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Japanese comics or Manga cover a wide range of topics, including Shounen, Shoujo, sports, music, and many more. If you’ve ever eaten food and thought “I want to see this in a manga,” then you’re not alone.

Food is one of the most common themes in manga, anime, and comics. In Japan, there’s even a genre known as Gurume Manga. Gurume Manga are comics that focus on cooking recipes and techniques with famous chefs or professionals. They also showcase dishes from around the world.

Oishinbo is a manga that represents the pinnacle of the Gourmet Manga genre. It was a comic like no other that examined and showcased Japan’s distinct food culture, whilst also relaying lessons in life and not just facts about cuisine.

Today we will take a look at the culture of the Gurume Manga genre to get a better understanding of this niche corner of the comic book world. Time to dive into this culinary masterpiece!

What is Gurume Manga?

Gurume Manga or Gourmet Manga, by its name alone, can tell it is all about food. Around the 1970s, manga started incorporating more about cooking when plots that explored the journey for prowess became a lot more prominent in the scene.

On top of that, the increase in gurume manga dates back to the 1980s when economic growth paved the way for the gourmet boom. Around this time, Gourmet manga started to really pick up and surge in popularity. This leads us to Gurume Manga’s best-seller, Oishinbo.

Oishinbo

Oishinbo, which started its publication in 1983, is a manga written by Kariya Tetsu and illustrated by Hanasaki Akira. Oishinbo was published in 111 tankbon volumes, making it the tenth longest manga series and the eleventh best-selling manga series in history. The series was a consistent best-seller, selling 1.2 million copies every volume for a total of more than 135 million sales. 

Oishinbo also had an animated television series of 136 episodes running from 1988 to 1992 which was also a hit, receiving the Shogakukan Manga Award for the seinen category.

Oishinbo follows the adventures of Yamaoka Shirō and Kurita Yūko who are employees in the culture division of Tōzai News, as they create an “ultimate” menu of culinary dishes. On the other hand, Teito Times, a rival news company, is working on making their “supreme” menu. 

Oishinbo, like most Gurume Manga, captivates readers and viewers with its wealth of information and knowledge about food and cooking.

Understanding Japanese Cuisine

Time and time again, the characters of Oishinbo will use food to solve the problems they encounter, underscoring the significance of food in the lives of people. The first episode, “Kyūkyoku no menyū” (Ultimate Menu) emphasizes the main concept of how “human culture” can be reflected in a “food culture.” Although food culture in Japan is influenced by a lot of foreign foods because of importation, “washoku” or Japanese food is especially important.

Food culture in Japan, ever since the Meiji period has been influenced by Western cuisines, creating the term “yoshoku” which should not be confused with “washoku.” Yoshoku means “Western food” that is prepared in a Japanese manner. In Oishinbo, readers are exposed to foreign dishes but washoku is also celebrated, even to the simplest of recipes. 

Japanese Values in Food

The stories in Oishinbo illustrate the values associated with Japanese food. In particular, it teaches other Japanese culinary characteristics that are held in high regard.

The Secret of Stock

For example, the episode, “Dashi no Himitsu” (The Secret of Stock) teaches the importance of a chef’s instruments. The chapter starts with Kaibara Yūzan, founder of the Gourmet Club, eating together with Ohara, the publisher of Tōzai News in a famous Hanayama restaurant.

Kaibara Yūzan, Yamaoka’s father, has an estranged relationship with his son, which is why they usually get into arguments throughout the series. Unknowingly to both, Yamaoka is separately eating there in another room. Kaibara Yūzan makes a commotion and expresses his dissatisfaction with the fish soup to the okami (landlady). 

The okami goes to serve Yamaoka and his colleagues and expresses her concern about the customer who kept demanding his dashi to be remade. After hearing the okami’s distress, Yamaoka offers to help. He noticed that the blade of the katsuobushi kezuriki used was rusted and couldn’t shave the katsuobushi properly. 

This scene shows just how important it is to use the most appropriate instruments to make a dish.

The Fundamentals of the Knife

Episode “Hōchō no kihon” (The Fundamentals of the Knife) from Oishinbo’s Adventures also tackles sacrificing the basic values of being a chef for the sake of flashy presentation. In this story, a foreigner, Jeff Larson, aims to be an itamae or chef and asks for help from Tanimura Hideo, Tōzai News’ director.

Tanimura takes Jeff to ‘West Coast’, a restaurant with branches overseas, along with Yamaoka and Kurita. After being shown a flashy technique of slicing sashimi by the chef, Jeff expresses how the sashimi does not taste good and he doesn’t want to work there.

This infuriates the chef, so Yamaoka comes up with the unique idea of holding a cuisine competition to settle the score. In order to prepare for the cook-off, Yamaoka takes Jeff to train under an old chef by peeling a daikon radish into a thin strip more than three metres long.

Jeff wins the competition, and even the owner of the restaurant agrees that his sashimi is better. Yamaoka explains that the chef’s techniques were harsh on the carp and that sashimi should be handled with care.

For additional information, a yanagiba knife can be used to cut to avoid breaking fish cells and letting water penetrate the fish. This story emphasizes the importance of being aware of the basics and not sacrificing potential for performance.

The Japanese Art of Attention to Detail

From these two stories we can see the importance of one’s tools and methods in cooking that helps build the dish. Tools such as knives are essential instruments, not only as objects but a medium that indicates what kind of chef one is. Cutting, a simple yet significant technique should also be handled with seriousness, because it weighs heavily on the food being prepared. When it comes to the Japanese, those who cut the ingredients or the Hana-ita have an important responsibility. Besides these fundamentals, the chef’s heart is also important in cooking.

