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Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 3: Let Them Eat Cake

Posted by Shaun

Last time, I wrote about the basic ways that food in Japan is categorized based on gender.

There's a strong perception in Japanese culture that sweets are for women, not for men, which I touched on briefly in the last post. Researchers have found that women in Japan reported that they like sweets more and eat more of them than men (Katou, Mori, and Ikawa, abstract), and that people who described themselves as more feminine also described themselves as eating more sweet foods (Hirokawa, Yamazawa, and Shimizu, 432).

This belief that men can't openly enjoy sweets was at one point so strong that a restaurant opened up in Shibuya that sold desserts that looked like fast food, so men could indulge undercover (It's since gone out of business).

In my last post, I wrote about how different eating habits between men and women are not necessarily because men and women naturally like different foods. The social environment plays a huge role in encouraging people to eat one thing or another, and this social environment is created not just by individuals eating together with their family or friends, but by pop culture as well. That includes advertising as well as anime, manga, TV shows, and other forms of mass communication.

The website TVTropes, in which internet users record and catalog reoccurring conventions in media, wiki-style, has a page called "Real Men Hate Sugar," which lists examples of male characters who either hate sweet foods or are encouraged to pretend to hate sweet foods in order to seem more mature and masculine. Most of the examples come from Japanese anime. The opposite of "Real Men Hate Sugar," characters who love sweets and consume them frequently, is called "Sweet Tooth." Once again, most of the examples are from anime. Many of the male characters with a Sweet Tooth are described by TVTropes contributors as odd, immature, comedic, or creepy because of their love for sugar. There are also several male characters listed who magically change gender throughout the course of a story and either have their degree of preference for sweets change or suddenly have the opportunity to indulge in a secret craving for sweets.

TVTropes is only available in English, and it relies a lot on English-specific humor and internet slang.  Japan has its own thriving Japanese-language internet communities, so I think it's a pretty safe guess that most of the website's contributors who are anime fans come from outside of Japan. An anime character's eating habits are clearly used to say something about that character's position on the axes of masculinity <--> femininity, immaturity <--> maturity, and even normality <--> weirdness. And anime fans outside of Japan are picking up on this coding. The relationships between gender and food in Japan's popular culture are being globalized along with the pop culture itself.

It's important to realize that when we consume pop culture from another country, we're not just watching a different kind of story. The story and characters carry the residue of the culture in which they were created, and this includes different ways of expressing gender.

This is important because it's not just anime that gets exported from Japan. In my experience, anime fans tend to be drawn to other things from Japan as well, including Japanese snack food. When I was in junior high, I was able to buy Men's Pocky, a more bitter, dark chocolate version of the popular Japanese cracker stick dipped in chocolate, at the same store where I bought my anime and manga. When we learned from watching anime and reading manga that it was "manly" to avoid sweets, it became a joke among my group of friends to give it to the butchest girl among us to demonstrate her "manliness." Even as young teenagers, we were using anime, manga, and food consumption to construct our concepts of gender.

The public attitude towards Japanese men and sweets consumption is changing, and I think 草食男子 soushoku danshi, "herbivore men" started the conversation. The disintegration of Japan's lifetime employment system has meant that the current generation of Japanese men have to construct their identities in a different way than their fathers did. According to Slate's Alexandra Harney in "The Herbivore's Dilemma," herbivore men are guys who fly in the face of stereotypes of Japanese masculinity.  They're known for being relatively passive, with a low interest in sex, money, and career status, content to hang around the house and pursue quiet hobbies like gardening, which seem "feminine" by Japanese standards (para. 1-2, 4-8). They're called "herbivores" not because they eat a lot of vegetables, but because of their lack of interest in sex. Apparently the translation of "sex" is "relationship in the flesh," so the journalist who coined the term, Maki Fukusawa, chose "herbivores" (Neill, para. 3). Note how once again diet is used as a metaphor for constructions of gender and sexuality.

