a node at the edge  

May 16, 2002
NeighborhoodOf Kitchen things

I love reading about everyday things.

Allan talks about a new Sushi restaurant opening in town that uses trolleys to deliver the food. I'm still trying to figure out how this system of food delivery is going to work. I'm visualizing this little trolley racing by, and having to grab food out of it, quickly, before it goes out of reach. However, we're talking about food -- sushi -- that doesn't necessarily grab that easily. In my mind I see nori and rice as well as bits of fish flying hither and yon.

Justin takes a sentimental journey through town and through memory as he prepares for a move. Speaking as one who has lived all over this country, it's the small things -- our barbers, favorite restaurants, and walks -- you miss most when you move.

Everyday things.

My interest in reading about everyday things is especially heightened after I read one of Jonathon's posts about Japanese women's writing -- books by eleventh century women authors. Today he writes about how women's writing was considered inferior, joryu bungaku:

    I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as "joryu sakka" (woman writer) and "joryu bungaku" (women's literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category

A low opinion of women's writing wasn't limited to the Japanese; Western civilization also considered women's writing to be inferior. For instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote:

    "American is now wholly given over to a d____d mob of scribbling women, and I have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash -- and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed."

Though Western women didn't write in a separate language, as the Japanese women did long ago, they wrote of subjects considered of "lesser importance" -- of life and love and everyday things. An indirect reference to this is made in Jury of her Peers, by Susan Glaspell. She wrote:

    Nothing here but kitchen things," he said, with a little laugh for the insignificance of kitchen things."

Introducing my new weblog tag line: Nothing here but kitchen things...

Posted by Bb at May 16, 2002 12:32 PM


It is common practice in Japan and Korea to see sushi on conveyor belt-like devices that go round like a luggage belt. The cooks are inside the enclosure and put whatever they have prepared on the belt, that goes SLOWLY, so that people sitting on the outside of the circle have time to grab the plate. This is also the way you figure out what to pay: X plates times xxx yen. Another factor is that people don't have to think 'what the heck is that thing?': they know what it is.

Posted by: dda on May 17, 2002 05:20 AM

Japanese women did not really write in a different language, but used a different script (onna-de, female hand). Japanese writers, contrarily to Koreans, used sinograms to write Japanese, whereas Korean intellectuals considered it vile to write anything in Korean, whatever the script used (sinograms-based system called Idu, hangul or else). Classical Chinese (the Latin of the East) was the only 'serious' written language.
See also 'nushu' -- female hand -- in China which is said to be disappearing. A script devised by Chinese women to circumvent the ban on women learning sinograms. It was Chinese alright, but unreadable to men.

Posted by: dda on May 17, 2002 05:29 AM

dda, your remarks are vaguely accurate but you come to the wrong conclusion. In the Heian era you referred to, women wrote in kana (onnade) in Japanese, but men wrote primarily in Classical Chinese.
And Bb, before lashing out at aspects of a culture that you know nothing about, it might be a good idea to educate yourself. I suggest you read "Japanese Women Writers" by Noriko Mizuta Lippit and Kyoko Iriye Selden (ISBN0-87332-860-4). There are women who are writers, and there are Women Writers. Japanese women writers tend to center on women's subjects. This is an ancient tradition, and it is even used by women who want to subvert the genre.

Posted by: Censored on May 17, 2002 11:07 AM

Sydney also has restaurants like this, there's a franchise called Sushi Train, in particular. The conveyor belts aren't too fast, it's pretty easy to read the label and grab the food you want as it goes by. Plates are color coded by price (so a blue plate is, say $3.00 and a white one is $2.00). Condiments like ginger and wasabi were available in bins for free. Drinks can be ordered and are served normally.

It was kind of a novelty experience for me to go to one, but I prefer a good old traditional sushi bar for the most part. The frustrating thing was that sometimes, you had to wait for what you wanted to come around, and someone would grab it before you could get it! Argh! Then you'd have to wait for another dish to come around. Sort of like dining turned into a competitive sport.

