Food from the Wild, Food for Thought: “Eating Wild Japan”

Food from the Wild, Food for Thought: “Eating Wild Japan”

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The cover for Winifred Bird's Eating Wild Japan
Winifred Bird's Eating Wild Japan is an in-depth, humanistic, and fascinating journey across the wilds of the country in search of foraging.
The cover of Eating Wild Japan, by Winifred Bird.

“Much as the heartland is for coastal Americans, Tohoku for the average Tokyoite is a flyover zone: the place that their food comes from and that represents the essence of the nation, but where they would never actually consider living.”

Winnifred Bird, Eating Wild Japan, p. 80

With this sentence in Eating Wild Japan, Winnifred Bird “had me,” and not only because my former home and the focus of my doctoral studies were both in Sendai. While this fascinating look into Japan’s foraging culture and its associated plant life was already enjoyable, at the point I read those words, I knew that this would, indeed, be an attempt at a comprehensive look across the entirety of Japan. I was overjoyed that it would not simply cover those well-trod places in the Kanto and Kansai that Americans seem perennially to prefer.

While by her own admission she is neither a scholar, nor a botanist, nor a lifelong forager, I think it is safe to assert Bird has done her topic due diligence. And indeed, her understanding of deeper and interconnected issues of industrialization, climate change, colonization, and gender speaks to the nuance she put into writing Eating Wild Japan.

Three Pathways to Foraging

Eating Wild Japan (hereafter Eating Wild) is divided into three main sections. The first, “Essays on Eating Wild,” is a collection of writings assembled into a kind of travelogue. By crisscrossing the Japanese landscape everywhere from Mount Aso in Kyushu, to the Nishiwaga district of Iwate Prefecture, to Nibutani, an Ainu community in Hokkaido, the reader gets to know the edible plants that grow wild in different parts of the country. We learn about the people who preserve ancient knowledge about their habitats and methods of preparation.

We also come to understand the historical context surrounding the varying role of foraging in these diverse communities. In some spaces, foraging was a fallback in hard times, as in the frequently crop failure-prone Tohoku region during the Edo period. In other places, it was a past-or-present sign of status. Still, in others, it was simply where food came from in the good times and the bad alike.

Bird further accounts for differences in both language and dialect; in the chapter set in Hokkaido, we even get plant names in Japanese, English, and Ainu. Novices to Japanese wildlife and food culture as well as those who are already knowledgeable are likely to find something new and intriguing here. I, for one, did not know that there were so many varieties of seaweed, both wild and cultivated! It is also encouraging to see that her picture of the people who carry this irreplaceable, ancient knowledge is not exclusively male, as we see particularly with the ama of the Noto Peninsula.

A decorative handle for a sword with foraged food imagery, related to the topic of Eating Wild Japan.
Decorative handle fitting for a utility sword (kogatana),
depicting bound seaweed and sake cup. (Image in PD)

Planting the Seeds

Part Two, “Guide to Plants,” introduces in greater detail some of the plants that appear in Part One. Bird herself notes that this is not intended to be a field guide. Rather, it’s meant to be a reference to travelers and foreigners resident in Japan to understand the wild foods they’re most likely to encounter, be it in the wild, in supermarkets, or in friends’ homes. Each entry is accompanied by multiple alternate spellings in Japanese, suggested recipes, warnings on poisonous look-alikes, and the elegantly simple yet charming illustrations of Paul Poynter. It is indeed not an exhaustive list, but rather, an excellent starting point for the reader’s further exploration.

Part Three, “Recipes,” takes elements of the preceding two sections of Eating Wild and aims to apply them via recipes collected from Bird’s contacts, or derived from their recipes.


Humanistic Scholarship

Above all, something I found especially compelling was the clear sense of awe and humility in how Bird approaches her topic, and in her accounts of seeking out the people who had the knowledge, knew the places, and were aware of their histories. The Japan we glimpse through Eating Wild is not the well-trod, brilliantly lit tourist traps most foreigners have heard of, but a landscape as rich and diverse in human cultures as it is in plant life. It’s all there for the exploring, if only visitors have the humility to slow down and listen. Eating Wild is the story of those local residents, their communities, and the wildlife they live with, enduring and adapting through different governments, wars, and shifts in climate and economy.

In exploring them and taking the time to learn from them, Bird also reflects on similar communities, people, and traditions elsewhere in the world: “What an extraordinary and at the same time ordinary place that little valley was. There must be thousands of places like it in Japan, millions and millions of them in the world—hidden, bountiful universes in miniature, waiting to welcome us if only we can manage not to destroy them through neglect or ignorance or greed. My work on this book took me to a handful of them, and for that, I am deeply grateful,” she writes in her conclusion to “Essays on Eating Wild.” I really felt a clear sense that Bird was positioning this as just a microcosm of broader issues that affect the entire world, amidst this tumultuous era of climate crisis and questions of sustainability and equity.

Bamboo shoots on a bamboo draining basket. Bamboo shoots are a viable forage food in Japan.
Bamboo shoots (筍) on a bamboo draining basket (ざる).

Sustaining Grace

In the conclusion to Part One, Bird further notes that what is necessary to preserve this knowledge of wildlife and foraging techniques, and to do it sustainably. Her words seem to me to be the underlying thesis of Eating Wild:

“[I]f foraging is to be sustainable, it must be accompanied by local systems for regulating access to the land. Preserving non-agrarian food cultures is not simply a question of cataloging knowledge but rather of maintaining the power of communities to protect their own resources—both from mammoth threats like dam construction, nuclear disaster, and climate change, and also from the quieter but perhaps equally destructive self-interest of modern culture.”

Eating Wild Japan, p. 162

In sum, Eating Wild Japan is an elegant, beautifully illustrated, intriguing work. It is sure to spark explorations and inquiries anew in the reader. Foragers, fans of Japanese cuisine, scholars of Japanese history, and many others will most definitely find it enlightening and enjoyable.

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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