A video version of this article exist on YouTube.
- Buddhism and Shinto meant Japanese didn’t eat meat from 675 AD to about 1869 AD, the start of the Meiji era.
- Japan was isolated from the world during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Traditional Japanese cuisine, Washoku, flourished and had an absence of meat.
- America forced Japan to open up in 1853, triggering westernisation.
- Westernisation meant eating meat, so that was unbanned. But meat was still expensive. Western restaurants (Yoshokuya) could already be found in cities.
- A deadly disease called beriberi was very common in this era, and afflicted military men severely.
- Takaki Kanehiro, a navy doctor, found out that the Western diet could solve beriberi, and westernised the navy’s diet in 1890.
- This didn’t affect the army’s diet, as Takaki’s methods were not commonly accepted in the medical community.
- After World War I, nutrition studies and science really kicked off and were seen as important by the military.
- 1920s: food quality in both the army and navy went up. Meat and Yoshoku, the Japanised versions of Western food, was commonly served.
- Military men who completed their conscription would get a taste for Yoshoku and spread the word of it back home.
- A committee by the government and the military was set up to improve nutrition in the general public, to be sponsored by food suppliers that supplied to the military.
- This spread the importance of nutrition, Yoshoku recipes and products like ready-made roux, frozen and canned food.
- World War II halted progress on meat and Yoshoku growth.
- After World War II, growth resumed, and popularity exploded. By popular, I mean that Japanese curry, a Yoshoku dish, can be considered Japan’s national dish.
- Now, meat is a completely normal part of Japanese cuisine.
- The Japanese saw Yoshoku as western food, i.e. the normal versions of food that Europeans also eat, not knowing that Yoshoku has evolved into a completely different cuisine.
- 1980s: economic growth meant authentic European restaurants pop up, and the Japanese finally knew the distinction between Yoshoku and European cuisine.
Traditional Japanese Cuisine and the Lack of Meat
Although meat-eating is pretty normalised in 21st century Japan, it is only surprisingly recent — near the start of the Meiji period around 1870 — that meat became commonly accepted into people’s diet.
Way back in 300 AD, Buddhism was already a major influence on Japanese culture. In 675 AD, this influence resulted in the emperor banning the consumption of four-legged animals and mammals; including cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens. The idea is that humans can be reincarnated into other living beings, so eating meat can be seen as a case of cannibalism.
(A not very fun fact also mentioned in the video: people didn’t know that whales were mammals and ate them anyway.)
Barring certain scenarios, like medical uses and hunting in certain small communities, meat continued to be taboo for most of the population up till the end of the Edo period (or the start of the Meiji period). The resulting Japanese cuisine focused on seafood and vegetables.
What we consider traditional Japanese cuisine or Washoku (和食) is solidified during the Edo period. Japan had been shut off from the rest of the world for more than 200 years (an isolationist policy called Sakoku) and the culture was allowed to flourish in the period’s relative abundance.
Foodie culture was even developed. It is estimated that there is an eating house for every 170 people, with a hawker selling Sushi, a soba stall, or tempura stand just about every corner in Edo. There were even restaurant guides for the city of Edo similar to our modern Michelin guidebooks.
(For comparison, 21st century Paris has about 130 people for every restaurant.)
Despite the diverse gastronomic landscape, meat was still taboo. If meat were to be found, it was likely for medicinal use.
1853: The Americans Came. With Gunboats.
Being isolated from the rest of the globe, the Japanese didn’t develop much in terms of firearms and couldn’t stand against the United State’s firepower. So, with a little gentle persuasion, Japan opened to trade with the Western world.
The Netherlands, Russia, Britain and France, then also coerced Japan to sign similar treaties with them, based on the most favoured nation status (basically, in international trade, a country shouldn’t be given special treatment). This led to the unfavourable agreements called the Ansei Treaties.
Westernisation and Meat
Fearing colonisation, it was decided that Westernisation was the only way forward… through a series of rebellions and civil war leading to the Bakumatsu and subsequently the start of the Meiji era in 1869.
(The 2003 movie The Last Samurai is a pretty cool watch to learn a little more about this contentious period of transition.)
A westernised government took over with a movement called Bunmei kaika (文明開化), or civilisation and enlightenment.
