember doing that when I saw Pokemon macaroni while "helping" my mom grocery-shop. But I can't remember ever seeing a "girls' macaroni" and a "boys' macaroni" side by side. I checked Wikipedia for a quick confirmation, and it tells me:
"Packages have come with pasta in the shapes of various characters popular with children, such as Super Mario Brothers, Pokémon, the Rugrats, The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Toy Story, Blue's Clues, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the Fairly OddParents."
All of these characters appeal to both boys and girls. There's no Disney Princess macaroni, or whatever it is girls are supposed to be watching these days.

But wait, there's more:
One of the first times I went out to a restaurant with my host family, we went to an unagi (grilled eel) restaurant. My host mom helped me figure out what to order, and the option we both ended up getting was called the "姫セット hime setto," the "princess set."

It's called a "princess set" because it's marketed towards women. It has a smaller portion of the unagi and tempura, and it includes a salad, a soup, and a small pudding for dessert. I can't remember if the unagi set my host dad ordered came with soup/salad, but I know the pudding was unique to the "princess" menu.

As a further example, I remember when Burger King came out with it's Junior menu, and as I recall, it was targeted at older kids who didn't want a kids meal but couldn't quite eat a whole Whopper. I learned from a TV show I was watching yesterday that the Whopper Junior is marketed towards women in Japan. The participants in the show had to guess which foods were most popular at Burger King, and they kept saying "Junior is definitely something women would order," or "Junior would be the version for women," even though there's absolutely nothing related to women in the word "junior."

When my sister was visiting me and we were considering going to eat yaki-niku (meat you grill yourself at a grill on your table), my host sister looked up some recommendations for us and told us that if they have a set for women, not to order it because it would be mostly vegetables, and we wanted to eat meat.

Who decides that a Whopper Junior or a vegetable or a pudding is masculine or feminine? Where do these ideas come from? Are we what we eat? And what does it say when "what we should eat" based on whether we're male, female, or something else in between, changes depending on what country we find ourselves in? Those are the questions I'm going to explore in these next five blog posts.

Keep reading:
Part 2: Are You What You Eat? Or Do You Eat What You Are?
Part 3: Let Them Eat Cake
Part 4: Beer for Him and Her
Part 5: Edible Idols
Part 6: Final Thoughts

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