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Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 2: Are You What You Eat? Or Do You Eat What You Are?

Posted by Shaun

The idea of "men's dishes" and "women's dishes" is not unique to Japan. Both the US's Salon.com and the UK's The Guardian have run articles on the gendering of food in their respective countries. A.K. Whitney at SexyFeminist humorously relates her experience as a woman who does not eat the foods expected of her in "Feminoshing: Eating According to Gender":

"I put in my order. [The proprietress] raised an eyebrow at me.
'That is a man’s dish.'


That was news to me. I don’t often make Stroganoff at home ... but I never saw it as any more male or female than, say, ordinary stew. But the proprietress clearly had her ideas. I feared for a moment that she would not let me have the Stroganoff, being that I don’t have a penis, but she was obviously done with that one comment. When the food came, I ate every bite, and while no one thankfully checked afterward, I was still female through and through." (para. 2-7)
What's a stereotypical "man's dish" in Japan? And how present are those stereotypes? In an experiment titled "Implicit gender-based food stereotypes: Semantic priming experiments on young Japanese"* (abstract available here), researchers Kimura et al. attempted to find out exactly that. First, they asked a group of Japanese college students to list foods they thought were feminine or masculine. The researchers made a list of the foods that were mentioned more than once and then asked another group of students to rank those foods as masculine, feminine, or neutral.

According to these pilot studies, the six most masculine foods in Japan are:
Gyu-don (thinly sliced beef served over a bowl of rice), ramen, yaki-niku, katsu-don (breaded and fried pork served over a bowl of rice), tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlet), and steak.

The six most feminine are:
Cake, fruit, salad, pudding, ice cream parfaits, and pasta (522)
    As you can see, and as Kimura et al. point out, the masculine foods are meaty and high in fat, while the feminine foods are either desserts or low in fat and calories (524). The researchers decided to test for gender stereotypes about these foods using a third group of Japanese college students. This group was first shown the name of one of the food items in the list above and then asked to identify the gender of a Japanese first name (the 6 most feminine and 6 most masculine first names were selected in another pilot study). A computer measured the student's reaction times. The researchers found that it took participants significantly longer to identify the gender of a name when it was presented with a food stereotypically associated with the opposite gender. For example, if participants were shown "ice cream parfait" and then "Daisuke" it would take longer for them to choose "male" than if shown "gyu-don" and "Daisuke." This demonstrates that Japanese college students really do have strong stereotypes about who eats what according to gender (522-523).

    So where on earth do these stereotypes come from? Both Salon.com's Riddhi Shah in"Men Eat Meat, Women Eat Chocolate: How Food Gets Gendered" and The Guardian's Eva Wiseman in "The Truth About Men, Women, and Food" explore this question.

    Shah interviews researchers who suggest evolutionary reasons for men's and women's different diets, but finds that these explanations break down when taken outside the US. Although Japan's stereotypes of men and women and food sound pretty similar to those in America, studies in Spain and Egypt found completely different associations (paragraphs 4-9). Other researchers Shah interviews tell her that differences in eating habits come from the double standard that women must worry about calories and weight gain while men don't have to, allowing men to freely eat the high-calorie foods women pass up. Or perhaps people want to eat foods that are associated traits they want to have themselves (para. 12-13). If you want to be more masculine, grab some gyu-don.

    Wiseman takes these concepts even further. Further evolutionary theories are discussed (paragraphs 11, 14), but the writer agrees that it's more complicated than evolution. Boys are socialized to eat heartily, while women and girls are socialized to associate eating with emotions, calories with guilt (para. 15-16). Of particular interest is Wiseman's interview with Dr. David Bell, a professor at the University of Leeds and the author of a book called Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat:
    "Dr Bell, whose work on food consumption concentrates on how we use food to work out who we are, makes this very clear: ''Nature' isn't natural. It's cultural.
    It's a story we tell to help us understand the world, and it's powerfully
    appealing in our post-Darwinian, secular culture. We need ways to explain the
    world and who we are, and nature, via science, gives us that.
    ... Gender, like nature itself, isn't 'natural', it's something we 'do'. And we do it all the time, which means we do it when we eat. We learn our tastes, and part of that learning is gendered'" (para. 22-23).
    For the rest of this blog series, I'm going to be working with this idea of gender as something we do, and do differently depending on where we are and when, not as something that always happens in a fixed way based on evolution. With that in mind, let's return to the example of 男の油そば and 女の油そば. What's the difference, and what do men's- and women's- oil-noodles tell us about how gender is constructed in Japan?

    Approaching the restaurant
    The menu outside the restaurant
     Judging from the menu, the difference is twofold, flavor and price. The men's soba comes in salt and miso flavors, while the women's soba is cooked with extra-virgin olive oil. I had originally thought I'd be a rebel and order the men's soba and see what happened, but the price difference of 150 yen had me balking. I walked in and was immediately presented with a ticket vending machine to place my order. I asked a nearby employee what the difference between the men's and women's versions was, and he told me 1) the "volume" of the men's version is greater and 2) the women's version has the olive oil. He asked me if I liked olive oil and pointed out another dish that was also popular with women.

