Theses Doctoral

Nourishing Life: Diet, Body, and Society in Early Modern Japan

Schlachet, Joshua Evan

This study resituates the twentieth-century origins of lifestyle reform movements by examining the cultural politics of nourishment in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), when the move toward a shared, authoritative, and seemingly objective system of dietary reform began to take shape, apart from the influence of modern nutritional sciences or the nation-state. A host of popular writers adapted older knowledge on medicine and longevity to communicate rules for dietary conduct that could apply across the spectrum of status and class. The celebration of nourishment in the emerging cultural marketplace of Tokugawa Japan in part represented an attempt to bring society back into alignment through a rhetoric that bundled self-regulation, morality, and individual and collective prosperity into a holistic sense of what the body could become in the world when properly fueled. Surrendering to a desire for the delicious was tantamount to shirking one’s duty, inviting disease, and weakening not only the individual body but the household as well. This tension between self-regulation and an expanded, socially embedded conception of bodily care became the animating logic behind the dispensation and reception of dietary advice in Japan from the eighteenth century on. As the core component in a system of healthy being, nourishing life in late-Tokugawa Japan transcended the personal longevity regimens from which it had once originated to become a perceived cure for social ills.
Developments in the Tokugawa and Meiji periods reveal an ongoing tension between a universal healthy diet rooted in human physiology and Japan-specific nutritional standards meant to apply only locally. This study seeks to demonstrate how difficult it can be to isolate and identify a Japanese diet in light of waves of historical change, not only in patterns of eating but in thought and motivation behind competing visions of what to eat and why. Each new iteration of advice represents another attempt to distill and communicate priorities that often extend beyond immediate physiological concerns of bodily care. Following dietary guidance into the past compels us to think of nourishment not as a progression to an increasingly sophisticated and complete understanding of the ways in which food affects how the body performs in the world, but as a contingent struggle between systems of self-care with their own logics, claims to efficacy, and extra-physiological concerns rooted in the historical contexts from which they emerged.
Chapter One examines Kaibara Ekiken’s (1630-1714) Precepts on Nourishing Life (Yōjōkun, 1713), a text that marked a turning point at which previously esoteric principles of health migrated from medical systems to an emerging popular culture of nourishment. By the end of the Tokugawa period, Yōjōkun had become both a set of specific principles recorded by Ekiken and a “brand” that others could use to legitimize their own dietary sensibilities. Ekiken carved out a new position from the earlier Chinese and Japanese longevity texts from which he drew inspiration, adapting a model of alimentary choice and personal responsibility to his own historical moment.
Chapter Two explores the rise of new knowledge, new knowledge makers, and new knowledge consumers in vernacular dietary guidebooks. These guides changed the implicit structure of authority between ordinary people and those from whom they sought advice on health. Assertions that guidebooks alone could provide all the care one needed altered the terms of the relationship between everyday readers and experts by inserting a new layer of access to knowledge without the need for firsthand consultation. Despite emerging from the realm of medical knowledge, new nourishing life (yōjō) manuals betrayed a growing skepticism of doctors and medicinal healing, subordinating them to preventive nourishment regimens.
Chapter Three investigates how the commercial publishing culture of late Tokugawa Japan created a venue for non-specialist authors to comment on the social place of the well-nourished body developed in nourishing life guides. Literary storybooks explored the moral and economic dimensions of health, highlighting excess, gluttony, wealth, and income disparity as themes in who should or could eat what. The chapter focuses on two ‘tales of the stomach,’ which aimed to demystify digestion and the workings of the inner body by personifying foods and bodily responses to them. I argue for a more expansive view of food publications in the Tokugawa period, as well as an understanding of didacticism inclusive enough to account for shared dietary themes across genres.
Chapter Four concludes the dissertation by tracing the encounter between Tokugawa dietary health and Western scientific nutrition in the Meiji period (1868-1912), as the fledgling Japanese empire negotiated its new position vis-à-vis the West on political, cultural, and corporeal grounds. The new nutritional sciences were a novel departure from the norms of dietary thinking not only in Japan but in Europe and America, where views on diet had been largely commensurable with those of nourishing life until around the middle of the nineteenth century. Late Meiji doctor Ishizuka Sagen and the civil organizations founded to advance his ideas were among the first to use a “chemical theory of nutrition” to challenge new norms of Western science by evoking a traditionalist vision of a Japanese diet of brown rice, whole grains, miso, and vegetables. Yet vernacular advice persisted as the medium for recording and communicating nourishment to the public, and Tokugawa understandings of yōjō continued to live on in new forms.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Gluck, Carol
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2018