Wednesday 26 February 2020

Sukiyaki and Babymetal: What's the Connection?

Click to hear some sample tracks
While manga and anime have been Japan's main popular cultural exports in recent years, Japanese music (J-pop) has had little success abroad, overshadowed by the popularity of Korean (K-pop) acts like BTS and TWICE. One Japanese group has been the exception to this rule though: Babymetal, a Japanese "kawaii metal" idol girl band. While cute (kawaii) female idol dance bands - like AKB48 - are a penny-a-piece in Japan, Babymetal is something rather different, combining the childish, smiling school-girl innocence of typical female J-pop performers with a darker, edgier kind of kawaii (see here for an academic analysis and here for my take on the emergence of "distorted cute"). Babymetal have become the highest charting Japanese band ever both in the UK  and in the US; indeed, they became the first Asian act ever to top Billboard's rock albums chart last year. In 2016, their 2nd album became the first Japanese album to chart on the U.S.Top 40 since Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki and Other Japanese Hits in 1963 - 54 years ago!

However, today's blog is not about Babymetal but about sukiyaki: this back-to-front way of introducing the main topic is a traditional way of developing a narrative in Japanese (originating in classical Chinese) known as kishōtenketsu (起承転結) which involves a sharp twist (ten) part way into the story that shifts to something seemingly unrelated. It is only in the concluson that the two elements are tied together. This style can be seen in poetry, manga, newspapers - both the Yomiuri (Henshū-techō=編集手帳) and the Asahi (Tensei-jingo=天声人語)have daily front-page columns in this style - and even in video game design (most famously in Ninentendo's Super Mario games).

So what is sukiyaki? Simply put, it's a beef hot-pot stew (nabemono=鍋物) which Japanese typically enjoy in the winter around the family dinner table or perhaps at a company end of year party (bōnenkai=忘年会). It's very much a collective eating experience, with members of the group gradually adding the ingredients to the communcal pot and then picking them out when cooked to be eaten with raw egg. Sukiyaki is not really "traditional": like many other things thought to be old it is actually fairly new, an "invented tradition" from the Meiji era (1868-1912) (see here and here for previous posts giving examples of how many so-called "traditions" in Japan are actually relatively modern).

Ingredients tend to vary from region to region but we started off melting beef tallow fat (gyūshi=牛脂) in the pot ❶ and adding thinly sliced beef ❷ (in our case we used marbled Miyazaki wagyū which we ordered using the popular hometown tax donation=furusato nōzei=ふるさと納税) program. After that, we added spring onions (negi) ❸ and then the all-important tare-sauce known as warishita ❹: we used a ready-made bottle from the supermarket but many people make their own by mixing soy-sauce, mirin, and sugar. Next up were the enoki and shiitake mushrooms plus Chinese cabbage (hakusai=白菜) ❺, followed by grilled tofu (yakidōfu=焼き豆腐) ❻, chrysathemum leaves (shungiku=春菊) ❼, and finally starch noodles (kuzukiri=葛切り) ❽ - one alternative for the latter are kon'nyaku noodles (shirataki=白滝). See here for a simple recipe.
If you've got this far, you might be wondering why Kyu Sakamoto's massive hit, Ue o Muite Arukō (Look up and Walk), was called Sukiyaki outside Japan? What has one of the world's best-selling singles of all time, written by a young Japanese student in the sixties trying to hold back tears of frustration after a protest against the Japan-US Security Treaty (AMPO), got to do with Japanese beef hot-pot? The answer is absolutely nothing: it was used only because it was short, catchy, and recognisably Japanese. In this respect, it is refreshing that Babymetal, the Japanese band to finally overtake Sukiyaki in the charts, at least challenge and shake up some of the old tropes and stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese.