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Japanese food and cooking.

Visitors to Japan today witness a huge array of food choices, ranging from traditional Japanese cooking, Chinese, Korean, to the increasing available cooking of recent immigrants to Japan from various parts of the world. Of course, to this, so-called Western food goes into the mix. Western food comes in as many types as there are nations, with Italian and French now being very popular. Then there is fast food, offered by such outlets as McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and the like. On any block of a Japanese town, one is likely to find eateries offering a rich mixture of food choices. One finds, too, the Japanese eat meals that show a variety of foreign influences, without much cognizance of what influences come from which countries—for breakfast, they are as comfortable with ham and eggs, salad, buttered toast, and coffee as they are with a traditional breakfast fare, consisting of rice, miso soup, seaweed, and grilled fish. Lunch could be a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce (originally Italian), hot bowls of rice with delicious, spicy toppings (originally Korean), or a steaming bowl of ramen noodles with soup (originally Chinese). For a snack, they may have cheesecake and English tea, Japanese sweets and green tea, or cold soba noodles dipped in sauce. Dinner may be sukiyaki, tenpura (originally said to be Portuguese, referring to fried vegetarian food eaten during Lent), or something as perennial favorite as curry and rice (originally Indian).

At many restaurants, customers can decide on their order by looking at very realistic wax models of their menu offerings at the storefront-so real that one can see details like bubbles in a carbonated drink and almost smell the melted cheese on gratin dishes.

Added to this availability is a general interest in good eating. When people get together, their topic often turns to food-new restaurants, regional cooking, recipes, and so on-more often than their counterparts do in the United States. This fervor is fueled by Japanese TV that broadcasts programs on food and cooking on a daily basis; in addition, travel shows, quiz shows, talk shows, game shows, and others frequently incorporate segments on cooking and eating. With show biz glitter and flare, a TV show like Ryōri no tetsujin (known as "Iron Chef" when shown in the United States) gained a phenomenal following, a show in which famous chef contestant and defender compete to create the best-tasting, luscious looking, and textually varied multi-course meal using one principal ingredient. Bookstores are replete with books and magazines on all types of cooking. Travel brochures and posters try to lure customers by showing beautifully prepared specialty dishes-in fact, we may say that a main attraction to a resort is food, perhaps superseded only by its scenery and its proximity to onsen (hot springs). Indeed, there seems to be no end to the length a Japanese would go to get something cooked just right, even if it is as humble as a bowl of noodles.

What makes Japanese so passionate about eating? How is Japanese cooking different from Chinese or Korean cooking, and for that matter, so-called Western cooking? What can we learn about Japanese people and their culture from what they eat? These are some of the fundamental issues involved.

No Meat in Diet: Milder Food

When one picks up a Japanese cookbook, one is often surprised by the variety of seafood dishes and a relatively small section dedicated to cooking of meat. This is for a reason: historically the Japanese avoided public eating of animals, animal fats, and dairy products, owing to Buddhism that shunned such foods (more on this below). The staple of the Japanese diet remains the same-with or without meat. It has always been seafood, vegetables, and grains (rice), due primarily to Japan's geography and climate. Except in pre-Buddhism days, meat eating in Japan without the danger of religious reprimand is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the people of Japan began eating meat widely and making use of it in their own cooking.

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The Social and Cultural Diversity of Food and Cuisine in Japan

✍️ Alexis MARKOVITCH

Often reduced to the simplistic image of a cuisine centred around white rice and sublimating raw fish, "the Japanese cuisine" is actually characterized by its extraordinary diversity. With a long history of several millennia during which the populations of the archipelago exchanged among themselves but also with foreigners, many culinary techniques and forms of food practices were developed and codified differently according to the social strata. Sometimes borrowed from the appropriation of continental or foreign models, sometimes claiming to be specific to Japanese territory, Japanese cuisines are part of a society with changing social structures, strong geographical and cultural dynamics, and a set of scholarly, moral and religious conceptions. Between the transmission of technical gestures, the transfer and adaptation of recipes, the appropriation and development of technologies and culinary tools, "the Japanese cuisine" is defined above all by a historical construction of tastes and practices reflecting varied lifestyles from both a socially and a culturally point of view.

From “high” to “low” cuisine: a social distribution of food practices

Eating, as well as cooking, is not only a physiological necessity, it is also a socially constructed act. The different social classes thus appropriate codes, types of food, cooking recipes or even dishes that reflect varied lifestyles. In Japan, "high cuisine" is built on the basis of two culinary models: honzen and kaiseki cuisines.

Honzen 本膳 ("main stray") cuisine was developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) among the warrior class, then at the head of political power. Characterized by an abundant service of sake before and during the meal, it consists of a service of three to seven trays depending on the circumstances, each containing between one and five dishes. Following well-established codes, it was simplified several times during the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). Today, it is still served on rare occasions such as weddings. Kaiseki cuisine was born towards the end of the 16th century. Developed by tea masters, its primary objective was to offer a light meal in order to better prepare the guests to taste the tea afterwards. Quickly divided into two branches during the 17th century, one consisting of large feasts ( kaiseki ryōri 会席料理) and the other of more sober meals ( kaiseki ryōri 懐石料理), kaiseki cuisine remains today one of of the most representative elements of Japanese cuisine and its identity.

schema explicatif

(image 1) Drawing explaining the differences between honzen and kaiseki cuisines in a cookbook written in 1898. Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

