“Foods for Enjoyment,” and creating bonds that transcend family. Interview with Primatologist Junichi Yamagiwa on “Shikohin” (Part 2 of 2)

Food items such as alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are not consumed for any nutritional value, but for enjoyment. These food items are referred to as “shikohin”. Why did mankind pursue these items that, at first glance, seem to have little purpose in survival?

“shikohin” is a term that is difficult to translate outside of Japan and unique to the Japanese language. It is said that the first person to use this term was Ogai Mori, who described “shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison” in his short story “Fujidana” published in 1912. Being both a poison and a medicine, “shikohin” is surrounded by ambiguity. In the DIG THE TEA series, we will explore modern day “shikohin” and its role in our society through interviews with leading experts both in and out of Japan.

For our first interview, we visited anthropologist and primatologist Junichi Yamagiwa. In part 1 of this article, we covered the eating habits of apes and how the agricultural and pastoral revolutions encouraged the development of “shikohin”, or foods simply for enjoyment. 

In part 2, we will talk about how we share “shikohin” even though we know it can be hazardous to our health, and the meanings of the cultural mannerisms behind them. We explore the fundamental reason why humans choose to consume “shikohin.”

Interview&Editing : Masanobu Sugatsuke Editing support : Masaki Koike, Takumi Matsui Photo: Mayuko Sato

Guiding extraordinary experiences and divine connections

── Why do you think people consume “shikohin” even though there is no nutritional benefit from doing so?

Yamagiwa: There are a number of possible reasons, but one reason is that it provides sensations that are out of the ordinary. Unlike food we consume everyday to satisfy our hunger, when we have “shikohin” we experience some arousal or refreshment in our sensations. 

For example, in the lowlands of Africa, in addition to alcohol and tobacco, the cola nut is a popular “shikohin.” Drinking juice while chewing this nut gives you uplifting sensations and makes you feel good.

On the east coast of Africa, the leaves of a shrub from the elder family called khat (miller) is consumed as a delicacy. It is very bitter, but very stimulating. Truck drivers chew these leaves while drinking juice to suppress drowsiness and hunger.

── Having stimulating effects are also an essential part of religious ceremonies. For example, it is said that tobacco was originally used for religious rituals in Ancient Mayan civilization and other cultures in South America. 

Yamagiwa: I am pretty certain of the effect that “shikohin” has on connecting people to divine and spiritual things. By consuming “shikohin,” you escape from your natural state and enter a kind of trance. This state allows people to experience connections to spirits or the dead. 

I think that speaking to the dead was a vital part of the sedentary, agricultural, and pastoral society because it was very important for them to protect the land they lived in. When there was no written language it was difficult to claim the land with simply the spoken word so when there were disputes about land ownership, it often led to violence. 

However, if the ancestors could be called back, they could prove ownership without the use of violence. This is why people who practiced shamanism became necessary to resolve conflicts. This is also probably why the “shikohin” that allowed shamans to go into trance states started being used. 

Humans cannot define themselves

── You mentioned that apes also consume “shikohin-like foods.” Of course, apes do not have religious beliefs so perhaps there are other fundamental reasons why we seek out stimulating and calming substances. 

Yamagiwa: I believe that is because humans have a desire to change their current being. We want some kind of release from our current body and mind so we consume “shikohin.” 

Fundamentally, human beings can’t define themselves. Since the times of hunter-gatherer societies, humans developed empathy and formed social structures where we live in solidarity with our peers and share food with them. In that group, our peers define us. Conversely, once you are defined as a “coward” or a “womanizer,” it is difficult to change that identity, and you become stuck in the identity given through the words of your peers.

Not being able to define our own selves becomes a source of stress. When it becomes difficult to deal with our identity as defined by others, I think we seek out “shikohin” that allows us to momentarily be a different person. We seek to expand our minds through arousal or relax our stressed minds. 

In fact, this kind of stress comes because humans have high cognitive ability. Gorillas and chimpanzees can only read situations and other ape’s emotions in situations where they are directly involved. Humans, on the other hand, can understand communication that takes place outside of their presence. That is why we can enjoy things like movies and plays. 

Furthermore, when people perceive themselves, they must take into account the perspectives of others. In other words, we are all acting, or playing a role in some way. For example, we are not able to see our own facial reactions in real-time so we have to interpret it from the other person’s expressions. We can’t recognize or define ourselves without the involvement of others.

── Because humans have the cognitive ability to read the emotions of others, we are forced to depend on others to build our identity. And in order to temporarily escape from the stress that comes with this dependency, we consume “shikohin.”

Yamagiwa: Yes. “Shikohin” has another important role. When you enjoy it with another person, it helps enhance or confirm feelings of camaraderie. 

For example, in the African lowlands that I mentioned earlier, holding and giving the common kola nut is a sign of friendship. The pygmies, an ethinic group of hunter-gatherers, also confirm their sense of community by sharing cannabis.

Dance also has this same effect. I believe that musical communication is the root of our extraordinarily social nature. Music has the power to enhance solidarity with other members of your group. When “shikohin” was combined with music, I think those feelings of solidarity were fostered even further. 

Learning the culture so as not to lose yourself

── In recent years there is growing criticism around “shikohin” products that are harmful to the body and provide no nutritional purpose. With the development of AI and neurological sciences, we are learning about the exact nutritional needs of the human body, and there are some products coming out as “functional foods” that claim that they are all you need to survive. At the same time, there are organic coffees and biodynamic wines that are made naturally and are claimed to be “shikohin” that are good for your body. 

Because of this, there are more and more people who believe conventional “shikohin” is bad for your body so it should not be consumed. What do you think of such criticism of the purposelessness of “shikohin” and the use of functionality and purposefulness as a kind of golden rule?

