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Japan's latest celebrity chef is a gay lawyer in hit TV drama

Program airing at midnight reminds viewers to enjoy time with loved ones

Kenji Yabuki, played by Seiyo Uchino, left, shares dinner with his partner, Shiro Kakei, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima. (Courtesy of Kino Nani Tabeta Production Committee)

TOKYO -- A gay TV couple is making Japanese viewers fall in love with cooking, and with everyday life at home.

The fictional couple also has viewers staying up early into Saturday morning, as "Kino Nani Tabeta?" ("What Did You Eat Yesterday?") starts Fridays at midnight.

It's not very gay, and that's one of the show's qualities viewers seem to appreciate.

"I like the drama because it does not show any romantic scenes," said a 29-year-old woman living in Tokyo. "I feel relaxed after watching it."

"I don't want to see a roller-coaster love story at my age," a 39-year-old woman who lives in Tokyo said. "'What Did You Eat Yesterday?' is suitable for watching at midnight," when Japanese networks like to help viewers relax with lighthearted dramas.

The show also makes for good Twitter fodder. Every week, soon after each episode begins, the social media site is abuzz with tweets from viewers. Typical comments run along the lines of, "Kenji is so cute!" And, "I like Shiro's mysterious smile."

"What Did You Eat Yesterday?" is based on the namesake manga by Fumi Yoshinaga. The drama depicts the home life of lawyer Shiro Kakei and beautician Kenji Yabuki, both in their 40s.

Popular actor Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Shiro, while Seiyo Uchino portrays Kenji.

"What Did You Eat Yesterday?" was the most popular drama for its first seven weeks on the air, according to Japanese publisher Kadokawa's The Television website. That is the longest winning streak since "Karutetto" ("Quartet"), a Tokyo Broadcasting System Television drama that aired in the January-March period of 2017.

The drama's official guidebook/cookbook and Fumi Yoshinaga's original manga are selling well.

The drama's household viewership ratings have hovered in the 2% to 3% range in the Kanto region, according to data from Video Research. But "What Did You Eat Yesterday?" had more than 1 million views on TV Tokyo's streaming service through the sixth episode, unprecedentedly high for the broadcaster.

"What Did You Eat Yesterday" is more than just an LGBT drama. ... It also has delicious-looking food and impressive performances by well-known actors," said TV writer Mihoko Yamada.

The show usually has Shiro using inexpensive ingredients to whip up dinner, taking the viewer through the cooking process with a kind of monologue, then sitting down at the dining table with Kenji. The series focuses more on everyday pleasures. This differentiates it from "Ossan's Love," a megahit drama TV Asahi aired in 2018 about gay romance.

"We do not hope that it will draw attention as [an LGBT] drama," said Taku Matsumoto, a producer at broadcaster TV Tokyo. "It is more of a food drama."

In this uniquely Asian genre, food is always in the foreground as the plot plays out.

"What Did You Eat Yesterday?" airs in the same time slot as "Kodoku no Gurume" ("Solitary Gourmet"), but "is more popular among women than 'Solitary Gourmet,'" Matsumoto said. In this other food drama, the main character shows off his knack for finding good but inexpensive restaurants.

Some viewers appear to watch the show for cooking suggestions. Many homemakers cook the same dishes that Shiro prepares, then, the day after each episode, they post photos of their re-creations on social media.

Mai Yoshimura, a 35-year-old resident of Kiyose, in northern Tokyo, made five dishes from the first episode during Japan's 10-day Golden Week string of holidays, which began at the end of April. She cooked a seasoned rice concoction with salmon, a Chinese-style stir-fry with bamboo shoots and Sichuan pickles as well as other dishes while her 3-year-old and 1-year-old watched TV.

The recipes of "What Did You Eat Yesterday?" are winning over frugal homemakers.

"I was surprised because they were really easy to make," Yoshimura said. "It was also nice that the ingredients were affordable."

The drama has an official guidebook/cookbook that publisher Kodansha released in late April, in the middle of the series, and which has also gained blockbuster status. "It is totally different from other recipe books," said a representative of Sanseido Bookstore's main outlet, in Tokyo's Jimbocho district. "The first copies that came in sold out in a few days."

The fictional couple is selling more than books. In the fifth episode, which aired during the first weekend in May, Kenji prepared a package of Sanyo Foods' Sapporo Ichiban Miso Ramen. During the following week, that particular item flew off the shelves of some supermarkets.

Sales of Shio Ramen are almost always higher than those of Miso Ramen in greater Tokyo, according to point-of-sales data compiled by Nikkei. But from May 6 to May 12, sales of Miso Ramen overtook Shio Ramen in the area by nearly 10%.

Shiro and Kenji have become role models in other ways as well. Since starting to watch the show, many viewers say they have made a point of sitting down for dinner with their loved ones.

"I would be happy to cook if I had a husband like Kenji," said a 32-year-old part-time worker who lives in Saitama, near Tokyo. "Kenji always comments on the dishes Shiro makes. It is also nice to see Kenji eating with great relish. My husband wouldn't say anything about what I make."

Some people see a little bit of themselves in Shiro, who is bothered by his strained relationship with his parents. A woman in her 40s who lives in Tokyo was moved to call her parents after watching an episode. "I think everyone can relate to Shiro's problems," she said.

Maki Muraki, a 44-year-old founder of Nijiiro Diversity, an Osaka-based nonprofit organization that conducts surveys on sexual minorities, looks forward to the drama every week.

In the show, Shiro's father treats his neighbor's child like his own grandchild. "It was emotional to see Shiro watching his father doing so," Muraki said.

"I would be glad if LGBT characters become more common in Japanese dramas," TV writer Yamada said.

"What Did You Eat Yesterday?" is reminding viewers that happiness is being able to enjoy dinner with loved ones even when life is not going so well.

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