Unlike western troops, Japanese soldiers tend to be scrawny and malnourished. Even though military conscription was made compulsory, not many Japanese males passed the basic fitness requirements.
It was also believed that the Westerners were jacked because they ate meat.
So to prove that eating meat was totally okay, the Emperor ate meat and spread the message that it was no longer taboo. Slowly, the Japanese population started to see eating meat as civilised, with just one problem.
Meat is expensive.
Although Western-style restaurants (Yoshokuya 洋食屋) started popping up around Edo, most families could only afford to visit them occasionally, if ever. Poorer civilians ate even worse, relying on brown rice and millet as their source of nutrition.
Despite realising that meat was linked to buff soldiers, the importance of nutrition wasn’t fully appreciated yet. High ranking military officers ate healthily and had a varied diet, including western food and meat, but soldiers ate mostly white rice and pickles (tsukemono 漬物).
The Japanese military, through westernisation efforts, swapped to catering food themselves instead of outsourcing meals and set up a centralised money system with yen as the basic currency. They gave military men 1.08 litres (6 gou) of white rice, and a basic allowance of 0.066 yen to buy any side dishes.
Polishing rice is an extra step that most couldn’t afford to do, especially not without large scale farming capabilities. With white rice being more expensive than unpolished rice (brown rice), many soldiers and conscripts, who also usually came from poor families, saw this as a generous offering from the military. They would also send money back home, leaving themselves just enough for tsukemono.
But the meatless diet started to change, starting from this guy:
Takaki Kanehiro — Admirer of White Socks
The son of a Satsuma samurai who made money doing carpentry, Takaki was only 13 years old when he decided to become a doctor. Apparently, he decided to do so because he saw a local physician wearing white tabi (socks) — a symbol of high status.
Takaki studied medicine under a doctor Ishigami Ryosaku, went to the Boshin War together with him as medical officers in 1872, then saw William Willis, an English doctor, operating on the wounded. Which he thought was pretty cool, so he studied under Willis.
During this time, studying German medicine was the more common and accepted path for doctors studying western medicine. Japanese elites decided that German medicine was better than British medicine and subsequently fired Willis.
Under the recommendation from Willis, Takaki decided to study at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London for 5 years from 1875. As he had no money, he had to join the navy to travel to Britain.
It was in the navy that Takaki saw beriberi to the full extent of its damages.
The Disease Beriberi
A disease causing fatigue, poor reflexes, irritability, memory loss, nerve damage and even heart failure.
Japanese sailors fell ill on average 4 times a year, of which 35% were cases of beriberi. In 1884, it is reported that more than half of the soldiers stationed at a particular army base in Tokyo had the disease. Even in Okinawa, where the native population rarely had the disease, 43.12% of the troops got it. In total, more than a quarter of the 36,483 soldiers in the army suffered from beriberi.
The sickness, also called Kakke (脚気) or the Edo sickness, affected the whole of Japan but especially the urban residents of Edo.
Up till the end of the Meiji era, 6500 to 15 thousand Japanese died every year.
Nobody knew what caused it.
Diet, The Missing Link
After studying for 5 years, Takaki returned to the Navy in 1880 and began researching beriberi while slowly rising in ranks, becoming the Director of the Naval Medical Bureau. A big title, but Takaki was still relatively powerless.
In his stay in the navy, he documented the disease among officers, petty officers, sailors and prisoners, and soon found a pattern that the wealthier social classes had lower instances of beriberi. This was true even in civilian populations. He then looked at the diets, and theorised that the nitrogen:carbon ratio was the problem. In the meals of sailors, this was 1:28; in petty officers, 1:25; in officers, 1:20. The 21st century way of interpreting this is to say that the wealthier class had more protein in their diets.
Which seemed like solid evidence, but the higher-ups were reluctant to change the troop’s diet because the Italian navies had tried doing so but that led to unrest.
Opportunity came when the navy’s flagship Ryujo (龍驤, Prancing Dragon) came back from a training mission in 1883. 376 men came back from Hawaii and 169 had beriberi. 25 of them died.
