Japanese diet

How the Japanese Diet became the Japanese Diet

Here’s some fascinating food history: uncovering how Japan successfully transformed its diet into one that is healthy and delicious within one generation.

AN article in the most recent issue of Scientific American Mind explores the emerging field of nutritional psychology and finds there is increased recognition of the relationship between diet and brain health.

Although no singular food may improve mood or sharpen the mind, research suggests that diets from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, and Japan may play a role in preserving psychological and cognitive well-being. Experiencing the benefits of such diets may require a change in eating habits–something the Japanese themselves know from their own experience.

Acclaimed food historian Bee Wilson explains in her latest book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, “Japan itself is in fact a model for how whole food environments can change in positive and unexpected ways.”

Using history, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, and nutritional science, First Bite explores the origins of food habits and finds that they are influenced by a variety of factors, including gender, memory, culture. Since a large portion of taste preference is learned, it can also be re-learned by both individuals and countries.

Japan is a nation now known for its culinary aesthetics and emphasis of umami. Despite the perception that Japan has always had an innate culinary culture, it was primarily seen as sustenance prior to the twentieth century. As Bee Wilson explains, a confluence of events shaped the cuisine typically considered as being quintessential to the country.

Excerpted from First Bite: How We Learn to Eat:

[T]he Japanese only really started eating what we think of as Japanese food in the years after World War II. During the war, Japan suffered some of the worst hunger in any of the nations involved in the war: out of 1.74 million military deaths from 1941 to 1945, as many as 1 million were due to starvation.

Once again, the Japanese were reduced to acorns and rough grains and sparse amounts of rice, as they had been so often before. Japan was heavily dependent on imported food and was therefore hit especially hard when the war curtailed supplies. The ration rice—given in woefully inadequate quantities—became known as “Five Color Rice”: white rice, stale yellow rice, dried green beans, coarse red grains, and brown insects.

Yet when the Japanese finally bounced back from hunger in the 1950s, they boomed to a state of unprecedented prosperity and gained a new openness to the pleasures of food.

Post-war food aid

Japan’s adventurousness about food was partly a consequence of American post-war food aid. In 1947, the occupying US forces brought in a new school lunch program to alleviate hunger among Japanese children. Before this, children would bring food from home: rice, a few pickles, maybe some bonito flakes (made of dried, fermented tuna), but almost nothing in the way of protein. Many children suffered constant runny noses from their inadequate diet.

The new official American lunches guaranteed that every child would have milk and a white bread roll (made from US wheat) plus a hot dish, which was often some kind of stew made from the remaining stockpiles of canned food from the Japanese army, spiced with curry powder.

The generation of Japanese children reared on these eclectic lunches grew into adults who were open to unusual flavor combinations. In the 1950s, as the national income doubled, people migrated from the land to tiny city apartments. Everyone aspired to buy the “three sacred treasures”: a TV, a washing machine, and a fridge. With new money came new ingredients, and the national diet shifted from carbohydrate to protein.

As the Japanese food historian Naomiche Ishige has explained, once levels of food consumption rose again to pre-war levels, “it became clear that the Japanese were not returning to the dietary pattern of the past, but were rather in the process of creating new eating habits.”

In 1955 the average person in Japan ate just 3.4 eggs and 1.1 kilogram of meat a year, but 110.7 kilograms of rice; by 1978, rice consumption had markedly decreased, to 81 kilograms per capita, while people were now eating 14.9 eggs and 8.7 kilograms of pork alone, not to mention beef, chicken, and fish. But this wasn’t just about Japan moving from privation to plenty.

From dislike to like

More than anything else, it was a shift from dislike to like. Where once it was seen as extravagant in Japan to serve more than one or two dishes to accompany the evening’s rice, now—thanks to the new affluence—it was becoming common to serve three or more dishes, plus rice, soup, and pickles.

Newspapers published recipe columns for the first time, and after centuries of silence at the table, the Japanese started to talk with great discernment about food. They embraced foreign recipes, such as Korean barbecue, Western breaded prawns, and Chinese stir-fries, and made them so much their own that when foreigners came to Japan and tasted them, it seemed to be “Japanese food.”

Perhaps thanks to all those years of culinary isolation, when Japanese cooks encountered new Western foods, they did not adopt them wholesale, but adapted them to fit with traditional Japanese ideas about portion size and how a meal should be structured. When an omelet was served, for example, it probably did not have fried potatoes on the side as it might in the West, but the old miso soup, vegetables, and rice. At last, Japan had started eating the way we expect them to: choosily, pleasurably, and healthily.

There was nothing inevitable or innate in the Japanese spirit that gave them this near-ideal diet……
Scientific American: Read the full article