Professor Eric C. Rath – The importance of learning the historical and cultural context that gave rise to the aspects of Japanese Culture

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Eric C. Rath is professor of premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas and a specialist in Japanese dietary culture and the traditional performing arts. His recent publications include Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2010) and “Revaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine,” Journal of Japanese Studies 39.1 (2013): 67-96. His current research interests encompass local foods in Japan, tobacco, confectionery, and sake.

new Rath website photo

Eric Rath at the school of Mayul in Gande, Golok, Qinghai Province.

It is my pleasure today to introduce Eric C. Rath here on my blog. It is an absolute pleasure to know someone who can understand the special connections one has when one encounters Japanese culture from a very young age and how this becomes part of your life and you somehow want to express the appreciation for this culture in any way that you can throughout your adult life.

We share 2 things in common and that is the appreciation for Japanese food culture/ culture and  its history and having both spent some time in the Himalayas/Tibet.

I have never met anyone before that could perhaps understand this relationship that I have with Japanese culture and how important it is to learn more about the historic context that gave rise to this beautiful and outstanding culture in the first place.

Eric C. Rath’s work in Japan and his incredible achievements are far more developed then mine, however I really appreciate that I can learn and share the incredible information Eric is making available to us in english.

I have been a japanese chef in the western world for 15 years and what is lacking in our westernised japanese eatery’s is the cultural heritage. I feel it is of great importance to not just create restaurants that are completely removed from its own cultural essences as it is in most of America and the rest of the world at present.

In the 1970’s Japanese restaurants were adapted to suit Westerners as Japanese eating culture was very alien to the west in these day’s. All the chefs were japanese then but now you have so many different cultures working in japanese restaurants and nobody knows the actual culture which is very tragic.

Of course Japanese restaurants are aslo seen as a very profitable business and therefor we have had a japanese fast food to fine dining boom since the world wide successes of Nobu.

Generally there is a to wide of a cultural gap that is missing in our modern interpretations of japanese eatery’s here in the west in general and I would love to see more aspects of japanese cultural appreciation’s introduced here purely because this is the ultimate spirit, experience and essence of that which transmit something very special to people and of course if you have been to Japan you will appreciate what I am trying to say.

Japanese culture has many profound aspects to offer that are positive for all human’s to experience and learn about.

I strongly feel that the cultural aspects are so unique and beautiful as well as significant that they must not be lost and even if it is a modern interpretation of a japanese restaurant it should resonate certain key aspects inorder to be in harmony with the culture itself rather then be completely removed from its own original essence, history and culture.

To be clear I dont seek to replicate japan here in the west but to incorporate more culture and history as a concept.

It is my research and dedication to refine and develop restaurant concepts that can bring a more cultural experience then what we would normally see here in the west and to connect to the appreciation of the arts and culture for example: through space/ architecture/ art/ philosophy/ literature/crafts/ gardens/ values/ historical events and food etc.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 20.23.04Illustration from a Heian period (794-1185) book on imperial court ritual showing kamaboko served at a banquet.

Eric C. Rath’s is helping us to try to uncover the origins of Japanese cuisine and study more about the traditions and  history’s of the ancient eating cutlure of Japan. He has translated some extraordinary historical texts that would normally not be able to be accessed or read by just anyone and most importantly he translated aspects of these important writings into english aiding us to gain a much deeper cultural insight into the history of japanese eating culture century’s ago.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 20.11.49Ikamaryu Shikibocho (Court Knife Ceremony) Master/  Kyoto Kichisen Master Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa 京都吉泉 谷河吉巳

Introduction and shot interviewe with Eric C.Rath:

Ni: What brought you to Japan and what made you so closely connected to the Japanese culture?

Eric: My father lived in Kyoto when he was in the military and my mother’s father traveled extensively in Japan and ended up dying there to be buried through the intervention of a close friend in Nanzenji Zen temple in Kyoto, so although I am not Japanese I have close family ties to Kyoto and Japan. I was unable to study about Japan until I went to college where I decided that if I really wanted to know the country I would have to visit there. One visit was enough to prompt me to enter graduate school to learn more. I earned a Ph.D. in premodern Japanese history from the University of Michigan, and en route I lived for several years in Yokohama and Kyoto studying language and doing research. Now I teach premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas.
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Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. It began as a detached palace in 1264 but was repeatedly destroyed by fire and most of the old garden was lost. A new Zen garden, called the Leaping Tiger Garden, was made after 1611 and is a good example of the karesansui (dry garden) style. . It has a large sand rectangle enclosed by a buildings on two sides and a sloping bank on another side. The bank has rock compositions at its foot which can be seen as tiger cubs or as a turtle and a crane (animals associated with the Isles of the Immortals). Nanzenji is now the headquarters of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen.
Ni: What made you write your first book and what was it about? 

