Contemporary Issues in Japanese Cuisine

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Contemporary Issues in Japanese Cuisine

The twentieth century, and a few decades preceding it, was for Japanese cuisine a time of diminishing contrasts and increasing variety. During this period the food habits of the Japanese people advanced in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the dietary practices thus far restricted to the urban population spread to all areas of the country. On the other hand, it was a time of revolutionary change in the range of available foodstuffs and in applied cooking techniques. Never before had foreign food infiltrated Japanese cuisine to such an extent as it did during the twentieth century.

The Making of a National Cuisine

By the 1950s, the abundant regional variety and sharp class distinctions in diet that had been characteristic of premodern Japan gave way to a relatively homogeneous cuisine. The discrepancy between the sophisticated meals of the elite, the simple fare of the townsfolk, and the meager nourishment of peasants gradually faded away. Although the trade in local specialties flourished under the rise of capitalism, regional flavor had become by the late twentieth century the exception rather than the rule in the dietary culture of the Japanese people (Noguchi, 1994, pp. 323326 ).

Urbanization has been largely responsible for the blending of regional food habits in modern Japan. The migration of great numbers of Japanese to Korea, Manchuria, and other colonies, and their repatriation after 1945, contributed to it as well. Modern food preservation technologies, such as canning and freezing, along with the popularization of foreign food, also played an important role in making the Japanese diet uniform. The increasing impact of mass media and home-economics education, as well as rising living standards, were other crucial factors in this process.

First of all, the rice-centered meal pattern consisting of a serving of rice, a bowl of soup, pickles (tsukemono ), and side dishes had by the mid-twentieth century become a national standard. This pattern developed around the thirteenth century in the kitchens of wealthy warriors and monks, spread to less affluent samurai and townspeople during the following centuries, but only became the norm in peasant households in the wake of World War II. The daily diet of the rural population of Japan had thus far been composed of hearty soups; various types of millet, buckwheat, and barley, rather than rice, were their staples. Although rice has, since ancient times, been the most important crop in Japan, forming the center of its economy, a rice-based diet has for centuries been unattainable for the majority of the population (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993, pp. 3043).

The same holds true for soy saucenowadays regarded as the prevalent Japanese flavoring, the essence of Japanese cuisine. It should be mentioned that before the modernization of the country began in the late nineteenth century, peasants constituted more than 80 percent of the population. It is only since the beginning of the twentieth century that soy sauce has become affordable for every Japanese family. Before this shift took place, soybean paste (miso ) had been the principal flavoring in farm households. Along with the factors mentioned earlier, the increased efficiency in production and retailing of soy sauce in the twentieth century helped it assume the position of Japan's national condiment.

Multicultural Eating

World War II is generally regarded as the watershed between the traditional and modern culinary culture in Japan. The food shortage of the 1940s diminished dietary prejudices, the American Occupation (19451952) instigated a powerful Westernizing influence, and the 1960s economic boom provided the means for the majority of the population to re-create affluent meals of the past and to mimic foreign food fashions (White, 2002, pp. 6473).

Indeed, the economic affluence of the 1970s and 1980s supported extensive Westernization of Japanese food habits. A clear decrease in rice, soybean, and fish consumption, and a concomitant rise in red meat, dairy, and wheat consumption is just one of many indicators of this shift.

The year 1971 serves as a symbolic point marking the beginning of Japan catching up with the rest of the world in culinary culture. In that year the first McDonald's outlet was opened in Tokyo, soon followed by other American fast-food chains, ice-cream parlors, and steak-houses. The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed the rise of the so-called ethnic food (esunikku ryori ) boom. The ethnic-food category encompassed a variety of South and Southeast Asian cuisines as well as other culinary rarities such as Caribbean and Ethiopian cooking. This interchange of trends has turned Japanese cities into multicultural melting pots, hardly different in this respect from their counterparts elsewhere in the world. French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Indian are ubiquitous geographical headings on restaurant billboards in contemporary Japan.

Not only the restaurant culture underwent extensive transformation during the last decades of the twentieth century. Japanese home menus are less adventurous, yet by no means do they lack foreign influence. Most foreign dishes are incorporated as side dishes into the rice-centered meal pattern with soup and pickles. Dishes such as curried rice, spaghetti, and Chinese-style fried noodles are exceptions to this rule as they already constitute a meal.