Yamagiwa: These modern day sciences don’t look at people as individuals. Whether it is a “shikohin” or not, foods that have the same taste will taste differently depending on who you are with or the environment you consume it in. The five senses of humans are formed in a social way. 

It is true that if you can break down the elements of “shikohin” into a chemical formula, you can identify its exact effects and functions on the body. However, no matter how much you apply that information to the individual, the moment you add the variable of sociality, it becomes meaningless.

── So from a social standpoint, “shikohin” is by no means purposeless. However, there are dangers associated with “shikohin,” such as the exploitation of labor in production in developing countries, damages of second hand smoke, and excessive consumption. 

When Ogai Mori first came up with the word “shikohin, he described it as a “necessary poison in life.” What should we be careful about when enjoying “shikohin,” which is an ethical “poison” to social good? 

Yamagiwa: First of all, grown ups have to be responsible for the actions of children. For underdeveloped children to consume “shikohin” during their vital years of growth has bigger consequences than it does for adults. This is why it is illegal for underage children to drink alcohol or smoke. Children are dependent on adults and we should never impose self-responsibility on them. 

The most important thing is to learn and follow manners and cultural rules when enjoying “shikohin.” There is always a risk of becoming addicted and losing control when using “shikohin.” People easily get very drunk or become heavy smokers. 

That is why people are expected to follow social manners and rules. With the khat (miller) example I mentioned earlier, there is a cultural tendency to consume it as a group when gathering at someone’s home. This way, they avoid overconsumption. If one were to stay home and continue consuming it alone, it can easily lead to their death. One reason why “shikohin” has been associated with religious rituals is because people like shamans had the knowledge and experience to know just the right dose to enter a trance. 

The risks that help foster trust

── Do these manners and rules change among different cultures?

Yamagiwa: Yes. An obvious example is the relationship that hunter-gatherer groups such as the Inuit, Aborigines and Bushmen have with alcohol. These cultures do not traditionally have the skills to make distilled liquor so they have not been exposed to strong liquor. Therefore, they still don’t know how to drink alcohol.

In Africa, brewed liquors such as banana beer, which is made by fermenting bananas, and coconut wine, which is made by natural fermentation of palm sap, have been enjoyed for a long time. Distilled liquors, on the other hand, require equipment and time to produce, so they cannot be made in hunter-gatherer societies that do not stay in one place for an extended amount of time. 

Spirits that are available in Africa now were introduced by Europeans quite recently. Europeans, who are accustomed to living in one place, know the differences in these alcohols so they drink accordingly. Brewed liquor, which has a relatively low alcohol content, is served at daytime celebrations, while distilled liquor, which has a higher alcohol content, is consumed over a longer period of time in social settings.

However, when hunter-gatherer cultures that are not accustomed to these cultural habits come across strong spirits, they drink until they are completely drunk, and this has become a social problem in recent years. When I was in Adelaide, Australia, there were many Aborigines walking around the city completely drunk. In Gabon, Africa, where I was conducting research on gorillas, people usually camp in the forest, but on payday, they all go back to their villages and continue drinking until they run out of money.

When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer was building a hospital in Gabon in the early 20th century, he wrote about this lack of cultural manners in his diary. Spirits that came from the USA were becoming the source of social problems because the local laborers would use up all their salary on drinks or would be too drunk to work. The temptations of “shikohin” have the potential to be very destructive. 

However, there is a wide range of “shikohin.” This is true in both traditional societies and modern-day societies. For example, when you meet someone for the first time and offer them a drink, it is a way of communicating that you trust them enough to share this dangerous item with them. Drinking alcohol may cause you to act in a way that you usually would not, but you create a mutual understanding that you will accept that version of each other as well. Drinking alcohol together is a way of saying, I will accept you as you are.  

── I wonder why enjoying “shikohin” with friends creates a sense of community. Although I feel that even without sharing “shikohin,” sharing a space or a meal can also create these feelings of solidarity. 

Yamagiwa: The very reason why “shikohin” enhances the sense of camaraderie is because it is harmful. Many “shikohin” are very stimulating and come with a risk of harming the body. When you make the mutual choice to share that risk with someone, you feel like you are sharing a mutual decision and trust is built. When you share the experience of heightened stimulation, your bond deepens. You get drunk on the feeling that you are not alone, and that you are connected to another being. 

It is not a natural instinct among animals to eat something that is handed over to them by others. Apes and monkeys do not share food that was brought to them by strangers. They only eat what they have confirmed to be safe from their own experiences.

However, humans consume things that are offered to them by strangers, knowing that it is dangerous, in order to build trust. The easiest way to kill someone is to add poison to their food. In the outskirts of Africa, where murder by poison is still quite common, eating with strangers holds strong significance because it is an expression of acceptance while knowing there is a risk of being killed. 

Food was a necessary tool to build social structures. “Shikohin” helps to build relationships even further. As opposed to the ordinary meals that are usually shared with family, “shikohin” can be shared more casually and help create bonds beyond the family. 

When comparing humans and apes, apes only eat things that they have tried before and are sure of. The same is true with monkeys. However, only humans developed the behavior of consuming something brought to them by a stranger. This is a demonstration of showing trust. “Shikohin” is an extension of his behavior. That is why, even though we know the dangers, we drink or smoke in order to build a more trusting relationship with other people and show that we accept and welcome them. I believe that is the greatest social revolution that has taken place in human society. 

Part 1 of 2 》“Foods for Enjoyment,” and creating bonds that transcend family. Interview with Primatologist Junichi Yamagiwa on “Shikohin”

Translation: Sophia Swanson