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 fourth installment of this series, we talked to anthropologist Shinichi Nakazawa. From his book “Mozart in Tibet” (published in 1983) to his most recent book, “Lemma Gaku,”  Nakazawa has explored the realms of the human mind through his research of knowledge of both Eastern and Western worlds. He aims to dismantle and reorganize human sciences through the study of the Oriental intelligence known as “Lemma.” 

In the first part of this article, we discuss how “shikohin” tends to “stick out” from the cultural system, how “excessiveness” existed as a “necessity” since the beginning of mankind, and how the “game of culture” evokes the desire for transcendence. 

Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

The outliers of our cultural systems

── In your book “Lemma Gaku,” which was published in August 2019, I felt that you talked about many of the ideas that you have been exploring since your first book, “Mozart in Tibet,” which came out in 1983.  Western ideology has emphasized intellect that “organizes things that have been placed before oneself,” otherwise known as “Logos Intellect.” In your new book you look beyond that and focus on Eastern ideology which “uses intuition to grasp the whole,” or “Lemma Intellect,” to dismantle and reorganize various human sciences, from modern mathematics, life science, and brain science. In this interview, I would like to discuss your newest findings while exploring the place “shikohin” has in our fundamentally “Logos Intellect-influenced” modern world.

First, let’s start with the discussion of what “shikohin” is. It is said that the first person to use this word was Ogai Mori. In his short story “Fujidana,” which was published in 1912, he writes, “Not only medicine. There are a number of ‘shikohin’ that are a necessity in life that can become a poison.” I think it is an interesting way to describe “shikohin.” What do you think about this definition?

I think it is mostly correct. However, “shikohin” is a complicated word. Does this definition really accurately describe the meaning of the word? If someone is a tuna lover, then tuna could be considered a “shikohin” for that person. In that sense, the word can encompass everything that someone likes. 

Adam Smith once classified consumer goods into two groups: “necessities” and “luxuries.” Since ancient times, mankind has divided things as “necessary” or “unnecessary.” 

First, let’s consider how “shikohin” are positioned in relation to food. The French social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work “From Honey to Ashes” is a good reference for this. 

According to Lévi-Strauss, humans began developing the cultural system of cooking when they first began cooking raw food over fire. It was the process of taking “natural things,” or “raw” things, and processing it with “fire” or “culture.” However, there are two foods that stick out of this system. 

One is the prime example of eating something that is unprocessed from nature, and that is honey. Honey is the nectar produced by bees and eaten raw, or is fermented in water and turned into alcohol. It is a symbol of nature that is untouched by culture. It sticks out from below the cultural system of cooking. 

The other example is tobacco. Around the world, tobacco is more often described as something to “eat” rather than “smoke,” which puts it into the category of food. Cigarettes, which are lit and smoked only to turn into ashes, only applies to the cultural process of using fire. It can be said that it sticks out from the top of the cultural system of cooking. 

── Do you mean that like honey and tobacco, foods that stick out from the cultural systems are what we define as “shikohin”?

Yes. Meals, which are shared on a daily basis within the cultural system of cooking, have the effect of increasing affinity within the family. Home cooking usually involves cooking that faces inward, such as cooking food in a simmering pot. This has probably not changed since the Jomon period. Only during special events such as festivals does the cooking take place outside the home, often surrounding an open fire where meat and vegetables are cooked. 

Considering that, tobacco is a food that sticks out from the cultural system, or a food that is above the cultural system. This is why “shikohin” has little effect in strengthening family bonds. In other words, tobacco is something we enjoy when we go out of our inner family cycle. It was something that was enjoyed when communicating with spirits or supernatural beings that exist outside the human realm. That is why it is inherently problematic to smoke a cigarette while eating a meal or in the presence of family members. 

Native Americans have a custom of sharing smoking pipes with their guests. It symbolizes the act of taking a vow of friendship because it is believed that the spirits that exist between the people form a kind of contractual relationship. This is a different relationship to the intimate relations formed within a family. 

The cultural excesses of “shikohin” are also connected to Europe aristocracy. In 19th century literature and 20th century cinema, many male characters are depicted as smoking cigarettes and it is closely related to dandyism. Europe at the time was a male dominated culture. Men adorned accessories, clothes and pistols for self defense and they attained a radical culture of dignity and power. On the other hand, women remained “natural” and it was considered their right to live a gentle life away from military power. 

This is why European men were often depicted dressed in formal attire, sitting at a large mahogany desk while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. There was a very strict code of “what it means to be a man.” When Ogai Mori went to Europe, he must have been exposed to this culture and learned the meaning behind “shikohin.”

Humans and the never ending pursuit of excessiveness

── You talked about the cultural excesses of “shikohin.” Do you think that excessiveness is something that has always been a part of human history?

I think so. For example, people have always had a desire for beauty and accessories. Since the beginning of human history, we have adorned ourselves with jewelry such as sea shells or hard nuts in addition to clothing we wore solely for protection against the elements.

Another example is how people would dress up the deceased as if they were going out into the everyday world of the living, for funerals. Even in the age of the hunter-gatherers, when there was very little social hierarchy, there tended to be a leader of the group. When that leader died, their bodies were adorned with accessories. Native Americans placed a lot of value in porcupine spines because they were believed to take the human spirit into a higher domain. 