The school lunch system, introduced in 1947 by the Allied Occupation authorities as a means of improving the nutrition of Japanese children, had a profound impact on the Westernization of Japanese home cooking. School lunches differed markedly from the typical Japanese meal in their strong emphasis on bread and milk, often combined with Western-style dishes such as curry stew, hamburger steak, spaghetti with meat sauce, and salad (Ehara, 1999). The kinds and combinations of foods served at school not only influenced children's tastes, but also indirectly affected the meals served in their homes. The postwar generations of children raised on such school lunches have grown into adults with tastes distinctly different from those of their parents and grandparents. The mass media and home-economics education provided Japanese women with the skills and expertise to satisfy the new food tastes of their families.

Accommodating Foreign Food

Although internationalization of Japanese cuisine has been proceeding rapidly from the 1960s onward, it was not entirely a product of postWorld War II decades. The first signs of Western influence could already be seen in the late nineteenth century, soon after the opening of Japanese ports to foreign trade and the launch of a series of social and economic reforms.

The first Western-style restaurants in Japan opened in the 1860s in port towns that were designated to receive foreign ships and accommodate Western settlements. These restaurants were at first targeted exclusively at Western clientele. With the growing popularity of Western-style dining among the Japanese upper classes, however, Western-style restaurants began to cater to the Japanese customer as well. By the late 1880s, each provincial city in Japan had at least one Western-style restaurant, and within the next few decades a great many Western-style diners (yoshokuya ) mushroomed throughout the country. They provided less affluent Japanese citizens with domesticated versions of Western-style dishes, such as fried fish, beefsteak, veal cutlet, croquettes, omelets, and stew. These dishes were not served as components of set menus consisting of several courses, as was the general practice at more expensive establishments, but were to be ordered à la carte and usually served accompanied by a plate of Japanese-style boiled rice. For the working classes, these Western-style diners were their only opportunity to try food that was different from what they usually had at home. Western-style cookery was not to enter Japanese folk kitchens until several decades later.

The early twentieth century did witness, however, the rise of a hybrid style of Japanese-Western home cooking among the nouveau-riche class of white-collar urban professionals. Middle-class housewives looking for diversion in their domestic chores ardently embraced this new eclectic cuisine (Cwiertka, 1998, pp. 4954). Next to Western-style dishes, Chinese-style recipes began to be prominently featured in household literature from the 1920s onwarda decade after cheap eateries run by Chinese immigrants became popular in Japanese cities. Western and Chinese cooking techniques such as panfrying, stewing, and deep-frying of breaded meat and fish enlarged the variety of Japanese cookery. By the 1930s, the Japanese-Western-Chinese culinary triptych was firmly established as the foundation of modern Japanese foodways. The incorporation of Western-style and Chinese-style dishes into the diet of the Japanese armed forces contributed greatly to the popularization of this new food among all segments of society ( Cwiertka, 2002, pp. 715).

Food Safety

From the 1970s onward, when rice-centered cuisine had reached the entire population and was about to be challenged by the encroachment of foreign food, a concern about sufficient food supply gradually shifted toward food safety (Jussaume, Hisano, and Taniguchi, 2000). Consumer awareness about the risks of food contamination and the connection between environmental pollution and food production grew steadily. In 1973, the National Association of Consumer Cooperatives (now known as the Japan Consumer Cooperatives Union) began to emphasize food safety in its marketing strategies. Various consumer groups advocating organic farming and reduction of food imports became active all over Japan. The issue attracted wide public attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when pressure from the United States and some European countries to open Japan's rice market met with violent opposition in Japan. A current example of the mainstreaming of the food-safety movement is the fact that the Japanese public strongly opposes genetically modified foods despite assurances from the Japanese government about their safety.

With the first Japanese case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy reported in 2001, and an increase in the incidence of child obesity and coronary diseases, it seems that Japanese consumers have not only added Western foods to their menus, but now have some of the same worries about food as Europeans and Americans.

See also China; Korea; Southeast Asia; Tea .


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Cwiertka, Katarzyna. "Munching on Modernity: Popularizing Military Diet in Wartime and Postwar Japan." Asian Anthropology 1, no. 1 (2002), 130.

Ehara, Ayako. "School Meals and Japan's Changing Diet." Japan Echo 26, no. 4 (August 1999): 5660.

Jussaume, Raymond A., Jr., Shuji Hisano, and Yoshimitsu Taniguchi. " Food Safety in Japan." In Japanstudien 12, edited by Nicola Liscutin and René Haak, pp. 211228. Munich: Iudicium, 2000.

Noguchi, Paul. "Savor Slowly: Ekiben The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan." Ethnology 33, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 317330.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Rice as Self. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

White, Merry I. "Ladies Who Lunch: Young Women and the Domestic Fallacy in Japan." In Asian Food: The Global and the Local, edited by Katarzyna Cwiertka with Boudewijn Walraven, pp. 6375. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka