Guns & Butter

Snow Brand might have been Number One in the Japanese Empire. But the man’s initial unease is telling. The idea of Japanese butter had to be sold. In addition to taste, there was also the problem of familiarity. In 1924, a year before Snow Brand debuted, the Asahi Daily ran an article with suggestions on how to use chicken and eggs in the kitchen. The final lesson deals with bread, noisome butter’s old host. “Recently there seems to be more and more people who eat bread. What follows is an introduction to how one amateur goes about the matter. . . . First cut the loaf into three or four slices, then toast it. Once the bread is hot enough for butter to melt, spread butter on one side. After the butter soaks into the bread, beat an egg with a pinch of salt and then spread it over the bread, carefully so that it does not spill. After cooking it for seven minutes, it’s ready to eat.” The article closes with a caution about packing this snack for your children. “If you put it in bentō, there is a good chance that the butter will leak. To prevent that, you will have to wrap it in the appropriate kind of paper.” The article is ostensibly about getting a handle on chicken and eggs, but clearly butter is the unruly party in this particular recipe.

Snow Brand advertisement, Asahi Daily (June 3, 1935).

One of Snow Brand’s main marketing strategies was to appeal to a new type of middle class culture, in both its domestic concerns and its leisure pursuits. Its ad campaigns in the 1930s were vigorous. Many of them show what would have been called at the time a “culture home” (bunka jūtaku), in other words a modern Western-style home for the middle class, featuring such things as a pitched roof, a potted tulip on the windowsill, salt-and-pepper shakers on top of a checkered table cloth, and often a cast-iron fry pan. The health benefits of butter are typically listed to the side: the high Vitamin A content, the high absorption rate of its nutrients. A round inset advertises a booklet – “Handbook to Cooking with Butter in Japanese and Western-style Meals” – that can be had for free. In it, housewives were taught how to use butter in dishes ranging from soup stock and sandwiches to fish, shellfish, chicken, and the standard four-legged creatures.

Snow Brand advertisement, Asahi Daily (March 4, 1935), advertising the Nikkatsu talkie "The Bride and the Freeloader."

In the mid-1930s, side by side with these appeals to the home were a number of full and quarter page ads in the Asahi Daily paid for by Snow Brand announcing the release of new movies from Nikkatsu. The films are typically Japanese, running the gamut from historical jidaigeki to “talkie” comedies and contemporary dramatic pieces. I only know of one foreign film, Lilian Harvey’s I am Suzanne! (1933), and it is listed together with a Japanese feature. Is this significant? The company was trying to tie itself and its products to the most popular and modern of entertainments, but at the same time there was a distinct emphasis on the Japanese. There were even ads with Snow Brand Butter emblazoned across rocky, wave-wracked shorelines and stretched between an autumn moon and bending stalks of rice. Butter and Japanese poetry?

Snow Brand advertisement, Asahi Daily (October 16, 1935), main copy: "This Autumn, for Japanese-style meals, for Western-style meals, Snow Brand Butter."

Clearly Snow Brand in the 1930s was still in a position of having to make its case to the Japanese public, even if it had already experienced enough success to sponsor films and large ads in one of the nation’s top dailies. At the same time, its product – butter – was no longer moored just to Western culture or uppity “high collar” taste. Its significations were floating, allowing the company to act upon various questions. How to match butter with Japanese tastes? How to integrate butter into the modern while Japanese household? How to tie butter to entertainment that is both modern and Japanese? To be able to entertain these questions itself was a sign of progress. It was the privilege of butter being no longer batakusai, or at least of its stink being no longer being repulsive.

Snow Brand advertisement, Asahi Daily (January 10, 1936).

Next time I will look more closely at the late 1920s and '30s, switching from the middle class home to mass urban entertainment. It was in the late 1920s that, on the back of a comic form known in Japan as “nonsense,” batakusai was redefined and went mainstream in Japanese entertainment. And it is from there that “butter” began working itself into the genes of story manga.