Guns & Butter

“Butterstinking.” This term supposedly dates back to the Edo period, when visiting English and Portuguese traders were derided for their strong body odors thought to be caused by a fat and butter-rich diet. Most Japanese did not eat “four-legged creatures” until the latter nineteenth century, due to a combination of religious prohibitions and prejudices. Milk and milk-skin products had been consumed by royalty and aristocrats since the seventh century, but dairy was still regarded an oddity by Japanese in contact with foreigners during the Edo period. “Cheese” had been reported in Japanese markets by Jesuit missionaries as far back as the sixteenth century. But since there was no cheese in Japan at the time, they were probably misidentifying blocks of tofu. English and Portuguese traders during the Edo period often listed butter and cheese amongst the foodstuffs lacking in Japan. Inversely, the same two items were frequently named in Japanese diaries and gazetteers amongst the curious staples of the foreigner’s dining table. Even in the late nineteenth century, gaijin under the employ of the Meiji government grumbled about available foodstuffs. “I have been here two weeks,” wrote Edward S. Morse of Massachusetts in his diary in 1877, from his marine biology laboratory near Enoshima, “living off nothing but rice, sweet potatoes, and fish. If I could only have a thick slice of bread with butter, or a bowl of bread soaked in milk, like you my friends in America are no doubt enjoying right now, I would give away not only my old shoes but my new ones.” Later, on a research trip to Hokkaido: “I am now over a hundred miles from the bread and butter in Hakodate. How I would love to have a cup of coffee and bread with butter. I am the lone foreign barbarian in this town.” (These are my translations of Japanese translations of Morse’s English. I have not had access to the original text).

Matthew C. Perry, as the Japanese saw him.

When Matthew C. Perry returned in 1854 with his “Black Ships” to force Japan to open its ports for trade, he welcomed the Shogun’s delegates with more than guns. Those invited to board Perry’s ship complained of the food served, particularly the “bread served with something that looked like hair oil,” as one samurai described it. “My nose couldn’t handle it,” he added. Wrote another, “The smell was overwhelming when we entered the inside of the warship. They served us toasted bread with butter, but we all kept our mouths sealed to avoid the stuff.” The first emissaries sent to Washington to meet the President in 1860 were delighted by champagne, sweetened chilled orange juice, and ice cream. But again, buttered bread did not sit well. En route in San Francisco, “we escaped starvation by sprinkling sugar on plain bread.” But they were surrounded: “They put butter in everything they cook. It stinks and I hate it. They even steam their rice in it. I guess it’s like how the Japanese use katsuobushi [shaved dried bonito],” which as broth is still the basis of much Japanese cooking.

The term “batakusai” seems to have become part of the standard lexicon in the Meiji period when the increase of foreigners in port towns meant the increase in restaurants serving Western-type foods. There are reports from the late nineteenth century that just the smell of butter from these establishments made the Japanese wretch. The health benefits of red meat and milk had begun to be popularized mid century by students of Western medicine. But it was not until the vigorous modernization program of the Meiji government that diary turned the corner toward familiarity. News that the Emperor ate beef and drank milk for health reasons dealt a blow to many taboos. The government’s dream of building a strong nation included creating a workforce and military nourished so as to be able to compete with the big-bodied West. Beginning in the 1860s, “Drink Milk” was frequently intoned in the press. According to historian Yoshida Yutaka, the first ever newspaper advertisement in Japan, published in 1867, was for “bread, biscuits, and boter,” the Dutch still standard at the time. In the 1880s, the first commercial, American-modeled cattle ranches were established to help promote beef and milk along with other protein-rich Western foodstuffs in the national diet. Dairy farms started appearing soon after, some by returnees from the United States, bringing back farming tools, breeding stock, butter churns, and know-how from Wisconsin. One of the larger had a big red barn.

Butter had been imported for sale as early as the 1860s, but almost entirely for foreign residents. Even after domestic commercial production began in the early 1880s, buyers were still largely non-Japanese. When Japanese did partake, it was typically as medication for infants or the sick. Eating it for pleasure marked a very special occasion. This can be seen in a cartoon by Georges Bigot (1860-1927), an expat Frenchman who lived in Yokohama in the late nineteenth century, famous for his magazine Tobae, named after an older Japanese word for satirical cartoon.

The drawing, which is from 1887, depicts a well-to-do Japanese couple dining at Oazuma, a Western-style restaurant in Tokyo. According to the French caption, this is “the latest imported fashion from England.” Adoption, however, is going only marginally well, as the man seems to be having some trouble with his knife and fork. His female companion is amused. He has enough money to eat at a place like this, but apparently still lacks a little in the way of class. The restaurant’s menu has been written over the tablecloth at bottom right. It reads, in French renderings of Japanese pronunciations, “Bata, Ómeletsou, Bistéki, Fräc, Katélétsou, Shtiou, Crôkétsou, Rôsse, Sarada, Cake, Coffee, Bran.” I think that’s: butter, omelet, steak, “fräc” (flank steak?), cutlet (probably beef), stew (probably beef), croquette (probably with chunks of beef), roast beef, salad, cake, coffee, and brandy. Butter an independent menu item? Perhaps if someone had to specifically ask for it for their bread. At any rate, it’s first. It was the avant-garde of Western dining. The envoy of an army that was more than fifty percent beef.

Butter soon became a means to understand not just food but culture. It became associated with cloying Western taste in general. It seems that, for a time between the 1890s and 1910s, in literary circles “gyūniku kusai” (“beef stinking”) was used interchangeably with “batakusai” to deride authors who too readily gave up traditional modes of composition and orthography in favor of modes newly imported from Europe or promoted by the government as part of cultural modernization. Philosophical strains too influenced by a Christian worldview could also be described as stinking of butter. In the beginning, Germanic tendencies were the most overt such symptom. Doyen of Meiji novelists, Mori Ōgai seems to have been a favorite target in such attacks, his work accused even of being nothing more than “translation.” His work was much inspired by German romanticism. He also produced the first Japanese translations of Goethe, Schiller, Hans Christian Andersen, and Ibsen. This particular association of the batakusai with German romanticism would recede after the 1920s. But it remained strong enough, at least amongst a certain class of intellectuals, for the poet Nishiwaki Junzaburō to argue, as late as 1949, in an essay titled “The History of Batakusai (Culture and Art)” for the highbrow literary journal Gunzō, that it was time that the Germanic “butterstinking” tendencies of his generation (born around the turn of the century) be replaced by a more modern spirit, initiated by the Parisian symbolists, emphasizing the pleasure of the creative act over art’s transcendental or moralizing functions. He is probably speaking to the early postwar era’s discourse on decadence and “carnal literature,” though the nineteenth century does seem an awfully roundabout way to get at his postwar present.