── In your book “The Future LUCY,” which you co-authored with Juichi Yamagiwa, you talk about how after the human brain went through a cognitive evolution,  it began to seek out “meaning” and that was the birth of arts and religion. 

When homosapiens first emerged, there was excessive activity in the newly enlarged brain. It is similar to the state of a computer overheating due to excess information. In order to deal with this excess brain power, humans turned to outlets through “excessive products.” Although these things were not “necessary” for survival, there was a need to have an outlet for the excess energy in the mind.

This was the beginning of our need for excessiveness and includes not only arts and religion, but also festivals and even war.

── Under the current coronavirus pandemic, western media often refer to “essential workers,” and there was a lot of discussion about how we should refrain from doing things that are “not essential,” or “excessive.”  In light of what you said earlier, do you think that “excessive” things are in fact an “essential” part of being human?

It’s not so much “essential” as it is “necessary.” It is something we cannot do without. When defining “essence,” it means we have to assign value to it so it includes political and religious nuances. For example, cigarettes were “essential” for “dandy” people who lived outside the cultural sphere, like the poet Oscar Wilde.

Playing the “culture game” and how it inspires transcendence

── Why do you think humans desire to escape existing cultural spheres? 

I think it is our way of expanding our consciousness and finding things that we cannot find in everyday lives. Humans are fundamentally beings that seek things that stick out of the cultural sphere. “God” and “spirits” were words that described this “outside” world, and even if it is only an illusion, humans seek out transcendence. 

── “Shikohin” tends to lead to intoxication or arousal. Do these effects have a similar function?

Yes. I think we seek the intoxication and arousal caused by “shikohin” as a way to escape our cultural spheres. 

Of course, even without reading how German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “God is dead,” the modern world does not believe in the physical existence of something “beyond” or “outside” the human existence. However, Nietzsche spoke about how we must change the structure of our brain to become “superhuman.” He saw the importance of using what we already have and expanding outwards. In a way, I think this is a way of describing the human desire to experience illusions through products such as alcohol and tobacco, in philosophical terms. 

In the past, being poetic and drinking alcohol was deeply connected. Many great poets, including Li Bai of China, were heavy drinkers who drank from morning to night. Drinking opened their minds to use words more freely, and the things that spilled out in between these lines were what gave humans the feeling of expanding to the outside spheres. Poems, haiku, waka and renga are also often composed at banquets. In order to free ourselves from the constraints of everyday human relationships, we needed to have these unruly banquets. 

── I believe in the 20th century, the American novelist William Burroughs tried to do the same thing with drugs.

Burroughs and his friends’ experiment was a 20th century, modern version of the late 19th century Western avant-garde culture. In Europe, poet Charles Baudelaire, who strongly cursed the common sense of civil society, took marijuana to escape from such thoughts, and poet Arthur Rimbaud liked to drink. The United States was a country with relatively high morals, but with the emergence of Burroughs and his friends, the American version of the avant-garde culture began. 

── “Shikohin” products tend to originate from Asia or other non-European countries. Europe worked very hard to colonize India and Latin America, and I think that this was because the exoticism around “shikohin” creates the motivation and energy to move history in a significant way.  Do you think the attraction of  exoticism also influences the human desire for transcendence?

I think that is one aspect of it. Exoticism is a strong attraction to tastes, colors and behaviors that are different from what we are accustomed to. This curiosity has also been around since the beginning of human history. We have always felt exoticism toward other tribes and groups that have different languages and customs from our own. 

Culture is like a game of language. It is finite and limited in movement and is shaped by the combination of predetermined rules. When it comes to preserving such culture, the rules become very restrictive. A game like Shogi is enjoyable because it has a good balance of rules and freedom, but the game of everyday life is not so. Just like how society starts policing people who do not wear a mask, if one strays outside the rules, they are treated like they are not human. 

This is one reason why we view people enjoying the game of life under different rules as exotic. Of course, those people are also trapped in their own game under a different language and rules, so this is but an illusion. However, I think because humans are all players in a game that is filled with stifling elements, it is inevitable that humans seek release and freedom. 

Another reason we seek out foreign and exotic “shikohin” is because we want to define the value of our own cultures. The Japanese feudal lords of the Sengoku Period, prized the rice bowls used by Korean farmers as valuable tea cups and paid the equivalent of millions in modern day yen to buy them. 

The reason why Europe had such a strong desire for “shikohin” from Asia was because they witnessed the rich culture of the Arab countries during the Crusades and realized the poorness of their own culture. It was because they were confronted with their own barbarism that their desire to reconfigure European culture arose. This led them to explore outside of Europe for “shikohin” such as spices and other delicacies. 

*Part 2 scheduled to be released on 2/18

Translation:Sophia Swanson

  • Author:
    Editor / President of Gutenberg Orchestra Co. Ltd. Born in 1964 and works as an editor and consultant. Editor-in-chief of the English culture magazine ESP Cultural Magazine. Works include "Hajimete no Henshu" (Editing for beginners) and "Butsuyoku naki Sekai" (A world free of material desire). President of the art book publishing company, United Vagabonds. Writes a regular series for Commercial Photo. Chairman of "Henshu Suparuta Jyuku" (Cram school for editors) and "Tokyo Geijyutsu Chugaku" (Tokyo Art School for Teens). Winner of the NYADC Silver Prize and the D&AD Award.
  • Editor:
Let your heart melt away in moments as fleeting as the stream at full flood.