Plenus “kome” Academy

Yoshoku Roots Story

Western food culture, which had been introduced with the opening of Japan, greatly influenced dietary lifestyles in modern Japan. In this second instalment of The Roots of Yōshoku, it will put the spotlight on how the consumption of meat which is an essential feature of western cuisine came to be accepted in Japanese society. Let’s trace the genealogy of modern Japanese people who were attracted to meat eating.

Meat Eating in Modern Japan


The Prohibition of Meat Eating

When you think about western cuisine, what comes to mind?
Perhaps you will think of various meat dishes like beef steak, hamburg steak, stew and so forth.

In fact, it is said that food animals such as deer or boar were hunted in ancient Japan and the domestication of pigs was also general. However, due to the influence of Buddhism which was introduced in the 6th century, a strong tendency forbidding the killing of animals was growing, and meat eating was legally banned in 675 (the reign of Emperor Tenmu).
In particular, during the farming season from April to September every year, the consumption and hunting of cows, horses, monkeys, dogs, and chickens were prohibited. Additionally after that, the following emperors also attached importance to the idea of religious purification which meant both abstaining from having meat and purifying oneself, and consequently not only individual hunting but also presenting meat and fish from various regions came to be prohibited. In this way, gradually the social climate to avoid meat eating was reaching a peak.

Prohibition of Meat Eating Animals:Cow, Horse, Monkey, Dog, Chicken

Secret Story of Kusurigui (Food Culture of Honne and Tatemae)

While a strong aversion to meat eating began to permeate into Japan, meats were also eaten under secret dietary habit named kusurigui (eating meat for nutritional enchantment) in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Somehow there seems to have been a belief that fox cures boils, boar is effective against organ diseases, and deer is good for recovery after childbirth.

But some scholars of Japanese classics bitterly criticized meat eating as a vice of the scholars who specialized in Dutch science and culture. That is why some certain euphemisms for meats came about, such as “momiji (Japanese maple)” for deer and “botan (peony)” or “yama kujira (mountain whale)” for boar.

image:“Bikuni Bridge in Snow”

One Hundred Famous Views of Edo / Utagawa Hiroshige
“Bikuni Bridge in Snow” (1858)

In this picture printed in the 19th century,
we can see a signboard with the word “yama-kujira.”
It suggests enough demand for meat that butcher
business could be carried on.

The Influences on Food Culture after the Opening of Japanーthe Lifting of Prohibition on Meat Eating

With the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ships, Japan decided to open up to the world, and thereby western cuisine restaurants opened for foreigners in such settlements as Nagasaki, Yokohama and so on. With the introduction of western cuisine, the western habit of meat eating finally started to spread into Japan. 

image:“Foreign Traders in Yokohama”
“Foreign Traders in Yokohama” Utagawa Sadahide (1861)
(Yokohama Archives of History)

In 1872, it was suddenly announced to the Japanese people that Emperor Meiji had eaten beef. The Meiji government aimed for the adoption of western food culture under the slogan that Japanese people should eat meat.

As the one reason, there was a background that needed to develop strong and healthy citizens to achieve the goal of the Meiji Period’s slogan “enrich the country, strengthen the army.” Actually after the opening of Japan, the sturdy physique of western people was a great shock to Japanese people. And Japanese people thought that they would be able to develop strong and healthy bodies by following western dietary habits—that is to say, by having meat as a daily food like western people.

Amid this trend, animal products such as meats and dairy goods were expected to be nutritious, and at the same time western cuisine was also appreciated little by little.

picture:Military uniform at that time British, American, Russian, Indian, German, French, Austria Hungary, Italian, Japanese
Eight-Nation Alliance (1900)
From the left:G.B, U.S.A, Russia, India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan

As the other reason for the rapid acceptance of western food culture, there was a situation that leaning western cuisine and etiquette was needed for having a good relationship with western people. After the opening of Japan, diplomatic banquets and dinner parties held for western ministers and officials were increasing, and in 1873, French cuisine was adopted as the formal cuisine.

image:The Emperor’s Birthday Dinner Party
The Emperor’s Birthday Dinner Party
(National Diet Library)

Having said that, it was a very difficult task for Japanese people to understand foreign food culture. We can see some bittersweet tales of the Japanese who learned them by trial and error in documents such as cookbooks and essays published in the Meiji Period. For example, a cookbook tells us the funny story about a Japanese samurai who mistook table napkin for furoshiki (wrapping cloth) and wrapped leftovers with it, and an essay refers to a pitiful maidservant who was suffered from headache after mistaking eau de cologne for wine and drinking it.