“Low cuisine”, meaning the cuisine eaten by the vast majority of the population, tends to be less theorized, but is not deprived of codes and systems. Popular diets have often been distinguished between urban and rural areas. If peasant cuisines are often described as strong in taste, unrefined and relatively simple in the historical texts, we also know that culinary cultures with strong identities have been developed in rural areas and even have sometimes penetrated those of the cities. In urban areas, street food has long dominated food practices, especially since the 17th century. Eating quickly outside the family home was, and continues to be, one of the most common eating practices in Japan.

schema explicatif des variantes

(image 2) Representation of women cooking sweet potato rice in urban area in a cookbook published in 1888. Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

Estampe de Utagawa

(image 3) Print of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) showing a busy street in Edo where all kinds of street food are accessible to the bystanders. Source : archives du musée préfectoral d'histoire de Kanagawa

Speaking of home, it was not before the early 20th century that the very idea of "home cooking" ( katei ryōri 家庭料理) was created on the archipelago. It was born from a strange hybridization between "high cuisine", “low cuisine” and the influence of Western lifestyles where the meal plays a central role in the idea of family cohesion. Built around a bowl of rice, a soup, some pickled vegetables, a main dish (protein) and two side dishes (vegetables), it is still today the symbol of a "bourgeois" diet implying a set of social representations.

un diner à Tokyo

(image 4) Illustration titled "Dinner in Tokyo" depicting the "bourgeois" family ideal in 1911. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

Although the social structure tends to delimit different modes of foodways, it is interesting to note that some dishes travel from one class to another according to the times, or are even common to several social environments at the same time. Sushi is a good example of this: first sold as a street food product in the 17th century, it is now one of the flagship products of the most luxurious restaurants, but also in the most common supermarkets.

A cultural diversity of Japanese food: religion, regional specialities and foreign cuisines

In addition to the social aspect, cultural plurality, whether it is religious, regional or resulting from the appropriation of foreign know-how, reinforces further the diversification of food and culinary practices.

If the religious aspect in food remains today only in Buddhist temples, its influence on the development of foodways during the history of Japan was one of the greatest. In Buddhism, doing an act of ill will towards another living being, human or animal, is simply considered as a sin. Killing an animal to eat its flesh is therefore strictly forbidden. These principles have been the basis for the development of various diets since the Nara period (710-794) and in particular a "vegetarian" mode still applied today in certain religious spaces. This banishment of animal flesh from diets originates from a moral vision of food which was however far from being respected, even by the great lords whose piety was supposed irreproachable. If eating meat was gradually accepted in Japanese society since the 19th century after the arrival of the Western model, it was not until the second half of the 20th century that we could see a real difference in consumption patterns on a national scale.

photo d'un repas contemporain

(image 5) Picture of a contemporary Buddhist cuisine meal (shōjin ryōri 精進料理) with no trace of animal substances. © Licence Creative Commons

What would Japan be without its rāmen 1 (wheat noodles and garnish served in a soup) , its gyōza 2 (grilled dumplings) , its tenpura 3 (fried vegetables and seafood) , its karē raisu 4 (rice with curry) or its tonkatsu 5 (breaded pork) ? All these dishes, which are currently the most popular on the archipelago, would never have existed without the relations that the Japanese have maintained with foreign countries.

China was the first to play a central role in the development of cuisine in Japan, whether with the importation of pasta during the Nara period (710-794), oil cooking, spices, or even more recently in the consumption of pork. During the 18th century, Chinese residents in port cities like Nagasaki were responsible for the opening of the first continental cuisine restaurants. They were then distinguished between those that served a "meal around tea" ( fucha ryōri 普茶料理) where vegetable dishes are central, and a "meal on a four-legged table" ( shippoku ryōri 卓袱料理) characterized by a service of meat dishes. Although mimicking the dietary customs of the Chinese, these cuisines are above all the result of a "Japanization" of the continental culinary and dietary practices. From the second half of the 19th century, exchanges between Japanese and Chinese populations increased and gave birth to a cuisine that was characterized as more "authentic" and simply called "Chinese cuisine" ( shina ryōri 支那料理). Indeed, following the Chinese defeat in 1895, the number of Chinese students and residents in Japan grew and resulted in the development of new culinary practices. These new culinary practices continued to develop during the 20th century, giving birth to dishes that are still very popular today and appreciated by a large majority of the population.

Exchanges with other Asian countries also played a key role, although later, in the evolution of cuisines in Japan. During the colonial period of the Empire of Japan from the second half of the 19th century, the circulation of Japanese populations in neighbouring countries increased, thus leading to a diversification of culinary techniques, tastes and food products available. Whether with Hokkaidō, Taiwan, the Guangdong region in southern Siberia, Korea or Manchuria, Japan maintained asymmetrical and unequal relations with the populations of its colonies and therefore with their culinary and food customs. For instance, while Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines have been relatively influential, they have not been in the same way as those of the indigenous populations of the northern islands such as Hokkaidō or the lands of Manchuria. Korean cuisine, for its part, was already present on the archipelago at the end of the 19th century, but became popular only after the Second World War and played a key role in the evolution of meat consumption, particularly in through the spread of yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants.

