October 2, 2015

WHAT’S UP, DOC? | Healthy Eating: A Global Aesthetic

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I left Ithaca two weeks ago, but here in my corner of Tokyo I’m writing from a communal table overlooking an outdoor food market.

I’m surrounded by chia seeds, artisanal coffee and vegan food trucks. Did the Farmer’s Market come to Tokyo?

Not quite. The communal table comes equipped with iPad stations, as the food market is in Omotesando, a posh Japanese neighborhood known for its great architecture and high concentration of global luxury brands. Hipsters filter through, presumably from the design school around the corner. But it is in this neighborhood where I’ve found the greatest concentration of organic, vegetarian and healthy foods since arriving in Japan a week ago.

For a country that’s reputed to have a population with the healthiest diet in the world, it’s unexpectedly difficult to find healthy options on the fly. My search for healthy food has led me to some unlikely places, as stores here are sometimes found inside other stores, I ate arugula salad inside spas, hair salons and clothing stores. After a few days, I figured out that you can reliably find healthy food in this city if you locate a particular aesthetic: concept stores in posh areas of town conceptualized as urban oases for women. In other words, any place that looked like it could outfit a Gwyneth Paltrow photo shoot.

Eating well is also strikingly gendered in Japan. The eateries I visited had feminized names like “Tiny Kitchen Garden” and “Crayon Room.” Dining out, I would be handed the vegetarian option even if it were my male friends who ordered the dish.

I’ve never agreed with the concept of things get “lost in translation,” particularly when it comes to experiencing Japan, where there are a lot of resemblances to things I am familiar with back home. I’ve always been skeptical when organic in the U.S. is taken to mean “healthy.” In Japan, given the number of clothing shops I’ve had to enter for vegetarian or other food of the “farm to table” variety, it’s clear that organic eating has the overtones of a commodified urban aesthetic experience, complete with the stylishly bare light bulbs that one would expect in a Brooklyn brunch spot.

When organic is treated as an international trend where eating greens in a highly curated, zen-like space becomes an antidote to the stress of city life, it makes sense to find a vegan eatery inside an Aveda Salon. Although it was initially strange to be in neighborhood has a fresh pressed orange juice inside a hair salon, the idea that “healthy” eating is about subscribing to a particular aesthetic becomes less strange considering that #eatclean is a lifestyle philosophy that is popularized through a hashtag on Instagram.

We might think that health means maintaining the best practices for taking care of one’s body, but health is a concept that can be used to promote normative ideas of what’s proper or what’s considered beautiful in society. Hollywood’s craze of kale or the proliferation of lifestyle icons like Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Lively create an image of “health” that is dependent upon having an abundance of capital and leisure time, an aesthetic that finds itself translated into concentration of feminized healthy eating spaces in chic areas of Tokyo for me to encounter in my search for vegetarian food.

Shoan Yin Cheung ’09 is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. She is based in Tokyo and can be reached at [email protected].