Frank H. Wu
Excerpted from: Frank H. Wu, Scattered: The Assimilation of Sushi, The Internment of Japanese Americans, and The Killing of Vincent Chin, A Personal Essay, 26 Asian American Law Journal 109 (2019) (76 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Coming of age as the Japanese economy was coming to be envied for its rise, I started eating sushi when Americans were just willing, curiosity overcoming disgust inexorably, to sample it, chopsticks and all. The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain said the desire for sushi was a “big win.” Back then, in the throes of economic war circa the early 1980s, characterized as another Pearl Harbor, “sushi” was synonymous with nigiri, raw fish atop vinegared rice perfected late in the Edo Period. Sushi is a metaphor. Initially, it was invasive. The hostility to sushi would seem baffling, in light of the developments. By 2006, sushi restaurants had attained the status of Americans' favorite choice for dining out. In 2011, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi was a sleeper hit at the box office, elevating the octogenarian star, proprietor of a Tokyo café in a subway station, to global celebrity. Culinary xenophobia had been vanquished. Only after “Japan Inc.”--as the seeming monolith of Japanese economic might was dubbed--bubble burst even more spectacularly than it had inflated, in a lost decade that birthed the “freeters” (young people who elected to stay unemployed), myself having accumulated a decade of practice dabbing wasabi (horseradish) paste to barely below the point of the overdose which cleared the sinuses in a thrilling moment, did I wonder what the menu meant by chirashi. The superlative bargain in Japanese food is chirashi. Unlike Sushi A and Sushi B, this more specific title lacked a description for the uninitiated, vouchsafed for those already in the know. This dish is presented according to the principle that “the eyes eat first”: sashimi (slices of the meat), with other ingredients such as pickles, displayed over a bed of sushi rice. The literal translation of “chirashi” is “scattered.” (Movie posters, or flyers, are called by the term too, because of the way they are distributed all around.)
In this personal Essay, I describe the dichotomies produced by Japanese food in the United States, as a means to contemplate how Asian immigration has been received. Eating sushi was once how Japanese conserved their identity; eating sushi now is how Asians become American. The murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 was a fateful moment: as Japan gave the impression of invulnerability, Asian Americans were defenseless.
Narrative commands understanding. The story of how raw fish came to be ingested by the United States is two stories. The first story is about the American mainstream gorging itself on sushi, so much so that global stocks have become endangered. Past is the time that sushi brought on collective nausea, a revulsion trumping the etiquette which would deter ridicule of another's taste. Then it came under regulation, with the warning it could endanger health. Yet it has cachet, other than in the cruel variant of ikizukuri (food consumed while the animal is living). The second story is about the Japanese endeavoring to maintain quality, or more accurately cultural control over the aesthetic codes of washoku (traditional cuisine). Following a cancelled Japanese government attempt to police the legitimacy of sushi overseas, formal societies were organized to self-regulate. Such supervision may verge on conflict with equality norms, by implicitly discouraging non-Japanese, who would dare try their hand at the art, on the dubious grounds of innate affinity, or women, on the spurious basis of menstrual stigma. Authoritarian rules, however, have not dissuaded a public eager for novelty from trying out the fusion of Japanese food with everything else, as in the sushi-burrito, alongside ever more obscure grey market imports such as Japanese whiskeys, single malt and blended. Sushi is less susceptible to the anxiety about “cultural appropriation,” since Japan is not subordinate (though Japanese Americans did not occupy the same position when they started peddling sushi). Claude Levi-Strauss, in his science of mythology, posited that binary oppositions such as the “raw” and the “cooked” demarcate our respective worldviews. Sushi is raw, Eastern, submissive.
The visceral, feeling in our gut frames the rational, a limitation in the law that is invisible. Sushi has become marked politically, a token of liberal elitism in the catechism of “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” Sushi discloses the illusory nature of “authenticity” in “post-modernity,” as California rolls, spam musubi (spam topping rice, wrapped in seaweed), and innovation in the kitchen introduces recipes that would not be approved at the source of the inspiration. Food has always been identified with people, as in “our people” versus “your people,” the shunning of the cuisine being prompted by the status of the community and sovereignty being vulnerable to a rage for refreshments unfamiliar. For the gourmand, food tends toward fetish. Sushi is not unique as representing an affiliated people: savory puddings fell out of favor as foreign; pizza pie was once ethnic food; slanders about Mexican beer being contaminated by urine are about Latino hygiene; the bagel was advertised as a “Jewish English muffin” to be noshed with any topping. Chinese food is as ubiquitous now even if “John Chinaman,” Celestials, Mongoloids, and Orientals were despised previously, and the flavor enhancer MSG has been deemed a toxin. Food retains its appeal as symbol. It stays within the literary province of the consummate memoirist M.F.K. Fisher, even as it succumbs to scientific scrutiny, disciplined by academic study. To talk and write about a source of nutrition as more than protein, fat, carbohydrate, and trace chemicals, is as important as to cook and eat, culturally
[. . .]
Diet is mandatory, rendering it perforce normative. “Ethnic food” is all about the back stories. Since we are what we eat, observers react to us by watching our dining habits. Americans once adjudged Japanese food to be exotic to the point of inedible. Yet America has been made up of, and by, foreigners who have become a people through the mythos of breaking bread as at Thanksgiving. Chirashi could be celebrated among the meals defining us as e pluribus unum. What appears to be but random is in fact an elegant arrangement. That is the abiding power of food.
William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor, University of California Hastings College of the Law.
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