Relations with the West were also at the centre of the development of many emblematic Japanese dishes. Initially, it was the exchanges with the Portuguese and the Dutch who were at the origin of culinary innovations such as tenpura (fried vegetables and seafood), kasutera (sponge cake) or even ponzu sauce (sour citrus-based sauce). European cuisine referred to as "southern barbarian cuisine" ( nanban ryōri 南蛮料理) was also available in port cities from the 17th century, provoking mixtures with Chinese cuisines. Then, during the Meiji era (1868-1912), the accentuation of relations with the West brought many cooking recipes based on meat and dairy products, but also the consumption of various fruits and vegetables which changed radically the Japanese culinary landscape. The social distribution of these European and American diets was not uniform. Indeed, if the models of British and American cuisine were adopted mainly in bourgeois circles, French cuisine was chosen as a reference for Western-style meals in the high aristocracy as well as in the imperial palace. Going to Europe or the United States became more and more accessible for some Japanese at this time. Thus, several male and female cooks set up a style of mixed Japanese-Western cuisine ( wayō secchū ryōri 和洋折衷料理) whose traces are still present today. Japan has thus appropriated a set of foreign culinary cultures, adapting it to its local conditions and giving birth to a large number of eclectic cuisines that are today one of its greatest richness.

1. Rāmen ラーメン is a dish of continental origin developed in Japan during the 1910s by Chinese cooks who settled in the archipelago. 2. Gyōza 餃子 spread to Japan after World War II following increased trade with China during this period. 3. Tenpura 天麩羅 was born on the archipelago during the 16th century after exchanges with Portuguese Catholic missionaries. 4. Karē raisu カレーライス is a dish that appeared between the end of the 19th centurey and the beginning of the 20th century. The curry spice was brought to the archipelago by the British army, but the dish then considered by the Japanese as Western, was adapted to local habits by gradually replacing the bread with rice. 5. Tonkatsu 豚カツ is the result of a long process of assimilation of breaded pork chops carried out by Japanese cooks during the beginning of the 20th century. They found a way to develop breading, sauce and cooking techniques to cook thick cuts of pork in oil to make this dish more suited to local tastes.

Bol de ramen @Licence creative commons

(image 6) Picture of a bowl of rāmen, a soup of Chinese origin adapted to the taste of the Japanese, which is today one of the most popular dishes in Japan. © Licence Creative Commons

riz au curry @ Licence creative commons

(image 7) Picture of tenpura, fried vegetables and seafood, a dish developed in Japan during the 16th century resulting from exchanges with Portuguese Jesuit priests.

In 2013, Unesco listed "washoku, the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese" as an intangible heritage. However, there is not one Japanese cuisine, but many cuisines in Japan. To make these diverse foodways an heritage under such a generic term that can lead to confusion makes actually no sense, except maybe for an international economic interest. Cooking and eating are two distinct practices, and although seemingly trivial, they actually reflect larger ways in which a society works, its internal structure and its relationship to the outside world. Having a rich history of cultural exchanges and social codifications, Japan can only stand out for its ability to ingeniously produce a culinary diversity that is both unique and at the same time universal.

Bibliography

  • CWIERTKA Katarzyna J., Modern Japanese Cuisine – Food, Power and National Identity , Reaktion Books, 2006.
  • ISHIGE Naomichi, Nihon no shokubunka shi 『日本の食文化史』 traduit du japonais par Emmanuel Marès sous le titre de L’art culinaire au Japon , Lucie éditions, 2012.
  • QUELLIER Florent, CORNETTE Joël (dir.), Histoire de l’alimentation : de la préhistoire à nos jours , Belin, 2021.
  • STALKER Nancy K., Devouring Japan, Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity , Oxford University Press, 2018.

About the author

PhD student at Inalco, Alexis Markovitch is doing his thesis on the history of Japanese cuisine. Following previous research work on culinary literature and recipe books from the Meiji era (1868-1912) carried out respectively at Inalco (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) and at EHESS (Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), this work consists in understanding the way in which the culinary practices – more than the food practices – of the Japanese evolved between 1872 and 1937, both from a social and cultural point of view.

Schéma explicatif des différentes variantes des cuisines honzen et kaiseki dans un livre de cuisine de 1898

Hey Explorer

30 Essential Things to Know About Japanese Food Culture

As in many cultures, food in Japan is not merely nourishment but a way of life and an integral part of the nation’s identity. And so, if you want to get to know Japan better, it wouldn’t be wrong to start with its food culture.

With ramen , sushi , sake , matcha, and bento becoming commonplace in many parts of the world, interest in Japanese food is also increasing. But Japanese food culture ( shoku bunka ), in particular the customs surrounding it, is as confusing as it is fascinating.

Japanese sushi

Fret not. This article will shed light on the many facets of Japanese food culture — not just the traditional rules but also the history, the unique flavors, the aesthetics, and the trends. Ready? Itadakimasu!

Table of Contents

History of Japanese food

Japanese food culture history is very much a part of Japan’s long and colorful past. Here, we look at how this cuisine evolved and yet remained ingrained in the Japanese identity.

1. Prehistoric Japanese chefs likely cooked seafood.

Bucket of fish

The discovery of ceramic vessels or fragments from sites dating between 11,200 years and 15,300 years ago suggests that pottery was used for cooking in the Jomon period.

Jomon people were hunter-gatherers who lived in Japan during the final phases of the last ice age. They enjoyed a diversity of natural resources: seafood in spring and early summer, deer and wild boar in the winter, and fruits and seeds in the fall.

Samples taken from the ancient pottery showed that pots had been used to cook freshwater and seawater creatures like fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. And millenniums later, seafood is still at the heart of the Japanese food culture!

2. But the Japanese diet was once vegetarian.

A shojin ryori Buddhist vegetarian meal in red lacquer dishes in Japan

It may be hard to believe but the fish-eating nation of Japan used to subsist on rice, soup, and seasonal vegetables.