This caused much unrest among the navy officers, but this was perfect for an experiment. In 1884, another ship, Tsukuba, is set to sail to Hawaii, Russia and Korea from Shinagawa, a similar training mission. Takaki suggested changing that ship’s diet to the British diet of bread, ship biscuits, salted meat and beans, making the ratio of nitrogen:carbon to be 1:15.
Some convincing was needed, as this was a huge ask financially speaking. By some, I meant that Takaki talked to the emperor and also declared that he would perform seppuku if he failed.
But luckily, when the Tsukuba came back, only 14 people in 333 were sick from beriberi. What’s more, all who got beriberi were the ones who refused to eat the food. What’s more, all who got beriberi were the ones who refused to eat the food.
Takaki’s experiment was a huge success and managed to convince the Japanese navy that diet was the problem. They were so impressed, that Takaki was appointed Navy Surgeon General in 1885 and later became the first person in Japan to receive the degree of Doctor of Medical Science.
In 1890, the navy replaced the allowance system with a central distribution of ingredients and swapped to a Western-style diet. Beriberi in the navy dropped by 94% and there were no more deaths from beriberi. Not only that, a healthier crew also had 50% less disease and injuries.
But The Army’s Diet Remained…
If you remembered how Willis was fired because he studied British medicine, well… that would become a problem for Takaki as well.
Most doctors, who studied German medicine, believed that beriberi was caused by germs and not diet. They argued that wealthier people had better hygiene, so less beriberi. There were frequent debates among the doctors with Takaki typically being outnumbered on his scientific opinions.
It didn’t help that government officials tended to look down on the expertise of scientists. Takaki’s authority only extended to the navy, but the army didn’t really care about his discoveries.
So while the army was facing the same beriberi problems, the navy went on a gastronomic adventure.
Note that the crew probably ate much poorer than the higher-ranking officers, who were having the good stuff. In the Western Food section in a 1908 navy recipe book, you had Roast Beef, fried cutlets, mac n cheese, omelettes, croquettes, and curry.
Yes. Curry is considered a Western dish in Japan. And yes, curry is a British invention. But uh, back to the topic.
…Until After World War I, That is
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), approximately 80,000 soldiers with beriberi were sent home, 10% of whom died.
The army would later discover that barley also prevented beriberi, and then in 1905 general Terauchi, Minister of War, forced for rice to be mixed with barley. The problem? Soldiers didn’t like them, since this was the same mixture given to prison and soldiers preferred rice.
After WW1, the military started taking notice of the power of science, and food in the army finally caught up in quality. In other words, the navy had about a 30-year head-start in improving their diets.
(Side track: the discovery of vitamins in the 1910s later led to the real cause of beriberi being identified as vitamin B deficiency.)
In 1921, the Japanese Military Diet Research Committee was established. Slowly, nutritional research made meals in the navy and army became more like what the 1908 recipe book had. These Western recipes had much more protein and carbs, and also had new cooking methods like deep-frying to add calories on the cheap. They were perfect for the military’s aim of nourishing and filling meals at the lowest cost possible, which was hard to achieve with lean traditional Japanese food.
Using unfamiliar Western food also solved one more problem.
You see, the disposable headcounts of the military all came from different regions of Japan, and each region had their unique taste to each dish. There wasn’t a common “Japanese cuisine” that is acceptable to everyone.
But nobody knew what Western food tasted like.
Some changes to the Western food were made to adapt to Japanese palettes, like changing dishes to complement rice, soy sauce, green tea and other Japanese ingredients. Shapes of food are changed for chopsticks. This Japanese-Western fusion with a collection of meat dishes came from would be called Yoshoku (洋食) in Japanese, literally “Western Food”. To the common folk, this might as well be the same gourmet food they get if they went overseas to say, France.
And yeah, they liked it.
(Side note: after 1918, Chinese-Japanese dishes inspired by cheap eateries run by Chinese immigrants were also included in military menus. But they weren’t as popular because of the Sino-Japanese war and general contempt for Chinese people.)
Understanding How Good Military food Was
Muneta Hiroshi, a military writer who was an active soldier from January 1929 to November 1930, recalled in one of his books:
“Compared to what the average household had in that era, calling military food a “feast” is truly a fitting description.”
“Considering the context of that era, military food was such an extravagance that people couldn’t believe it.”
