Guns & Butter

Kitazawa Rakuten, High Collar Puck, special issue of Tokyo Puck (April 1905), cover.

If the well-to-do of the Meiji period read German butter for their thoughts, they preferred English butter for their dress and social etiquette, as they had for their meals. This comes out specifically in relationship to another derogatory term: haikara, or “high collar.” This referred to the high imperial collars that Westernizers of the Meiji period had adopted from the British and made popular in Japanese middle class men’s fashion in the first years of the twentieth century. The term connoted Occidentalism of a highbrow and snobbish sort. While I have not had any success finding direct visualizations of “butterstinking,” cartoons of “high collar” are quite common. Kitazawa Rakuten (1876-1955), the artist credited for popularizing the word “manga” in its modern sense, even had a character named Haikara Kidorō – “High Collar Airs.” In 1905, Rakuten dedicated a special issue of his popular Tokyo Puck to the haikara type. Mr. High Collar has spent time in Europe and returns arrogant and maximally bourgeois. He refuses to sit idly with his relatives. He charges old friends by the minute for calling on him. He ignores his boss while flattering his boss’s wife’s looks. He manages to offend everyone with his Western etiquette. He is a dandy, taking forever with his wardrobe, looking into the mirror thirty-six times a day, and scenting himself like a woman. His grandmother mistakes him for a foreigner. Foreigners take him for a lunatic. His poor wife is smitten, but everyone else hates him. Bulldogs want to bite him. And when Rakuten wasn’t verbally beating on Mr. High Collar in narrative, he was mocking him visually through his namesake, stretching his neck like a giraffe, surrounding his face in a white cylinder, dressing his dog in collars. What did High Collar eat? In one strip, raw ham sushi and sandwiches made of rice between two slices of ham.

Kitazawa Rakuten, High Collar Puck, special issue of Tokyo Puck (April 1905).

This intolerance for the “high collar” did not last long. An indicative change in sentiment is expressed ten yeas later, in an anonymous travelogue serialized in the Asahi Daily in late 1917. It is titled “The Smell of Butter” (“Bata no nioi”) and narrates the writer’s days amongst the sights, sounds, and upper crust of Paris and especially London, land of high collars. The longest sections are on the bourgeoisie’s fashion sensibilities and their ways of socialization, both in private leisure and in civil society. He explains at the beginning that he cannot speak English very well. He could not “talk and listen” to the West. He therefore set on “seeing” the West, but here too was foiled, being repeatedly denied at factories and museums and other places he desired behind-the-scenes access. So instead, all he could do was “smell the West.” Nosing around, he explains, does have its merits, for while smells might be passing they are also strong. “When I first got on the train in Paris, the heavy scent of a Parisienne’s perfume, the deep aroma, struck my nose and made my heart flutter. The moment passed and the fragrance thinned, and by the time I got off the train, the smell was gone. The next day, again she boarded and again the scent. Ten days passed, then twenty, and gradually I no longer noticed it. The scent itself had not weakened. Only my sense of smell had.”

There is a lesson to be learned from this, he says. “The notion that the smell of butter is repulsive is mistaken. It is just that each person’s likes and dislikes are different.” After all, Westerners love cheese while the Chinese hate it. And the Japanese actually do like pungent foods, like miso pickles. Tastes are learned: I guess this was an insight in 1917. The Japanese were already decades into Westernization. But at least this author thought that the public needed enlightenment on this particular fact. The series goes into fairly meticulous detail describing just what makes the English gentleman tick, from the purpose of the social kiss to the nature of the silk top hat. Rakuten, who made his career mocking culture shock, was never able to muster such judiciousness. Mr. High Collar might have been an ass. But as far as the Asahi was concerned, he was also misunderstood.

Snow Brand advertisement, Asahi Daily (December 11, 1928).

In 1925, the Asahi’s prediction that butter would soon cease to stink came true, and not just through public acclimatization to European middle class culture. That year, a number of dairies came together to form the Hokkaido Dairy Sellers Union. The organization solved the distribution problems that had in years previous pushed many operations to the brink. In the year of its founding, the Union decided there was a large enough domestic demand to began producing butter. It was a solution also to the existing problem of over-production of milk. The variety chosen was a lighter, whiter, less noisome variety based on processes learned from Denmark and designed with sensitive Japanese palettes in mind. Recalling the age of the “Black Ships,” initially this butter too was mistaken by some for pomade. But times had changed. The butter sold decently. And when the government began again to promote dairy at the end of the '20s, in response to the Great Depression and the threat of malnutrition, passing laws to facilitate increased production, Hokkaido butter was sent on its way into the mainstream. A huge success, it is sold to this day as Yukijirushi, or Snow Brand, its trademark a snowflake. It is a butter that the company itself describes as “refined” (jōhin) and “plain” (tanpaku) in taste, “clean” (seiketsu) in color. Snow Brand – the butter that is not batakusai.

Snow Brand advertisement, Yomiuri Sunday Manga (April 26, 1931).

“Something wrong with the meal? There’s no need to worry. The butter is Snow Brand, after all,” says the housewife in this advertisement from 1931. Responds hubby, “I’m impressed!! Indeed Snow Brand is the Orient’s number one butter.”