During the Yamato period, the Chinese introduced Buddhism and in 675 AD, Emperor Temmu banned the consumption of cattle, horse, dog, monkey, or chicken meat. During the Nara period, Empress Koken went a step further and banned fishing.

This ban ended in the Heian period. However, meat and fish were still rare up until the Meiji period, with most Japanese only eating fish on special occasions.

3. Sake is one of the oldest Japanese beverages.

Sake barrels

No one knows when exactly sake , also known as nihonshu , came to be. But like many enduring dishes and beverages in Japan , it’s said that the production of rice sake was introduced by the Chinese, a practice that dates back to the 3 rd century.

The drink, brewed from rice, water, yeast, and koji mold, became popular in the Nara period. It can be drunk either hot or cold. At one point, it was even fermented with human saliva , after being chewed and spat out. But don’t worry, the regular sake you’ll see in izakayas (Japanese pubs) aren’t made that way.

4. Tea is steeped in history.

Japanese matcha powder

For those who want to stay sober, tea is a popular choice in Japan. Brought in by a Japanese Buddhist monk from China more than 1,000 years ago, green tea was the drink of nobility.

The tea ceremony using matcha (powdered green tea leaves) became part of religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries before the Kamakura Shogunate got wind of the interesting drink. Soon, matcha became a status symbol among the warrior class, so expensive that only monks and samurai could afford it.

Fortunately, matcha and other types of Japanese tea are easy to find and quite affordable these days.

5. Japanese cuisine flourished in the Edo period.

The Edo period (1603-1868) was the golden era in the history of Japanese cuisine. As Edo (present-day Tokyo) grew into a global megacity, people from all over the country came and brought with them a variety of regional cuisine and gave birth to a culinary fusion.

Some of the dishes that prospered during this time were sushi, tempura, unagi no kabayaki (grilled eel), and soba noodles — the earliest fast foods of Japan served at small stalls called yatai. Mirin (rice wine used in Japanese cooking) also took its place in traditional recipes.

6. Umami was coined over a hundred years ago.

Umami

Perhaps the most defining aspect in the Japanese food culture we know today is umami , one of the five basic tastes.

Scientifically defined as the taste of salts (e.g., glutamate, inosinate, monosodium glutamate), umami is often described as a meaty, savory, broth-like taste and can be found in a variety of ingredients.

But while only recognized as a scientific term in 1985, the term umami was coined in 1908 by Japanese scientist and professor Kikunae Ikeda. Then in 2002, scientists finally identified umami taste receptors on the human tongue.

Japanese cuisine basics, staples, and customs

Curious about Japanese eating habits and customs, common ingredients and dishes, and more Japanese food culture traditions? Read on!

7. Washoku is Japan’s holistic approach to food.

Washoku

Washoku , or traditional Japanese cuisine, is more than just Japanese food itself. A dietary culture based on respecting nature, washoku has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Japanese spirit of respecting nature is the building block of what the Japanese eat, how they process and cook what they eat, and how they eat. Some notable features of washoku include:

  • Five cooking methods that carefully use ingredients without any waste
  • Indulging the five tastes and five senses
  • Using five colors (red, yellow, blue/green, white, and black) in preparation and plating
  • Using fresh, seasonal, and nutritious ingredients with minimal seasonings
  • Observing etiquette and showing appreciation before and after eating
  • Celebrating annual events with special foods

Like I said, food in Japan goes beyond sustenance.

8. A typical Japanese meal is called ichiju sansai.

washoku set meal

The basic form of washoku is a balanced diet based on ichiju sansai or “one soup, three dishes”.

This core format of Japanese eating culture is composed of the four elements — rice, soup, main and side dishes, and pickled vegetables:

  • Gohan – a bowl of plain steamed rice
  • Shiru – a bowl of soup, which may contain vegetables or tofu. The most common soup is miso soup.
  • Okazu – main dish and two side dishes composed of vegetables, tofu, fish, or meat
  • Kouno mono – a small plate of pickled seasonal vegetables

Rice and pickled vegetables are mainstays so ichiju sansai only refers to shiru and okazu. This meal format is followed in home-cooked breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Of course, different rules apply to sushi, ramen, and other non-traditional dishes.

9. Soba and udon are the OG noodles of Japan.

Soba noodles in Japan

Rice may be at the core of traditional Japanese food culture but noodles play an important role, too. And no, despite the sweeping ramen culture that Japan is known for, ramen is not originally from Japan.

Japan’s traditional noodles are in fact soba and udon. Soba, the thin, grayish-brown noodles, are made from buckwheat flour. It’s usually served cold with a dipping sauce, sliced green onions, and wasabi.

Udon, on the other hand, is made from wheat flour and is thicker than soba. Udon noodles are typically served hot, but occasionally served chilled in the summer. Usual toppings include a raw egg or deep-fried tofu.

10. Dashi is the secret to that umami flavor.

Katsuobushi, Dried shiitake mushrooms, Niboshi, kelp. Making soup stock for Japanese cuisine.

Umami can be found in many ingredients but it takes special cooking techniques to bring out this flavor. And for the Japanese, the key to bringing out umami is through dashi or stock.

Dashi commonly uses kombu (kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) but sometimes, niboshi (small dried fish) and shiitake mushrooms are also used. These ingredients are soaked in boiling or near-boiling water to produce the base for many sauces, seasonings, and soups in Japanese cooking.