    At first I had a hard time finding the button on the touch screen for the 女の油そば. The buttons for each flavor of the 男の油そば were much bigger and closer to the top, suggesting right off the bat that most of the restaurant's customers are men. When I finally found the button for the soba I wanted, closer to the bottom of the screen, it was bright pink. The buttons for the men's dishes were black with white lettering, like the flags outside the restaurant. I pushed the button, and strangely enough, the vending machine emitted Super Mario sound effects when it spat out my meal ticket. Not exactly relevant, but still entertaining.

    I was directed to an open table near the back of the restaurant. The university lunch rush hadn't started yet, so there weren't many people, and most of them were men, probably college-aged. I began to wonder if maybe this restaurant wasn't popular with women at all despite its attempts to create menu items specifically for them, but halfway through my lunch, a group of four girls came in. I'm not sure if they ordered along gender lines or not.

    Here's what the 女の油そば looked like:
    Before you tell me how pathetic this portion size is, this bowl was enormous. I should have put something else in the picture for scale.
    I unfortunately couldn't afford two bowls of soba and I went out to lunch alone, so I don't have anything else from this restaurant to compare to, but there are a few things I noticed right off the bat. The first is the size. This bowl was huge. There was no way I would have been able to finish a portion that filled the bowl, and I found it interesting that the dish was intentionally presented in a way that made it look smaller than it was. Another thing that surprised me was the lack of toppings. I had expected only a small amount of meat, because meat is coded as masculine, but I had also expected more vegetables as a substitute. I can only imagine the size and the toppings of the men's version.

    The choice to use extra-virgin olive oil for the women's dish is an interesting one. I've heard of extra virgin olive oil being praised for its health value in comparison to other cooking oils. The combination of small portion size and a "healthier" oil shows that the restaurant pictures its female customers as relatively health-conscious (but not afraid of carbs - the dish really was mostly noodles).  But while soba is unquestionably a Japanese dish, olive oil is not exactly a traditional Japanese flavor. I think Italy and Greece, not Japan, when I think of olive oil. The men's dishes were available in more Japanese flavors. The different flavor options constructs an image of women as more willing to try new things and potentially more open to "Western" flavors than men. It's interesting that on the list of strongly-gendered food Kimura et al. put together, all of the men's dishes except steak are distinctly Japanese food, while the women's choices of cake, salad, fruit, and pasta are not specifically Japanese.

    People in both the US and Japan construct gender based on food. Japanese and American impressions tend to coincide - sweet and light foods for women, hearty, meaty, and caloric foods for men - possibly because of our historical connections, from Commodore Perry forcing Japan to open its ports to the American occupation after World War II. In the next two posts, about sweets and alcohol, I'll explore the ways these similarities, as well as differences, are reflected in advertising.

    My question for you, the reader, is this: Why is it that, in the examples here and in my last post, a Japanese restaurant will flat out declare on a menu, "this food is for women," while in the US, it's more subtle? Men never appear in American yogurt commercials, for example, but you don't see "ladies' yogurt parfait" on the menu when you go out to breakfast (if you have, please let me know!). Perhaps it's because in America we like to see ourselves as a culture that's gender-blind, even though assumptions about what men and women do and don't do still enter our minds on a daily basis, while Japan has no illusions about its' very distinct constructions of male and female. Would a restaurant selling "men's food" and "women's food" separately be successful in the US? Granted, I'm not sure how successful the abura-soba place is, but the unagi restaurant and Burger King seem to be doing well enough.

    If I had more time and people to help me out, I also would have liked to do more research into reactions to eating the "opposite gendered" food. My guess is that if a woman orders a man's dish, the reaction would be that she was either really hungry or a bit of a pig. But what would happen if a man who happened to really like olive oil went for the women's abura-soba? Or ordered the princess set at the unagi restaurant? Or if he wasn't quite hungry enough for the Whopper and got the Whopper Junior instead?

    If anyone reading this has any experience with ordering "the wrong food," especially in Japan, please feel free to share it with me.
    Print works cited:

    *Kimura, Atsushi, Yuji Wada, Sho-Ichi Goto, Daisuke Tsuzuki, Dongsheng
    Cai, Takashi Oka, and Ippeita Dan. "Implicit Gender-based Food
    Stereotypes. Semantic Priming Experiments on Young Japanese." Appetite 52 (2009): 521-24. Print.

    2 Responses so far.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I can't imagine an adult woman ordering something called 'princess' anything...now a little girl would love it...especially if she got a crown. :) Not too long ago I was in a FIVE GUYS Restaurant(mainly burgers and fries) getting a gift certificate and I was stunned by the fact that there was maybe 1 girl for every 20 guys there. Clearly this was a guy place! :)

      Aunt Jody

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