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In Session: From Nourishing Life to National Nutrition: Diet and Health in Japanese History
2: Drowning in the Desires of the Mouth and Stomach: Diet and the Social Body in Nineteenth Century Japan
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Arizona, United States
By examining the cultural politics of dietary advice in late-Tokugawa Japan, this presentation explores the emergence of a “common knowledge” on nourishment that bundled self-regulation, morality, and individual and collective prosperity. New vernacular guidebooks, aimed at a popular readership, framed the well-nourished body as a core unit of social health, challenging conventional assumptions that Tokugawa nourishment, as opposed to Meiji public hygiene, was inherently individualistic. Surrendering to a desire for the delicious was tantamount to shirking one’s duty, inviting disease, and weakening not only one’s body but one’s household. This anxiety over social cohesion played out on the pages of nourishment manuals and the bodies of ordinary people, as the imperative to eat moderately and keep oneself in working order served to reinforce eroding social norms. By encouraging a healthy, functioning body, dietary guidance aligned aspirations for personal and household prosperity with state goals of economic productivity and willing observation of social roles and rules. This presentation thus challenges the narrative of the birth of biopolitics in Japan as rooted in modern regimes of public health, instead suggesting that the Meiji-era move toward intervention into alimentary choice was one of degree rather than kind. I argue that a shared, authoritative, and seemingly objective system of dietary reform was already taking shape, apart from the influence of modern nutritional sciences or the nation-state.