11. Special annual events always include celebratory dishes.

Japanese traditional New Year dish

No celebration in Japan is complete without food. Japanese food culture is closely tied to religious events and annual celebrations, with special food and drinks provided not just for people but for gods.

Here are some of the traditional Japanese dishes prepared for holidays and special events:

  • Osechi-ryouri  – a combination of special dishes packed into jyubako (lacquered boxes). Each dish is believed to bring good fortune, happiness, and good health.
  • One soup and three dishes with whole grilled sea bream – traditional Japanese meal prepared for Okuizome held on the 100 th day after a child’s birth
  • Toshikoshi soba – eaten every New Year’s Eve. Out of all Japanese noodles, soba is said to break the easiest and by eating it before the New Year comes, you can break off all the bad luck.
  • Sekihan (red rice) – often eaten at different celebratory events. The color red is believed to ward off evil spirits.
  • Kashiwa-mochi – rice cakes wrapped up in oak leaves together with ingredients like sweet red bean paste. This is usually consumed during Tango no Sekku (Boys’ Day), an event where people wish for boys to grow up healthily.

Japanese food preparation and presentation

Part of what makes Japanese food culture unique is the attention given to cooking and presentation techniques. It’s not enough to have fresh and delicious ingredients — they also have to be cooked well and presented in a visually appealing way.

12. There are five cooking methods in Japanese cuisine.

Japanese cooking can be categorized into five traditional cooking techniques or goho :

  • Nama – cutting. Often seen in sashimi (raw fish).
  • Niru – simmering or submerging ingredients into hot dashi, water, or liquid seasonings
  • Yaku – grilling
  • Musu – steaming
  • Ageru – deep-frying in high temperatures for a short amount of time without any loss of flavor

A way to enjoy all five cooking methods in one seating is through a standard Kaiseki -style cuisine, Japan’s traditional course dinner.

13. Chefs in training are not allowed to handle the fish or meat for years.

Japanese sushi chef

In Japan, the title of head chef is revered and prestigious. This is especially true for sushi chefs. But it takes years of training to earn this respect and recognition. And I mean years.

A sushi chef-in-training may start at the absolute bottom, learning how to hold a knife correctly. After years of doing this and helping with other kitchen tasks, he is given the chance to prepare sushi rice. If the head chef is satisfied, the apprentice may start helping with the preparation of fresh ingredients.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it can take upwards of 10 years of training to be a sushi chef and be allowed to stand in front of the cutting board.

14. Japanese dining culture emphasizes harmony.

Colorful Japanese meal in a restaurant

Japanese food doesn’t just taste and smell good. By using goshiki (five colors) in preparation and plating, the food stimulates the appetite, evokes a refreshed and clean feeling, and ultimately becomes visually appealing.

Japanese food itself is art. But to further elevate the dining aesthetics, artisanal tableware is used. Plates and bowls may contain seasonal designs like sparrows for spring, morning glory flowers for summer, autumn leaves for fall, and snowflakes for winter.

However, more than the ornate pieces, creating balance and harmony in table arrangement is what’s valuable in Japanese food culture.

15. Portion size is not big…

But it’s not too small either.

Japanese food portion size

A common misconception about Japanese food is the serving size. Most of us think that the portions are incredibly small. While sushi and sashimi come in small portions, most Japanese meals are relatively generous.

Of course, when you compare it to serving sizes in Western countries, Japanese meals appear small. But remember, traditional Japanese meals come with soup, rice, and three dishes! And they are usually filling enough.

Japanese dining etiquette

Japanese food etiquette is both an important and tricky subject. While you won’t get kicked out of a restaurant for committing a faux pas, practicing politeness and proper etiquette will make for a more enjoyable experience for you and your eating companions.

16. Knowing a bit of the lingo helps.

Japanese Family eating breakfast in the living room

There are a couple of Japanese phrases you can say during meal times to show your appreciation for the food.

The first one is itadakimasu , which translates to “Let’s eat!” and is said before a meal. Saying this phrase expresses gratitude to all the people who worked to make the meal happen — from the people who grew the ingredients to the people who cooked and prepared the food.

The second phrase is goshisou sama deshita or the more casual goshisou sama literally means “What a feast!” This is a way to say “Thank you for the food” or “What a great meal!” after eating. It’s also an expression of gratitude towards the ingredients — life forms that were converted into food to give us energy.

17. Seating arrangement matters…

Unless you’re with friends. But if you’re in a formal setting, like a business dinner or dining at an elderly’s home, it’s good to know traditional seating arrangements.

There is always an “honored seat” called the kamiza. This is reserved for the guest-of-honor, the highest-ranking person in the table, or the oldest. It is usually the seat at the corner of the room farthest from the entrance. If there is a tokonoma or alcove in the room, the kamiza is in front of it.

Meanwhile, the lowest ranking guest or the youngest in the group sits in the shimoza , the seat nearest to the entrance. Why? Because this allows for more room to order, move around to pass food, or pour drinks for the higher ranking or older guests.

18. Use wet towels only to wipe your hands.

cloth for wiping hands in a Japanese restaurant

In Japanese restaurant culture, wet towels or oshibori are often provided to clean your hands before eating. This may come in the form of wet disposable paper tissues or reusable cloth towels.

Whichever type of oshibori you receive, this is given specifically for wiping your hands and nothing else. You may see others using it to wipe their face, mouth, or even the table, but it’s not considered to be good manners.