In “Motenashi no Kokoro” (A Hospitable Heart), Kaibara Yūzan and Yamaoka get into an argument regarding the complexity of making rice and miso soup. To settle it, Yamaoka goes against his father’s past helper, Motomura, in preparing a simple meal of it.

Yamaoka used the finest ingredients he could find and the best techniques, but in spite of that, Motomura won. It was revealed that Motomura sorts the rice grains to be uniform in size to cook evenly and he did other things paying attention to detail. Kaibara Yūzan criticizes Yamaoka that it is not only the ingredients nor methods that will touch a person’s heart – but the care put into it by the one who cooks it.

Human Connections Through Food

Besides the plots in Oishinbo’s Adventures that center on techniques, there are touching stories that focus on human relationships through the medium of food.

Mother’s Ringo

In the story, “Haha naru Ringo” (Mother’s Ringo), a man reconnects with his mother through food. Yamaoka & Kurita meet Satoru Aosawa. Whenever Satoru goes to a cafe, he always orders the same thing on the menu:  apple pie & apple tea but they never meet his expectations.

Yamaoka thinks his mother used to make these foods. In this narrative, Aosawa felt abandoned by his mother, who had to give him over to his father after their divorce.

Yamaoka believes that these were dishes used to be made by his mother. The mother referred to in this story was forced to leave him to his father after their divorce and in return, Aosawa felt abandoned.

Yamaoka helps reconnect Aosawa with his mother by asking her to bake an apple pie for the café to which he would invite Aosawa. Aosawa is extremely delighted after eating the tea and pie at the café and suddenly recognises the lady coming out of the kitchen as his mother, and they reconcile heartily.

Fresh Vegetables

Fresh Vegetables

The story “Yasai no sendo” (Fresh Vegetables), Yamaoka and Kurita visit the launch of a department store established by Shuji Itayama. Itayama takes them around the food court, but Yamaoka expresses his disappointment towards the state of the vegetables being sold and used by the restaurants.

Yamaoka brings Itayama to a farm where there are fresh vegetables and he recollects his memories of eating them during his childhood. A change of heart happens, and Itayama’s business thrives through replacing his usual practice of selling stale vegetables.

We learn from this that food does not only act as a way of communication but also a catalyst to people’s improved actions.

Food and Japanese Identity

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The title of the manga itself plays around with the Japanese language to express their concepts. It combines the words oishii which means delicious and kuishinbo for an individual who loves to eat.

For the purpose of making the manga more relatable, gourmet manga use a range of onomatopoeic terms to communicate culinary senses. As a reader, you’re able to feel the food’s flavours and textures via these sensory aspects, from the hoku-hoku hotness to the shuwa-shuwa of something fizzy, the food speaks through these effects and creates an immersive sensual experience when reading.

Thus, emphasising the cultural significance of traditional activities and delectable dishes.

The Ultimate Manners

The story “Kyūkyoku no sahō” (The Ultimate Manners), Etsuko, daughter of Tokiyama, a manager in Tozai News Paris refers to the use of chopsticks as barbaric. Yamaoka opens her eyes to the value of chopsticks when they go to a chopstick factory.

Later on, they use cedar chopsticks to eat at a ryotei; however, Kaibara accuses Yamaoka of bad manners. This is caused by him wetting the tips of his chopsticks too much. Chopsticks are commonly used in Japan for eating and it is crucial to treat them with respect.

There are rules and etiquettes that these stories present to us about Japanese culture, and it is of most importance to treat them sincerely.

Japan-US Rice War

In the story “Nichibei Kome Sensō” (Japan-US Rice War), Oishinbo delves into the topic of rice importation. Dan Foster, a United States congressman pushes his belief that the Japanese will likely buy California rice for cheaper than their local option. 

Yamaoka, on the other hand, shows the importance of rice to the Japanese people. He also cooks rice meals that are served on Bizen ware. According to Yamaoka, Japan does not want to import American rice since it is grown using pesticides.

As the staple grain of Japanese agriculture and cuisine, rice is a critical component of the country’s economy. Rice is more than simply a staple dish in Japanese households; it’s a cultural symbol.

Stories like this demonstrate that manga is not merely a form of entertainment but also serve as a way to remind people of their roots and culture.

Criticism of Japanese Society

Gurume mangas don’t only delve into food and relationships, but also a larger scale of problems. Oishinbo properly depicts this through its participation in critiquing Japanese society.

A Breakfast with Love

In the episode “Ai aru chōshoku” (A Breakfast with Love), a competition between the menus of the two rival companies tackle the problem of students and commuters not eating breakfast, which affects their health and performance.

In this competition, Kaibara Yūzan begins by criticising the Japanese way of life, which is hard on both students and workers. People do not have time to have a healthy breakfast due to overwork and a strict way of life.

Oishinbo depicts not just the positive aspects of Japanese society, but also those that need improvement and change. As a result, this gourmet manga is about more than simply about food; it is also about how food and society intertwine.

Real World Elements

Aside from food, gourmet manga also features nonfiction aspects. Unfortunately, the manga received a lot of backlash in 2014 after publishing chapters that were published in the April 28 and May 12 editions, in which the characters visited the Fukushima nuclear power plant and afterwards had nosebleeds.

This refers to the 2011 nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima power plant, which was thought to be triggered by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

It escalated because manga in Japan is widely read by adults that explores social issues and has the potential to influence public opinion. The manga had been halted after the outcry from the Fukushima government and populace.

A few years later, in 2016, Tetsu Kariya, the author of Oishinbo, revealed his plans to finish the manga once it returned from hiatus.

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About Jihyun Lee

A dreamer, a wonderer and a rapper at heart. An everyday person who is curious about the world and would love to share Japanese lifestyle stories with you.