Posted by: Andrea on May 17, 2002 12:44 PM

I wasn't criticizing the Japanese culture -- I was saying that, historically, a low opinion of women authors is shared across cultures. And I was making an association between western "women's writing" and weblogging, indirectly. Perhaps I was a bit too subtle in making this point.

And I was joking a bit on the trolley thing. Really. Ha ha.

Posted by: Bb aka Shelley aka Weblog Bosswoman on May 17, 2002 02:44 PM

BTW Andrea -- I loved the reference to "dining turned into a competitive sport".

Posted by: Bb aka Shelley aka Weblog Bosswoman on May 17, 2002 02:45 PM

Well actually Bb, you WERE criticising, in the sense of critical analysis, but it verges on condemnation. The Japanese women's situation has hundreds of years of backstory, and is an extremely complex social situation. Most people come to the mistaken assumption that Japan is a man's world, but far from it, Japan is a matriarchy. Even their god is female. If you want a good overview of the Japanese women's situation from a feminist perspective, a good (but out of print and hard to find) book is "Womensword" by Kittredge Cherry, ISBN4770016557.

Posted by: Censored on May 17, 2002 03:19 PM

My remarks were more than 'vaguely' accurate, but I guess this is not the place to debate that kind of stuff. But I wasn't concluding anything. And Kanbun, btw, was read in Japanese.

Posted by: dda on May 17, 2002 03:30 PM

Since it was my original post that prompted Burningbird's response, perhaps I can offer some clarifications.

dda correctly notes that Japanese women in the Heian period wrote in a different script (kana or onnade), rather than a "separate language" as Bb suggested.

Contrary to Censored's assertion, dda's remarks are not "vaguely accurate" but quite specific. And although it would have been preferable had he said that Japanese men (rather than "writers") used sinograms (Chinese characters) to write Japanese, from the context it was clear this was his meaning.

Exactly what "wrong conclusion" dda comes to I am, like dda himself, at a loss to discern, since his comment consisted only of a series of observations about the use of Chinese characters in Japan, Korea, and China itself.

dda's description of Classical Chinese as the Latin of the East echoes an observation in the introduction to Lippit & Selden's book (mentioned by Censored):

"Just as Chaucer's writing in English rather than the Latin of contemporary intellectuals established a new tradition in English literature, the works of women writing in kana became the core of the Japanese literary tradition."

Censored is not entirely correct in saying that in the Heian period "men wrote primarily in Classical Chinese." Rather, (as Christoper Seely explains in The History of Writing in Japan) all serious writing by men was in either Classical Chinese or a hybrid style, which used Chinese characters but Japanese syntax (reversing the order of certain characters, under the influence of linguistic Japanese).

For example, the Kojiki, the first Japanese literary work (completed in 712), has a Chinese preface (since it was originally composed as an official document written to the sovereign) but the main text is in hybrid style (which, in Seely's words, "would be easy to read and understand as Japanese.")

The closest examination of Bb's post reveals no "lashing out" at any culture nor any condemnation. Bb simply notes that different cultures have regarded writing by women (or women's writing) as of secondary importance. In the case of Japanese women writers, this has had some beneficial aspects.

As Lippit & Selden note, women writers were exempted "from full-scale competition with men writers and from being subjected to the more acute sexist prejudices in literary criticism which such competition would have engendered."

Yet, eventually, the insistence that women write about typical "female" subjects such as "psychology, the mysterious female psyche, motherhood, and female sexuality" became an intolerable burden for women writers. Those represented in the Lippit & Selden collection have broken free of that restriction (although the editors' exclusion of Tsushima Yuko strikes me as incomprehensible)

Censored is correct in pointing out that Japanese women exist in a complex social situation in which, despite their lack of overt political influence, they exert an astonishing degree of control. Kittredge Cherry's Womansword is an absolutely marvellous book which uses Japanese words, phrases, and colloquial expressions to create a linguistic portrait of Japanese women. I've learned more about Japanese society from this book than almost any other.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on May 17, 2002 08:42 PM

Jonathon said : "Japanese women exist in a complex social situation in which, despite their lack of overt political influence, they exert an astonishing degree of control."

This has proven to be true in every single overtly 'male-dominated' culture in the midst of which I've ever spent any time. Not that my sample size is exhaustive, mind you, but that obeservation influences to a considerable degree my understanding of the feminist movement in the west.

Posted by: stavrosthewonderchicken on May 18, 2002 12:56 AM

Jonathon said: the Kojiki, [...] the main text is in hybrid style (which, in Seely's words, "would be easy to read and understand as Japanese.")
Yup, which I mentionned as Kanbun, the Japanese way of writing in Japanese while seemingly writing Chinese. I discovered in my Kanbun classes, 15 years ago, that the Chinese was even sometimes barely accurate, because the emphasis was put on the Japanese diacriticals enabling the Japanese reading, more than the correctness of the grammar.
So yeah, thanks Jonathon for your well documented support. When I said Japanese writers instead of men, I might have made an uncounscious sexit remark, but it wasn't. I was thinking in French, like every time I do serious thinking, and the term 'writers' was 'ecrivains' in my head, actually, hence with a masculine connotation. I should've said 'literati', I suppose, since the people with letters were men only, women being theoretically barred from access to written knowledge.

Posted by: dda on May 18, 2002 04:08 AM

I appreciate the responses, but I am hesitant to start a techy debate about linguistics in front of people who don't know the difference between manyogana and hiragana. I have a degree in Japanese Lit, and apparently unlike Mr. Delacour, I am able to read Japanese literature in its original language. This level of fluency is a prerequisite for coherent literary criticism of Japanese writings.
However, I must strenuously contest your out-of-context quotation of Lippard&Selden. Women's literature is most definitely not the core of Japanese lit. This book was written by a bunch of feminists attempting to capture the flag from those mean men writers. Sorry, it's BS. I will clarify my remarks, read the STORIES in the book, and completely ignore the commentary. There are important Japanese works by women writers, they stand alongside the great works by male writers. If anyone seriously claims that women are at the core, then I suggest they read the trite crap produced by Banana Yoshimoto.

Posted by: Censored on May 18, 2002 07:33 PM

Your first point is well taken, Censored. At times like this it occurs to me that my blogging time might be more productively spent in improving my Japanese reading skills.

As for my quotation from Lippit & Selden's introduction, not knowing why you think it was taken out of context makes it difficult for me to respond. Given that you then suggest we completely ignore the commentary, it probably doesn't matter. But I'll give it a shot.

No one, including Lippit & Selden, has suggested that women are at the core of recent or contemporary Japanese writing (that's what I assume your reference to Banana Yoshimoto implies). Lippit & Selden state that "the works of women writing in kana [ie Heian women] became the core of the Japanese literary tradition."

This seems an unexceptional observation, given that such a substantial proportion of the highly regarded tales, essays, diaries, and poetry from that period was written by women. I understand Lippit & Selden to be saying that these works continued to exert an influence on Japanese literature; that because they represent the beginnings of a range of Japanese literary genres they stand at the center of a tradition that has developed in many directions over the last thousand years.

Though perhaps you understand the word "core" to mean something quite different.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on May 18, 2002 10:40 PM

""I have a degree in Japanese Lit, and apparently unlike Mr. Delacour, I am able to read Japanese literature in its original language. This level of fluency is a prerequisite for coherent literary criticism of Japanese writings."
That, as best, was a cheap shot. Having participated to numerous academic seminars in Asian studies during my academic life, I know for a fact that language fluency has nothing to do with the academic degree one may or may not have in the field, except maybe in linguistics, and even then... I have seen many honoured professors, specialists of this or that period, barely able to order ramen in their country of expertise. This was the leading reason of my departing the academe. So please, especially since we will never be able to ascertain your claims of fluency, keep to the discussion.

Posted by: dda on May 19, 2002 05:09 AM

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