Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Japanese Food and Culture


The Japanese call their homeland Dai Nihon or Nippon, meaning “origin of the sun.” It is from this name that Japan has also been called “Land of the Rising Sun.” It is an apt name. For in the short span of about a hundred years, Japan has shaken off the shackles of an ancient feudal system and hundreds of years of isolation from the rest of the world, united her people, elevated her standard of living, and today proudly stands prominently as a world class industrial nation.

The four main islands that make up Japan – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu – are 80 percent mountainous. Picturesque lakes dot the mountain areas and small rivers water the rolling plains. Only 15 percent of the land is arable but it is from this that diligent Japanese farmers coax rice and other grains, vegetables, and a wide variety of fruits. From the surrounding seas come cold and warm currents and air masses that give Japan a climate that varies from short summers and severe winters in the North to torrential rains and whipping winds, hot days and humid nights in the South. But from the seas also come Japan’s great harvest of fish, seafood, and edible seaweed.

Japan’s first outside contact was with Korea in the early 300s C.E. Chinese industrial arts, crafts, and learning found their way through Korea to Japan. Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous cult of imperial and ancestor worship, existed side by side” with Buddhism since the latter was introduced from India (through Korea and China) in 538 C.E. Gradually the cult of ancestor worship blended with Buddhism and deeply affected many aspects of Japanese life. Appreciation of nature and a cultivation of simplicity and grace in everyday life influenced not only food and dress, but also literature and the arts.

One of the most exquisite examples of the infusion of the blend of Buddhism and Shintoism into art and thence into everyday life is found in the Japanese art of tsutsumu. This is the art of packaging, and includes everything from a farmer’s quantity of eggs delicately laced in rice stray, to a gratuity that is not placed directly in the hand, but is wrapped in folds of delicate paper to resemble a flower. Tsutsumu represents utility as well as beauty and simplicity. Materials and colors for wrapping, as well as the completed shapes, delight the eye and symbolize the spiritual essence of nature.

In this same way, although Japan adopted crafts, arts, language, industries, and even religion from other lands, she has given each an indelible Japanese stamp. From the Chinese
and Koreans the Japanese learned how to write by using Chinese ideograms, but soon simplified and refined the complex characters (in the 700s during the Heian Period) into two native kana syllabaries: katagana and hiragana. The Japanese word Kana means a symbol representing a syllable. This resulted in a flourishing of Japanese literature and learning previously unsurpassed.

It was in the Meiji Period (1867-1912) that the next great advances occurred. With the government centered in the emperor, Japan became unified for the first time and boldly stepped into expanding school systems and new industrial techniques based on western patterns. The western influence in music and art, in transportation (steam engines and electric trolleys), lighting, household appliances, telephones, and even western-style skyscrapers was mostly apparent in the cities. Rural areas continued their traditional ways, but not for long.

After a taste of territorial expansion – Japan for a time during the Second World War gained control of Okinawa, Formosa, Korea, Inner Mongolia, Southern Manchuria, and several Pacific Islands – the country laid down her arms in unconditional surrender on August 11, 1945. So began the American occupation. Once again Japan was to accept outside ideas, this time those of democratic government, land reforms, franchise for women, and the demotion of Shintoism from state cult to minor sect. This latter meant that with the government no longer sponsoring Shintoism, the emperor of Japan was no longer considered to be divine and no longer could the government impose religious education or activity on the Japanese people.

By 1952. Japan had taken her place as one of the great industrialized societies of the world – and also shared in many of the ensuing problems. Yet it is surprising that although living and working conditions in Japan seem to parallel those of the western world, differences remain. For although outward circumstances undergo rapid change, “the traditional aspects of the society are retained.”

This is worthy of closer examination because it reveals differences of thought and custom that are often incomprehensible to the western mind. In Japanese tradition, it is the group as a whole that matters: individuals are as important as the group they belong to. Further, traditional views maintain that only diligent hard work leads to success: if one does not succeed in life it is simply because one has not worked hard enough. These factors lead to intense familial and company loyalties as well as fierce competition. It often also leads to a lack of communication between occupations because workers may belong to rival companies.

Japanese social life, too, differs from that of the West. There is a sharp distinction and division between social pleasures – enjoyment of friends, meals, and entertainment – and the world of business, education, and politics. Logical, philosophical, religious, business, or even political discussions have no place when friends gather for a meal or a few drinks. The ability to seek pleasure in a world that has no logic may appear as a kind of art in the eyes of foreigners. But the ability to relax completely both mentally and physically in congenial sociability may explain, more than anything else, the traditional Japanese resistance to stress-related illnesses.

For Japanese who emigrated, the story is only slightly different. Wherever they went – to Hawaii, the United States, or Canada – the first emigrants left Japan for financial reasons. Their dream was to work hard, live frugally, and then one day return to retire in their native Japan. But conditions frustrated their dreams. It was these enclaves of frugal, hardworking Japanese quietly retaining their language, dress, foods, and traditions that aroused the unwarranted indignation of their western neighbors. Differences are seldom tolerated. But when it became evident that the dream of returning to their homeland was not going to be realized, their resistance to social change broke down.

Issei (first generation Japanese in North America) sadly watched as western education changed traditional family patterns. Schools emphasized individuality and the nisei and the sansei (second and third generations) wanted nothing more than to belong. Western dress and manners were readily adopted, and the Japanese language was lost by many.

For most, assimilation was the rule and Japanese tradition was evident only at mealtime. The simplicity and symbolic qualities of Japanese foods and cookery could not he supplanted by western ones. The separately savored flavors of Japanese foods are as artistically presented as the colorful and different dishes upon which they are served. Japanese still eat sparsely and with appreciation.

The traditional aspects so deeply a part of the people of Japan have not deterred her from becoming a hustling industrialized nation. They only somewhat deterred western and Japanese mutual understanding and communication. But the rituals and beauty inherent in simplicity and restraint — so much a part of Japanese life and food customs — may prove a valuable lesson to be viewed in a new light by westerners, just as the notion of separating daily work from daily leisure.

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