"Images of a Nation: Approaches to the Aesthetics of Japan," a symposium, brings graduate students from across the nation to UCLA.
Using aesthetics as a reference point, there are a lot of different themes and possible subjects in terms of scholarly inquiry.
The organizers of the thirteenth annual UCLA graduate student symposium on Japanese Studies chose for their event the topic of aesthetics—a relatively young academic discipline in Japan that dates back no further than the Meiji period (1868-1912). The topic offered opportunities for young scholars invited from across the nation to discuss art, film, literature, and cuisine in relationship to Japanese aesthetics.
"Using aesthetics as a reference point, there are a lot of different themes and possible subjects in terms of scholarly inquiry," said Timothy Unverzagt Goddard, co-organizer with Michelle Kuhn, also a UCLA graduate student in Japanese studies, of the symposium on May 5, 2007.
Sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA, the symposium featured various panels, each with a discussant who was a noted scholar in a field. Organizers added an unusual touch to the event by inviting few speakers who were already at advanced stages in the writing of their dissertations.
Everybody Loves Ramen
An exception was UC San Diego graduate student George S. Solt, who based his lecture on his almost completed dissertation. Solt and Lindsay Nelson, who began her graduate work at the University of Southern California less than a year ago, presented their papers as part of a panel that dealt with how cuisine and notions of food helped to define what images are associated with Japan today.
In his lecture titled "Everybody Loves Ramen: Changing Dietary Habits and the Popularization of Chinese Noodle-Soup in Modern Japan," Solt explained how "food is a revealing object of historical change."
Ramen is a dish of Japanese noodles, served in a meat broth originating from China, that has become omnipresent in Japanese popular culture and in literary depictions of contemporary Japan. Solt said Chinese tradesman living in the government-designated foreign residential district of Yokohama introduced ramen to Japan in the 1880s. By 1926, it was becoming a popular dish to order out.
Since the 1980s, Solt said, ramen has become an iconic food in Japanese culture—despite the fact that actual consumption in Japan has declined since 1982. The search for so-called "authentic ramen" became a common theme in TV shows and magazines. In director Juzo Itami's "Tampopo," Solt said, "the fetishism of Ramen forms the basis of the story."
There is even a historical theme park today dedicated to ramen: the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama, Japan. "It is the best example of ramen's canonization as a national food and tradition," Solt said.