Eric: I was involved in theater and I had the opportunity to see a noh play during my first visit to Japan. Noh uses masks, elegant costumes, and chanted speech punctuated by drums and a flute. The stillness and strength of noh can only be compared to watching a Zen rock garden, which in its silence, space, and forms has secrets to convey if one watches. As a graduate student, I had a chance to study the basics of noh dance and music in the Traditional Theater Training program in Kyoto, which brings Western and Japanese actors, dancers, and enthusiasts like myself to study noh intensively for a summer. The experience prompted me to try to understand the noh’s historical development to comprehend the culture that created such a powerful, mystical, but hard to understand drama. My dissertation, which later became my first book The Ethos of Noh: Actors and their Art (2004), is a study of the six hundred year history of noh examining the ways that actors through the centuries have tried to explain the close boundaries between their art and ritual, magic, and mysticism.

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Ni: What made you particularly interested in Japanese food culture?

Eric: I was in high school when the movie “The Breakfast Club” came out, and there was a scene where actress Molly Ringwald eats sushi to demonstrate her sophistication. My more adventurous friends and I were accustomed to dining out if only to drink alcohol, and we decided we had to try sushi. I remember ordering it and being confronted by small beautiful pieces I had no idea how to eat. After observing our puzzled faces the owner of the restaurant mimed how to eat sushi. Chinese food had long served as an entry point to Chinese culture for me and after that first taste of sushi I learned that there was much more I had to discover about Japanese food.
Even as I wrapped up my project on noh theater, I knew that I wanted to do research on the history of Japanese food. While finishing my dissertation, I worked for about a year in a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto, chiefly as a waiter but occasionally performing minor kitchen tasks. Noticing the great drama that unfolded behind the counter where the chef sliced sashimi while talking with customers, I had thought to research cooking as a type of performance. I later learned that at least one eighteenth century author compared the meal to a noh play to describe how a fish had a starring role and the vegetables were minor players. But, when I began researching Japanese food history, I decided to try to uncover the origins of Japanese cuisine, which led to my second book Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. The book describes the multiple artistic, religious and poetic meanings behind preparing and consuming food in premodern Japan.

Ni: What in your experience is the first initial attraction for western students to Japanese culture?

Eric: Many students are attracted to Japanese culture through manga, anime, films, food, and the samurai which have become part of our global culture. I hope that students taking my classes are able to learn the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to these familiar aspects of Japanese culture and that they learn that there is a deeper level to these things and that they can uncover that hidden story through the historical method.

Some other publications include:


Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2010.

Japanese Foodways Past and Present, Co-edited with Stephanie Assmann. University of Illinois Press, 2010. 

The Ethos of Noh: Actors and Their Art. Harvard University Asia Center Press, 2004 (Pb. 2006).

Articles and Chapters

“The Magic of Japanese Rice Cakes,” Routledge History of Food, ed. Carol Helstosky. NY: Routledge Press (scheduled for 2014).

“The Tastiest Dish in Edo: Print, Performance and Culinary Entertainment in Early Modern Japan,” East Asian Publishing and Society 3.2 (In press for 2013). 

“Kyoto Foodways,” Sabor: Culinair Magazine Voor Bon Vivants 3.1 (2013), 8 pp.

“Traditional Kyoto Vegetables,” Sabor: Culinair Magazine Voor Bon Vivants 3.1 (2013), 5 pp.

“Revaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine,” Journal of Japanese Studies 39.1 (2013): 67-96. 

“How Intangible is Japan’s Traditional Dietary Culture?” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.4 (2012): 2-3. 

“Honzen Dining — The Poetry of Formal Meals in Late Medieval and Early Modern Japan.” In Japanese Foodways Past and Present, ed. by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. (University of Illinois Press, 2010): 19-41.

“Mealtime at a Tibetan Monastery,” Gastronomica: Journal of Food and Culture (2010): 17-21.

“The Significance of Large Servings of Food in Japanese Cuisine” [in Japanese] for Kokubungaku: Kaishaku to kanshō, special edition on Japanese foodways, ed. Haruo Shirane et al. (2008): 278-82.

“Rural Life and Agriculture.” In A Companion to Japanese History, ed. William Tsutsui. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007): 477-92.