Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Special Occasions in Japan


The Japanese constitution of 1946 guarantees religious freedom to all as well as separation of religion and state. Virtually all Japanese, except those converted to Christianity (numbering more than one million), are Shintoists. But Shintoism, indigenous to Japan, is regarded as a cult rather than a religion, and includes aspects of ancestor worship, faith healing, belief in spirits, and purification rites. Confucianism is regarded as a moral code rather than a religion. Thus, it is possible for a Japanese to inter-twine not only Shintoism and Confucianism, but also Buddhism. The latter is the predominant religion of Japan’s more than 125 million people and has more than 200 sects and denominations. It is not unusual for a Japanese person to follow Shinto rites for marriage and Buddhist rites for a funeral.

Although modern in many ways, the Japanese mother takes great care to have the special symbolic foods that are traditional for each of the many festivities of the year: weddings, funerals, birthdays, visits to the shrines, Children’s Day (May 5), and Girls’ Day (March 3). November 23 is the memorial day for Kobo Daishi, the great Japanese teacher who united Shintoism and Buddhism in the late 700s under one doctrine called Ryobu Shinto. The biggest festival, often lasting three or four days, is New Year’s when families gather and meals comprising many courses of symbolic foods are enjoyed together with visits to the shrines.

Red is considered a joyous and lucky color so it is found in abundance on festivals, whether in clothing, ribbons, decorations, or foods. But most symbolic of all is rice. Most typical Japanese feast foods are mochi (rice cakes) and dango (dumplings made from rice flour, steamed or boiled then finished by broiling and eating with bean-jam, a sprinkling of soybean flour or sauce.) Shitogi is another ceremonial food made from powdered rice that is steamed or boiled. It is usually prepared as an offering rather than a food.

Foods for holidays are always deliberately different in color and flavor from those eaten the rest of the year. Red beans are popular and a sweet rice wine called amazake is served often. For the Girls’ Day, also called Doll Festival, mochi is made in diamond shapes colored pink, pale green, and white. The Boys’ Festival Day (May 5) is celebrated with mochi wrapped in oak or bamboo leaves.

But perhaps most interesting is the individual symbolism given to certain other foods. For example, lobsters are considered an indispensable part of the birthday celebration, the hump of the lobster suggesting the bent back of old age. By partaking of this food, it is hoped the person celebrating the birthday may also live to old age.

The New Year’s customs and foods are so varied that often they differ from one family to another and certainly from region to region. A whole fish broiled in salt (tail, sweet sake, red beans, mochi, and many other dishes add to the merriment.

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