19. Slurping is okay but not all sounds are.

Woman slurp noodles

Ah, slurping. A common subject of confusion when it comes to Japanese food etiquette.

To be clear, unlike in many countries, slurping is common in Japan and even expected to a certain extent. Noodles are often served hot and slurping is done to cool them down while eating.

That said, slurping is not mandatory. And while it’s acceptable, other sounds aren’t. The noise made when setting down tableware, chewing or munching sounds, blowing your nose, burping — all of these are considered bad manners in Japan.

20. Use chopsticks the right way.

Holding chopsticks

Another delicate matter in Japanese food culture is the use of chopsticks, the main utensil in Japanese dining.

The proper way to hold chopsticks is to first hold the upper chopstick like you would a pencil with your grip sitting at the top third of the sticks. The second chopstick sits on your ring finger and is held with the base of your thumb. You should be able to move the top chopstick up and down to grip food.

Other things to remember when using chopsticks include the following:

  • Don’t use your bowl as a resting place for your chopsticks. If no chopstick rest is available, use the wrapper or paper binding that your chopsticks came in.
  • Don’t stab food with your chopsticks.
  • When having soup, use the chopsticks to eat the solid items from the broth. Then, bring the bowl to your mouth and drink the broth from it.

If you’re having difficulty using chopsticks, you’re better off requesting a fork and knife. Remember, however, that certain dishes like sushi and sashimi are not meant to be eaten with a fork and it would be rude to do so.

21. There are proper ways of eating sushi.

A variety of sushi

Preparing quality sushi requires years of training and the best ingredients. That’s why you’re expected to show respect and gratitude to the sushi chef by observing good manners.

We’ve covered common sushi etiquette and customs here , but it’s worth mentioning again that sushi is traditionally eaten by hand, not by chopsticks, so as not to ruin its perfect form. Nigiri sushi is also meant to be eaten in one bite.

22. And correct ways of eating ramen.

Bowls of ramen

As is with sushi, you’re also expected to observe etiquette when eating ramen.

For instance, you’re expected to start with a few sips of the broth before slurping the noodles or putting in any additional seasoning. And it’s meant to be eaten fast!

You can educate yourself further with this list of ramen etiquette and customs .

23. Don’t pour yourself a drink.

husband and wife in yukata pouring out alcohol drink

Compared to ramen shops and sushi restaurants, izakayas or Japanese pubs are less uptight when it comes to table manners. However, there are still certain things to observe, especially when drinking with Japanese people.

When drinking alcoholic beverages, don’t pour your own drink. Instead, it’s customary to serve others and refill their drinks if their cups are getting empty. Likewise, you should let others serve you more alcohol.

Additionally, you should hold your drink until everyone has one and say “ kampai! ”, meaning “cheers”, in unison.

24. Eating while walking is frowned upon.

Eating grilled corn while walking

In many countries, it’s not uncommon to see people grabbing a bite from a sandwich or bagel while rushing to the office or heading to the next sightseeing spot. In Japan, it’s considered rude.

While there’s no law forbidding you to do so, it is requested to avoid doing this for a couple of reasons. First, it goes against the Japanese food culture of appreciating your food properly. Plus, eating while walking also produces litter and attracts unwelcome wildlife.

When buying food from a convenience store, vending machine, or a street stall, it’s best to eat it at the store itself or in front of it. You can also eat it at home or on a bench where you can finish your meal.

25. Tipping is not recommended.

Tipping in Japan

Something interesting for penny-pinching tourists: tipping is not customary in Japan. In fact, in some cases, it may even be considered rude.

Japanese culture values hard work and dignity, making good service a standard rather than something special. This is especially true for Japanese restaurants. You may even be chased down by the restaurant staff to give back any money you left behind.

That said, tour guides and taxi drivers may sometimes accept tips. In general, however, saying thank you and being polite to people you encounter is enough.

Japanese food in contemporary times

Traditional Japanese food culture offers glimpses into Japan’s illustrious past but Japanese ingenuity is just as visible in the more recent (or reinvented) culinary developments.

26. Not all bento boxes are created equal.

Colorful bento box

Another popular Japanese invention, a bento is a portable meal of rice and side dishes packed into a small container. Historically, bento boxes were used by Japanese farmers, hunters, and warriors who needed food while working outside.

Today, however, there are several types of bento boxes made for different settings, such as:

  • Shidashi – bento delivered by professional caterers and are usually ordered for important occasions.
  • Shokado – Developed in Osaka at the beginning of the Showa period, it has four types of dishes, arranged into four sections of a lacquered bento box. It’s essentially kaiseki in a box.
  • Ekiben – bento found in many railroad stations
  • Kamameshi (potted rice) – home-style bento traditionally cooked and served in an earthenware pot
  • Koraku – large bento boxes meant to be shared among a small group
  • Kyaraben – “character bento” or lunchboxes made for children, often shaped or designed to look like cartoon characters

27. Convenience wins in modern Japanese cuisine.

Vending machine in Japan

Convenience stores and vending machines did not originate from Japan but the Japanese have made it their own.

The first convenience store or konbini in Japan opened in 1973 and stores have since hosted a plethora of items ranging from edible to bizarre. Carrying bento boxes, instant ramen, sandwiches, salads, Japanese snacks , and drinks, convenience stores offer a quick and relatively cheap way to fill up one’s tummy.

Too busy to even visit a convenience store? A quick and tasty snack or drink from a vending machine is the way to go. Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita. These machines contain a dizzying array of products – chips, soda, coffee, dessert, edible insects, and even love letters !