The Taste of CivilizationーGyu-nabe

As the number of foreigners in Japan climbed after the opening of the country, national demand for beef and other meats was growing. Gyū-nabe (beef hotpot) restaurants became a symbol of cultural enlightenment, and famous gyu-nabe restaurants such as Isekuma, Nakagawa-ya, and Ohta Nawanoren opened in Tokyo and Yokohama. And gradually gyū-nabe was also spreading among the common people.

In Agura-nabe (1871-1872) published by Robun Kanagaki (a popular novelist of the Bakumatsu Period (1853-1867) and the Meiji Period (1868-1912), there is a line that narrates “you’re an uncultured yokel if you don’t eat gyū-nabe”. It indicates the situation that many Japanese people were racing to be the first to eat gyū-nabe at that time. In fact, in 1875 there were 70 shops specializing in beef in Tokyo, but this number had surged to 588 in 1877.

image:People enjoying gyū-nabe. Ushiya Zōdan Agura-nabe
People enjoying gyū-nabe.
Ushiya Zōdan Agura-nabe (1872)
(National Diet Library)

At first, gyū-nabe was commonly cooked by simmering thick slices of beef in miso sauce. This style was refined by adding miso and spring onions to remove the odor of beef and using a shallow pot to heat beef sufficiently. And one key point in making tasty gyū-nabe is to cook beef properly without burning miso sauce.

Sukiyaki, one of the most familiar beef dishes, is said to have originated in Kansai. Unlike the simmered dish gyū-nabe of Kantō, sukiyaki involves baking thin slices of beef and using soy sauce and sugar to add flavor.

By the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, a lot of gyū-nabe restaurants were destroyed. However, many people from Kansai flew in Tokyo for reconstruction assistance, and in a little while gyū-nabe seems to have been replaced by sukiyaki. In addition, the combination of soy sauce and sugar (sukiyaki stock) also became the typical seasoning instead of miso.


Meat Dishes Refashioned in Japanese Style

Meat was regarded as a nutritious food for building up strong physiques in modern Japan. However, many Japanese people struggled to develop unfamiliar meat dishes. In modern home cookbooks, a number of meat recipes were re-interpreted using Japanese ingredients and seasonings and were expected to be cooked easily, deliciously and economically by Japanese people. Western meat dishes are usually seasoned and flavored with spices and butter, but in Japan it seems that people tended to make use of familiar seasonings like miso and soy sauce.

picture:apanese styled meat recipe in home cookbook“Nippon ryōrihō”
Japanese styled meat recipe in home cookbook
“Nippon ryōrihō” (1907),
(National Diet Library)


Shoko Higashiyotsuyanagi

Professor, Faculty of Food Culture, Baika Women’s University.
Born in Ishikawa Prefecture. Specialization: Comparative Food Culture Theory.
A lover of cookbooks of all types since childhood. As a university student, she gained experience working part-time on the production of cooking magazines and television programs, and became captivated by the profound depths of the study of food culture.
Lately, her hobbies include exploring cookbook stores overseas and collecting chopstick rests.
Major publications include Kindai Ryorisho no Sekai [The World of Modern Cookbooks] (co-author), Nihon no Shokubunka-shi Nenpyo [Chronology of the History of Japanese Cuisine] (co-editor), Japanese Foodways Past and Present (co-author), and [Ryorisho to Kindai Nihon no Shokubunka] (Cookbooks and the Food Culture of Modern Japan).