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.


  • 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.
Filed under:  essays offbeat japan humor

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This is so very funny. How did the NYT not get the joke? I liked the sushi documentary listed in the comments on the NYC story, too.


That video never fails to make me laugh. I love the Rahmens, especially Katagiri Jin lately.

Air Yakiniku is so amusing.

Huh, I hadn't heard of this. It's interesting, especially in regard to how WWII still affects some people's idea of foods. Would I be correct to assume that 'foreign rice' idea is also why some dislike furikake? Like I said, it's interesting, if depressing at the same time. Then again, I have heard advice before that if you're eating one thing and would rather have something else, to imagine you're eating what you want--crappy diet advice, but there it is.

Also, suiton? I googled it, and got very little info. One pic looked like a really delicious sort of chicken and dumplings, in soup with veggies. Could you share a recipe for that?

Suiton is really a winter food so I'll wait for the colder months to post something I think...

Ha! That reminds me of a lot of the dramas these days which are about the "working poor" in Japan. They always live in shacks surrounded by huge Japanese apartments, and eat plain rice with raw egg and a few drops of soy sauce for breakfast, lunch, and dinner or just go hungry. They pretend to eat meat air yakiniku style, and they always know someone insanely rich who gives wagyuu meat to their dog or exotic pet.

Where can one get a grill like the one in the video? I have yet to find anything but mini and electric tabletop grills. Thanks for your help.

ahaha it looks like a bucket with a metal pan and topped with a metal screen. I WANNA TRY!

It seems every culture has foods they dislike if they "had" to eat them when times were tough. My mom dislikes dandelion greens, but I guess they are good for you. Not sure where someone would have gotten them in a city, but they did. Virtual cooking and eating, I think I'll stick with the real thing, even if it is rice and beans.

I've actually tried dandelion greens before -- picked up a bunch at a local farmer's market two years ago -- and I have to say that they are very, very bitter. Neither myself nor my two roommates liked them very much (although they did get eaten...I think I served them with sweet pork chops and something else...it balanced out, barely).

My mom had a similar issue with pancakes. She was raised in a family of eight kids; my grandmother was a stay-at-home mom, and my grandfather had to work three different jobs to support his family. Money was often tight, and both of my grandparents weren't big spenders anyhow since they grew up during the depression. Whenever money was especially tight, my grandmother would make pancakes for dinner -- using Bisquick for pancake batter, and powdered sugar to make the syrup from. (Maple syrup or even store-bought syrup was out of the question.)

Up into her thirties, my mother hated to eat pancakes ... until she discovered that she could make her own pancakes and syrup that didn't taste a thing like the watered down Bisquick ones from her childhood. I remember the year she made this discovery, we had pancakes every weekend -- always made from buckwheat flour and served with a lemon-ginger glaze. During the summer of that year, there were always fresh fruits served along side it or even mixed into the pancake batter, and plenty of plain yogurt to scoop onto the pancakes.

You should try rucola or arugula...it is a different kind of dandelion.
Not bitter but with a touch of mustard green and parmesan cheese...if you get a good kind.

I had a bad package one...the leaves were fresh but i bet they had not grown on a field, maybe not even in earth and instead on these clay marbels with the electronical device for watering..it did taste bland..horrible bland.

I could eat them rolled in sushi some leaves at a time with toasted sesame(no wasabi!, cucumber and bellpepper all the time.

Or after a pizza is baked, before serving, you threw some of the leaves on top. They are crunchy, a bit strange to chew at first and the slight heating brings the flavour to a new high.

Or chopped over pasta, in a soup...never cook these nice stuff or you loose the flavour. I tried it once...how sad it was.

About the thing with poverty...yeah it is hard if you have not the money to buy what you like.

I bought two packages of buckwheat soba..i love it. But here it is really expensive and making them myself i have not mastered it yet.

Buckwheat flour is a bit strang to handle.

I also play these chibi-sushi games..i do not think it helps much if you get cravings for the real thing and can not make it or buy some. It just makes it worse for me in this moments