Poverty, rice, and Air Yakiniku

I know I am very late in talking about Air Yakiniku (エア焼肉), which is already over the hill as far as fads go, but here's my take on it anyway. Unless you don't know what Air Yakiniku is, it's a Japanese virtual game that simulates the making eating of yakiniku (table-grilled meat, usually though not always referring to Korean style table-top 'barbeque'). Here's the mock-serious how-to video:

Basically, you play the game by making ready a real bowl of rice and a saucer of yakiniku sauce (which is in the same family of sauces as Bulldog/tonkatsu/okonomiyaki sauce in case you're wondering). The video instructs you to pre-mix some of that sauce into the rice before you start. You then pretend to grill juicy pieces of meat until they're done on-screen. When your virtual meat piece is done, you pretend to pop it in your mouth, then rapidly put some of that sauce/rice mix into your (real) mouth and close your eyes. It promises to give you the feeling of eating real yakiniku, without the expense!

Yes I know, those wacky Japanese eh. And it is stupid and funny. (And possibly some kind of viral ad campaign - more about that later.) It is humor with a good dose of sarcasm and a tinge of tragedy to it though. In Japan, there's a long tradition of depicting a meal of penury as being a plain bowl of rice, and nothing else. It's the equivalent of bread and water in European culture. If you are lucky, you might be able to afford some soy sauce or something to flavor your rice with (if you're really lucky you can afford to mix in a raw egg). But if you can only afford a plain, unflavored bowl of rice, you can pretend that you have more food by looking at a picture or some delicious food or something sour and saliva-inducing like umeboshi, or even just imagining it in your mind. The Hans Christien Andersen story The Little Match Girl is probably the most popular one of his fairytales in Japan.

So Air Yakiniku is a continuation of this kind of satiric humor. It's published by a company called Recruit, who operate, among many other things, major job search portal sites, a job-search/employment magazine, and more. The Japanese economy has been just as hard as other economies, which has resulted in many people who are Recruit's audience, especially temp/contract workers (haken shain 派遣社員), who are mostly in their 40s and younger, losing their jobs. Many temp agencies have gone out of business in recent months, some leaving their contractors unpaid. It's a pretty dire time, especially since Japan never really shook off the malaise of the bubble economy of the late '80s. So, while Air Yakiniku is weird and funny, it's also quite cruel. But I guess you could say that about the most memorable comedy, and may account for its popularity, especially in Japan where that mix of wacked out humor and deep pathos is part of the national psyche.

Notes

  • The 4 choices of meat on offer in Air Yakiniku are kalbi (beef short rib, served on or off the bone, popular in Korean barbeque); tan (tongue), horumon (offal - see this post for more about horumon), and "Wow what a load of beef! a big beef steak. (So this New York Times blog post is pretty much wrong.)
  • Beef, even if it's not wagyuu, is very expensive in Japan, especially the good cuts, so yakiniku is considered to be a real treat.
  • Even sadder than a plain bowl of rice is no rice at all. During World War II (which is still called The Great Pacific War by some older people) there was a huge rice shortage. Imported rice, which most often was not the type Japanese people were familiar with (see Looking at Rice) was reviled and called gaimai (foreign rice). Other grains like barley, wheat and millet were mixed with rice, and those also became associated with poverty. "Good" Japanese rice was sold on the black market. Nowadays of course those alternate grains are touted about being healthy alternatives to white rice, and people eat non-Japanese style rice with Indian or Thai food, but there is still that lingering stigma attached to those 'inferior' grains.

    Until fairly recently, rice prices were strictly regulated in Japan by the government to protect farmers, so it was rather expensive compared to other carbohydrate foods. My stepfather, who's in his early '60s, remembers his mother resorting to flour based carbs like udon noodles and suiton (Japanese gnocchi) when money got tight. He still dislikes udon for that reason.)
  • What makes the fact that Recruit is behind Air Yakiniku even more ironic is the fact that the company was involved (eh, allegedly) in the biggest post-war insider trading and bribing scandal in Japan in 1988, just about the time the economy was also going down the toilet.

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