Following the trend of soushoku-danshi, to translate and paraphrase this Japanese blog entry, many "___ danshi" expressions have been coined to describe men whose personalities and tastes are completely different from men of previous generations. These men have traits that used to belong exclusively to women. The entry, posted in May, 2009 focuses on the new term スイーツ男子 suiitsu danshi "sweets man."

 According to this company news bulletin, the Japanese convenience store chain Family Mart began selling its own line of sweets in 2006. Family Mart noticed that the ratio of men to women buying sweets was 6:4 and created a set of 男のスイーツ otoko no suiitsu "men's sweets" that was also enjoyed by many women. The original "men's sweets" series focused on "volume" and "familiar flavors" (para. 3). Following the "sweets danshi" trend, in September 2010, Family Mart decided to improve upon its' "men's sweets" series and create 俺のスイーツ ore no suiitsu, with a focus on "volume," "moderate sweetness," and "high-quality ingredients" to satisfy its most discerning male customers (para. 1, 3).

This text is pink on Family Mart's other desserts
Family Mart's decision to call its' new-and-improved dessert line for men 俺のスイーツ ore no suiitsu is interesting because the name ups the manliness of the sweets while the company attempts to up the quality. It literally translates to "My Sweets," but the word 俺 ore is a very masculine first-person pronoun, so as not to let you forget that these are a man's desserts. So far I've seen (and eaten) 俺のエクレアore no ekurea "My Eclair" and 俺のチョコケーキシュウ ore no choko keeki shuu "My Chocolate Cake Cream Puff."

Let's take a closer look at 俺のエクレアore no eclair:
ore no ekurea
First of all, this is an incredibly large dessert.

With my iPod Touch for scale.
Evidently, Family Mart thinks size matters.
 I can't speak for the quality of the ingredients, because I've never actually eaten an eclair before, but there was certainly a lot going on inside this thing.

Cream, chocolate whipped cream, chocolate flakes, chocolate mousse, chocolate doughy outside...
It sort of makes me laugh how intense this eclair is. Look at it in comparison to the "double cream" eclair marketed at women.

The photo quality is low because I took this in Family Mart with my cell phone.
The image of men I'm getting from Family Mart's "ore no eclair" is of a guy who wants everything bigger and better than the options available for women. If he's going to buy chocolate, it's got to come with chocolate on top. I'd be interested to see how many men switched from buying ordinary "women's" sweets to buying these male-targeted lines once they were released. This is a lot to eat, and if a guy feels like he has to eat this much chocolate in one sitting in order to feed his sweet tooth without sacrificing his masculinity, I kinda feel sorry for him.

In any case, the trend of sweets-eating men continues to grow. This MSN article from January 2011 announced another new term coined to describe men who love sweet foods, 甘男子,  amadan, a portmanteau of 甘い amai, "sweet" and 男子 danshi, "man."

It's been interesting exploring how changes in Japan's masculinities are described through the language of diet and food. American media is still largely stagnating in the stereotype of hyper-masculine, aggressive, sex-obsessed "carnivores," but I'm interested to see how our own economic recession and the inability to realize the American dream of "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" will affect future constructions of masculinity in the US.

Works Cited (that I can't link to directly)

Hirokawa, Kumi, Kazuko Yamazawa, and Hiroyuki Shimizu. "An Examination Of Sex And Masculinity/Femininity As Related To The Taste Sensitivity Of Japanese Students." Sex Roles 55.5/6 (2006): 429-433. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love your description of the eclair..."there certainly was a lot going on inside that thing". :) that is one monster eclair. Was it any good?
    Aunt Jody

  2. Anonymous says:

    I've started to notice the difference in the American palate and Japanese one, and decided to do some reading. your article here was very interesting! I was aware that things like what food resources were available in different countries (and how things like drinking milk wasn't actively encouraged until modernization in the Meiji era) but it didn't occur to me the social stigma of so called feminine foods and masculine foods.

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