What is OBANZAI? A Study Report (1/4)

OBANZAI workshop  Susumu Fujikake

What is Obanzai? We have contemplated about Obanzai from different angles because it is a unique cuisine culture in Kyoto and a tradition that needs to be preserved toward the future. Obanzai has great potentials to attract tourists and also enrich food-cuisine industries, thereby make broader contributions to the people in Kyoto.
As our discussions on Obanzai advanced, however, we came to realize that Obanzai entails so much diversity and complexity, and variation along its long-time history that it seems hardly possible to even define its contour. Still, for a better discussion of Obanzai as a cultural heritage and how to pass it to the future, we at least need to have somewhat consistent demarcations. Thus, in what follows, we provide our arguments on what constitutes Obanzai. Nevertheless, note that they are by no means to establish the definition of Obanzai, but rather are a basis for further discussions.

1. What is Obanzai?
We define Obanzai as “a distinctive cuisine style established through domestic livings in Kyoto, and which has gone through alterations yet been inherited over generations.”
While the word “Obanzai” could mean everyday dishes, prepared meals and delis, it often informs its cooking processes and episodes related to the cooking, and has different connotations, including spiritual images the people of Kyoto embrace.
Today, Obanzai is usually spelled in Hiragana. In the ancient literature, Nenjuu-Bansairoku, which is known as the oldest text recording the word Obanzai, it was spelled in Kanji, “番菜” (pronounced Banzai).
In the meantime, little is known as to the origin of the word Obanzai. As mentioned above, the oldest literature that noted Banzai (“番菜”), the older version of Obanzai, is Nenjuu-Bansairoku, published in 1849. Hence, it can be assumed that at least in the middle of 19th century, this word was already used. Since then, until 1964 when Ms. Shige O’mura revived the word, no public record of the term Obanzai has been found.
Therefore, it is totally unknown how contents and styles of Obanzai have been changing during the time between 1849 and 1964. However, it is no doubt that what both Nenjuu-Bansairoku and O’mura recorded are simple daily dishes on ordinally people’s dining table.
It is not until the 1970s that the word Obanzai became popular. This was when tourism started booming in Japan. The tourism boom might idolize and enhance the ordinary daily livings in Kyoto and Obanzai introduced by O’mura through book published in 1964.
During the 1970s and 1980s, eating outside the house became increasingly common, and the daily live became growingly mechanized. Japan was going through the successful yet very fast industrial development, while losing traditional cultural practices. Some people felt disappointed and concerned about the fading tradition and realized its importance. Attracted to the somehow nostalgic tone of the word Obanzai, these people eventually came to patronize it as a Japanese tradition. Thus, Obanzai gained its fame as a tradional cuisine and is recognized so popularly that nowadays an Internet search with the word would return over 800,000 results.
With the narrative above, it is likely that an examination of Obanzai would center on the record noted by Ms. O’mura. In fact, most of the past research and literature on Obanzai has centered on her works.


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