28. Japan loves food delivery.

Uber Eats in Japan

Interestingly, the concept of food delivery or demae has existed in Japan for centuries. It started over 300 years ago during the Edo period and continued to thrive during the Showa era.

Food delivery was done via bicycles, with drivers delivering more than 20 dishes each time. But with the emergence of cars, balancing stacks of dishes on bicycles became dangerous. Boxes to hold food behind bicycles and motorcycles were then created.

Food delivery remains popular in modern-day Japan, especially with the rise of fast food and smartphones. Popular food delivery companies include UberEats, Food Panda, and Maishoku and you can order pretty much anything — sushi, bento boxes, pizza, Japanese curry, ramen, donburi, and more!

29. They also love Western food… with a twist.

Japanese curry rice with meat, carrot and potato close-up on a plate on a table. horizontal top view from above

Speaking of pizza, the Japanese also eat and love food from the other side of the planet. But while hamburgers, fish and chips, and pasta are present in Japan, there is a type of Western cuisine that is unique to Japan — the Yoshoku.

Yoshoku is Western cuisine, reinvented the Japanese way. Make no mistake, this isn’t simply fusion food, but a distinctly Japanese adaptation of Western dishes.

Popular yoshoku dishes include:

  • Kareraisu  or curry rice (curry was introduced to Japan by the British)
  • Hambagu or hamburger but served with rice, salad, and sauce
  • Napolitan, spaghetti (with the consistency of udon) stir-fried with vegetables and meat, seasoned with ketchup
  • Doria , baked casserole, similar to a French gratin

30. Street food in Japan is not as common.

Takoyaki

Known as yatai , street food stands have been around since the Edo period. They provided the earliest forms of fast food and were commonly seen as part of Japanese nightlife culture. They were also more common in festivals or matsuri.

However, in the 1900s, stricter regulations made it difficult to open and run a yatai. They were frowned upon and thought of as unsightly eating spots that created litter and invited noise. Soon, the number of street food stalls declined.

The good news is, Japanese street food culture is seeing a resurgence after the relaxation of yatai laws. More chefs are also experimenting with street food and the influx of young tourists helps popularize this eating experience.

What’s next?

To know the food of a place is to know its culture. If you read this until the end, you definitely know about Japanese food more than you ever did!

But this list barely scratches the surface. For the Japanophile foodie, there is more to learn. I recommend reading your way through these Japanese food facts , exploring the nitty-gritty of sushi and ramen , satisfying your sweet tooth with Japanese candies and chocolates , and finishing it off with a Japanese beverage !

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Essay Samples on Japanese Food Culture

Origins of sushi and how they evolved throughout the years.

In today’s day and age food has become a major topic when it comes to trends and social media. Social media models travel the world and explore new cuisines and post them on their social media accounts. That influences the rest of modern society to...

  • Cultural Identity
  • Japanese Food Culture

Five Rules of Japanese Cuisine

5 (go) is considered a lucky number in Japanese culture. The prevalence of this can be seen in art, in architecture, in literary and especially in its food tradition. Maybe there're not many people can tell where these rules derived from, nor can recite them...

  • Importance of Food

Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature

Aoyama, Tomoko. Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 2008. This journal article provides information about specific genre of diaries. It also analyzes what is the meaning of Aoyama labels “down-to-earth eating and writing”, which is elaborated as realistic descriptions of...

The Seasonal Beauty of Japanese Food with Film Series “Little Forest”

Japan is well known for its distinct seasonality, especially in its food. Japanese celebrate their seasons by enjoying the fresh ingredients unique to that season, which is a feature for washoku, a famous national cuisine. A meal in Japan goes beyond simply eating the food....

Essays on Japanese Food Culture

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japanese culture food essay

The essence of Japanese cuisine : an essay on food and culture

"From menu arrangement to cooking techniques, course selection to entertainment styles, The Essence of Japanese Cuisine studies the Japanese meal and the historical, social, and economic principles...

"From menu arrangement to cooking techniques, course selection to entertainment styles, The Essence of Japanese Cuisine studies the Japanese meal and the historical, social, and economic principles that underpin Japanese food culture. Drawing from extensive fieldwork, surveys, and sources ranging from contemporary shop advertisements to classical writings and paintings, Ashkenazi and Jacob analyze how meals are structured, where food is prepared, where it is consumed, and what rituals and cultural rules define the art of the Japanese food event."--BOOK JACKET.

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  • Jacob, Jeanne
  • Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
  • xv, 252 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 23 cm
  • Includes bibliographical references (pages 237-248) and index.
  • Includes filmography: page 248.
  • Map of Japan -- Ch. 1. Redefining Japanese Food -- Ch. 2. A Framework for Discussion -- Ch. 3. Japanese Food in its Background -- Ch. 4. Food Events and their Meaning -- Ch. 5. Food Preparation Styles -- Ch. 6. Food Loci -- Ch. 7. Aesthetics in the World of Japanese Food -- Ch. 8. Learning the Cultural Rules -- Ch. 9. The Art of Dining -- Ch. 10. Japan's Food Culture: Dimensions and Contradictions
  • Cooking, Japanese.
  • Japan -- Social life and customs.