And if that wasn’t enough, you might want to know about a man called Akiyama Tokuzo.
About 1904, Akiyama visited a military base due to his family’s business, tasted the beef cutlet and was so shocked by the taste that he later moved to Tokyo alone at the age of 16 and became an apprentice cook. Akiyama later became known as the Escoffier of Japan, and even had TV series and books made about him.
Yes, Escoffier, the guy who invented the French mother sauces and wrote what is basically the bible for French cuisine.
So if the Escoffier of Japan, got so mind blown by the food as a teenager that he decided to make his life goal a chef, you know that the food was goood.
Since conscription became compulsory since the 1870s, many Japanese would get a taste for Yoshoku and spread the word of it back home. As a result, the side effect of the military trying to buff up soldiers was the training of a nation of gourmets, who now also got to like the taste of meat.
Popularising the Military Diet
As Japan got richer, so did the common folk. But the government realised that most still have bad diets and ate worse than the military. Realising the military are kinda experts in mass feeding nutritious and cheap food, they set up a committee together in 1925 called the Ryouyuukai (Provision’s Friends Association). Originally, it was set up to improve military catering and mass catering at schools and factories, but they later also went into nutritional education.
But for some reason, this committee was neither officially part of the military nor the government, so they don’t have any funding.
Companies selling food supplies to the military had a financial interest to expand to the civilian market, so names like Masuda Farming, Toyo Canning, Morinaga Confectionery, Ajinomoto, and the Japan Freezing Association started sponsoring them to market their canned, frozen and processed ingredients that the military relied on.
Exhibitions, recipes and cooking demonstrations popularised canned, frozen, processed ingredients, and western ingredients like meat, potatoes, onions and curry powder. Recipes recommended were also low budget, at an average of 8 sen per dish, compared to low-end dining establishments serving curry on rice for 10-15 sen and Shina soba (or ramen) for 10 sen. Popularising the military diet was also crucial to managing food shortage. In the mid-1930s, a shortage of rice had led to bread and potatoes being substitutes.
Then World War II happened, and food became shit again during the war. (Beriberi became a problem again, and Japanese soldiers often had to resort to raiding the countries they were invading for food.)
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, military cooks and dietitians found employment in restaurants and canteens with Western menus. Companies started producing ready-made versions of Yoshoku that were originally meant for the military. These were still considered fancy food, so being easy to cook only made them even more popular.
Until the 1980s, Yoshoku was the only Western Food known to many Japanese, as ingredients to make authentic French or Italian dishes were unavailable. “Italian” meant Napolitan Spaghetti or just spaghetti with meat sauce, and there was no concept of “pasta” or “al dente”.
It is only when the Japanese economy became so strong that restaurateurs flew to Japan to open authentic restaurants, and Yoshoku became totally separated from authentic Western food in the minds of the Japanese.
Today, Yoshoku is considered a part of Japanese cuisine. And together with Yoshoku, meat is now a common ingredient in Japanese homes.
Hyperlinking isn’t done very well here, as I took a very long time (I had spent weeks researching and then more weeks learning video editing and illustration) to create the video and also write this article. But the major sources should already be included below.
General Food History of Japan
The Cambridge World History of Food (Volume Two)
Why Japanese Didn’t eat meat in Meiji era:
War, Empire and the Making of Japanese National Cuisine
How White Rice Mysteriously Threatened the Japanese Military and Caused a National Emergency
Eating Too Much Rice Almost Sank the Japanese Navy
Bartholomew, James R. 1989. The Formation of Science in Japan: Building a Research Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Japanese standardisation of meal system:
Yamashita, Teruo. 1995. “Toshika to ryo ̄shoku” (Urbanization and provisions). In M. Takada and N. Ishige, eds., Toshika to shoku (Urbanization and food).Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, pp. 124–130
Konoe hohei daiichi rentai suiji bu. 1936. “Heitai san no yorokobu heiei ryo ̄ri”(Favorite military food). Shufu no Tomo 5: 508–511.
Food Fight: Eating and Identity in Japan during the Second World War
Popularizing a Military Diet in Wartime and Postwar Japan
The Modern Army of Early Meiji Japan – Far Easten Quarterly 1949
1872 Recipe book: