Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Meals and Customs in Japan


Many factors intrude on the strict maintenance of the traditional meals and customs of the Japanese; nonetheless, there is an increasing Japanese pride together with the delight and curiosity of foreigners that is causing even nisei (second-generation Japanese) to turn to the traditions of their ancestors. Many Japanese have discarded all facets of their culture with the single exception of their food customs.

Umeboshi, a powerfully tart little red plum that so many Japanese pop into their mouths first thing in the morning, is one food that defies artful and delicate descriptions. It is not artful or delicate. It is potently sour, and the punch it packs is intended to waken all but the dead. It clears heads and freshens mouths. Breakfast is either a hot rice bowl garnished with a raw beaten egg which cooks as it touches the hot rice, or nori (dried laver), but most often a steaming howl of misoshiru, a thick nourishing soup made with fermented bean paste. Tea may be included.

Lunch is usually taken in restaurants, snack bars, or eaten from little lacquer boxes in the form of a picnic if the weather permits. The mother who is at home is most often alone for lunch and will frugally make her meal from leftover rice topped with tidbits from last evening’s meal.

Dinner may frequently be enjoyed in a general or specialty restaurant in the company of relatives or special guests. If it is an evening when the husband is out with his friends, or if it is to be a family dinner at home, most likely the meal will be a boiled or steamed dish, accompanied with sake or beer, preceded by hot clear soup. After the main course, rice and pickles will be eaten. A dessert of fresh fruits will complete the meal.

Street vendors, snack bars, and the temptation of delicious aromas from many types of restaurants make snacking a way of life. Almost anything cooked in any form can be purchased in small amounts for hasty nibbling.

Good manners have a special place in Japanese life and there are probably more words in Japanese to indicate etiquette, humility, and honor than in any other language. While men could enjoy themselves in a more uninhibited way, women were traditionally taught to he gracious, obedient, and humble. They were also taught to make the household skills the center of their life. Japanese women were never expected to be all things: the Japanese wife should be an able homemaker and mother — scintillating conversation, musical ability and graceful dancing belonged to the realm of the geisha. But these traditions too are changing with women increasingly taking on professions and moving into the workforce.

Whether in Japan or abroad, many Japanese cherish the time-honored etiquette that surrounds hospitality and meals. Guests remove shoes and slip into tiny slippers before entering the home. Hot towels to refresh the hands and a cup of hot green tea are presented almost immediately. A traditional meal begins with the guest saying, “Itadakamasu” (“Now I will eat”) and the host replies, with a small bow, “Dozo,” (“Please go ahead”). Meals conclude with the gracious, “Gochiso-sama-deshita” (“This has been a delicious dinner”). To which the host again ceremoniously replies, “Arigato-Gozaimashita” (“Many thanks”).

Rice accompanies every traditional meal and it has specific rituals based on the deep reverence for it as a food together with the awareness of the hard work that went into producing it. The rice bowl is always received or removed with both hands, and children are taught this very early. Since the rice bowl is placed at the left of the table setting, its cover should be removed also with the left hand and placed to the left of the howl. Rice is never eaten all at once, but in separate mouthfuls between other foods and usually after the main course or dishes. Since after-dinner tea is often served in the same bowl as the rice, one must never leave even one grain. However, if you wish more rice, a spoonful left in the bottom indicates this desire.

There are traditions surrounding the use of chopsticks too. They must be picked up with the right hand, using the left to arrange them comfortably. To take foods from a platter, the chopsticks are reversed, and when not in use they are to be laid one inch apart in parallel position on your own tray or place mat.

Since great skill is needed in making soups and broths, it is considered polite to praise the soup. To eat the tidbits from the soup bowl, the dish is lifted near the mouth and the pieces eaten with chopsticks. Finally the broth is sipped. Hot foods are eaten first, then room-temperature foods, and finally chilled foods. As in most societies, it is considered thoughtful to wait for older persons to begin their meal before partaking.

Since sake usually flows generously in almost any social situation, but especially during meals and in gourmet sake bars, it is wise to understand the rituals honed over thousands of years. The wine is traditionally poured for you (“you must never fill your own cup”) from an individual flask called a tokkuri into a tiny cup called a sakazuki. The cup is held in the right hand between the thumb and two fingers and steadied on the bottom with the first two fingers of the left hand. With an average alcohol content of 20 percent, and usually served warm, sake packs a punch and what some describe as an “awesome” hangover. Hold your hand over your cup to decline refills.

But of all the Japanese traditions associated with food, Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, is the most profoundly significant. Although it was developed in the late 1400s by Murata Juko, it has been handed down through generations almost unchanged. Most of the masters of this ceremony are men, but women are often taught the ritual as much for its beauty as for its profound effect on grace and poise, dignity and discipline.

Every step of the ceremony itself, each movement and each utensil as well as ones clothes (which should be of quiet colors) and the little teahouse, the garden and the details of the room are all part of the experience. Chanoyu is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, “the aim of which is, in simplified terms, to purify one’s soul by becoming one with nature.”

The special powdered green tea called matcha is prepared and served in an atmosphere of serene simplicity with specially made foods called kaiseki. This food too came under the Zen influence of simplicity, lightness, and harmony with nature. Kaiseki is thought to represent Japans highest aesthetic form of food.

Chanoyu is far from being a disappearing art: factories, many schools, and clubs all have special classes in Chanoyu, for its significance as one of Japan’s most beautiful traditions is well appreciated.

Although nisei (second-generation Japanese) in Canada, Hawaii, and the United States retain many traditions, for the most part they comprise three groups: traditionalists who have retained the Japanese eating customs but have added a few western foods, for example, breads, hamburgers, and hot dogs (prepared with shoyu); the relatively acculturated group who prepare and eat traditional foods in decreasing frequency – this is the largest group; and those who have completely westernized themselves, even changing their names, rejecting their heritage, and intermarrying.

Gradual increase in the consumption of protein, fats, sugars, and the switch to a western-style breakfast are the most notable changes. While the gradual dietary changes have led to increased stature and life expectancy, they have also unfortunately increased the Japanese incidence of cardiovascular disease and dental caries.

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