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Japanese Food

Compiled January 2004 Links verfied June 2005

Articles and Essays

NIHON-RYORI “Japanese Food” Provides narratives with information on the basics of Japanese food. Presents discussions on Rice, Tofu, Vegetables, Tsukemono (pickles), Eggs, Drinks, Miso, One Pot Cookery (nabemono), Noodles, Sweets, and Other Delights. Each contains a description of the type of food, suggestions for preparation, and recipes. Also provides a glossary to help identify various foods, a recipe of the month selection, and a Japanese kitchenware store.

Rice: It’s More Than Food in Japan (Japan Digest) Part of the National Clearinghouse for U.S.-Japan Studies online publications. Presents brief narratives entitled: “Rice: A Deeply Embedded Cultural Concept,” “The Role of Rice in the Culture,” “Aspects of the Rice Trade Issue,” and “Liberalization of the Japanese Rice Market.”

What Can We Learn about Japan from Its Vegetables? Part of the online magazine Nipponia, a quarterly magazine about modern Japan. A multi-page feature with sections titled: “Vegetables in the Japanese Diet,” “From Fields around the World to Tables in Japan,” “High-tech ‘Veggie Factories’,” “Shojin Ryori” (vegetarian cuisine), and “Pickles, Past and Present.” Includes statistical information, color images, and historical information.

The Tea Ceremony A Web site broken into four parts: “What Is the Tea Ceremony?” “A History of the Tea Ceremony and Development of Wabi-cha,” “A Tea Gathering,” and “Giving and Receiving.” Provides a history of the tea ceremony, pictures of the traditional utensils used, description of a tea ceremony, and instructions on the proper way to receive and drink tea during a ceremony.

Box Lunches (Bento) Provides narratives describing the history and tradition of these elaborately made box lunches. Presents a list of ingredients commonly found in bento.

Sushi Art Presents brief narratives on the different varieties of sushi. Includes images of sushi that has been rolled into art: butterflies, dragonflies, and flowers. Also includes a norimaki sushisushi rice and techniques for rolling the sushi. recipe with basic ingredients, fill ingredients, utensils, and directions for the preparation of the

Eating up the Troubles: Japanese New Years Cuisine Sold Briskly for Y2K From the Japan Information Network's Trends in Japan journal. This article discusses the special dishes (osechi ryori) eaten during the Japanese New Year festivities. Although the article is somewhat dated, it does provide background information on the history of this New Year's tradition.

The Roots of Japanese Food Are Found in Kansai Part of the Kansai Window Web site sponsored by the Kansai Council and the Kansai International Public Relations Promotion office. This in-depth exploration of food from the Kansai region of Japan offers articles on food from the Kansai prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Shiga, Wakayama, Mie, Tokushima, and Fuki; an interview; discussion; and an essay on sake in Kansai.

Kikkoman Food Forum From The World of Kikkoman Web site. Presents over 15 essays on Japanese food culture. Topics include wafu (Japanese style food), tempura, curry, Shojin Ryori (vegetarian cuisine), tsukemono, different varieties of fish and seafood (salmon, abolone, tai), and Japanese edible wild herbs among others. Three separate articles on rice are also available.

Japanese Cookbook for Kids Provides an introduction to Japanese food and etiquette, as well as information on, and recipes for, Rice and Miso Soup, Favorite Dishes, Sushi, Okonomiyaki and Yakisoba, and Soba and Udon. Pictures of dishes in various stages of preparation are also included.

Japanese Recipe Collection Part of the Tokyo Food Page. Presents a variety of home-style Japanese recipes with a few adaptations for availability of ingredients outside of Japan. Recipes include preparation/cooking time, ingredients, and directions. Some also include a brief narrative with historical background and explanations of cooking techniques.

Yasuko-san’s Home Cooking Presents a wide variety of recipes for just about every style of Japanese cooking. Includes information on soups, pickles, osechi ryori (New Year’s cuisine), etc. Also provides a section on ingredients with pictures and detailed descriptions of most items.

Bob & Angie’s Kitchen: Daily Japanese Cooking (Basic Recipes and Hints) Daily Japanese Cooking is part of Bob & Angie’s Kitchen, sponsored by Osaka Gas. Lists over 100 recipes with color images of the prepared dish, ingredients, preparation, and helpful hints. Recipes are divided into six categories (daily cooking, beef, chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetables).

Japanese Specialty Cuisines Presents information about some of Japan’s other favorite foods and how they are prepare.

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The past few years have shown a growing interest in cooking and food, as a result of international food issues such as BSE, world trade and mass foreign travel, and at the same time there has been growing interest in Japanese Studies since the 1970s. This volume brings together the two interests of Japan and food, examining both from a number of perspectives. The book reflects on the social and cultural side of Japanese food, and at the same time reflects also on the ways in which Japanese culture has been affected by food, a basic human institution. Providing the reader with the historical and social bases to understand how Japanese cuisine has been and is being shaped, this book assumes minimal familiarity with Japanese society, but instead explores the country through the topic of its cuisine.

  • ISBN-10 070071085X
  • ISBN-13 978-0700710850
  • Edition 1st
  • Publisher Routledge
  • Publication date July 20, 2000
  • Language English
  • Dimensions 6.5 x 1 x 9.25 inches
  • Print length 276 pages
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'An extensive and interesting study of a subject on which hitherto there has been very little written in English.' - Petits Propos Culinaires

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Routledge; 1st edition (July 20, 2000)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 276 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 070071085X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0700710850
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.39 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.5 x 1 x 9.25 inches

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Jeanne Jacob

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Home / Essay Samples / Food / Japanese Food Culture / The History And Culture Of Japanese Cuisine

The History And Culture Of Japanese Cuisine

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