History of Japanese cuisine

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This article traces the history of cuisine of Japan. Foods and food preparation by the early Japanese Neolithic settlements can be pieced together from archaeological studies, and reveals paramount importance of rice and seafood since early times.

The Kofun period (3rd to 7th centuries) is shrouded in uncertainty. Some entries in Japan's earliest written chronicles hint at a picture of food habits from the time of the formation of the Yamato dynasty. When Buddhism became widely accepted with the rise of the Soga clan, a taboo on the eating meat (especially mammals) began to be enforced, and became common practice, although wild game was still being taken by mountain people, and would be eaten by townspeople when the opportunity arose.

Treatises on ceremony, tax documents, and fiction allows one to make a list of food ingredients used, and basic preparation methods in the Heian period. However anything like recipes from the Middle Ages are a rare commodity in Japan or any country.

Records throughout Middle Ages may give some idea of the dishes being enjoyed, but do not give details such as to provide accurate recipes.

Once Japan entered the Edo period, there were rich records of foods and cuisine from commoners (i.e., non-samurai), who were largely literate, and produced a great deal of wood-block printed literature.

Heian period

Following the Jōmon period, Japanese society shifted from semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural society. This was the period in which rice cultivation began, having been introduced by China.[1] Rice was commonly boiled plain and called gohan or meshi, and, as cooked rice has since been the preferred staple of the meal, the terms are used as synonyms for the word "meal". Peasants often mixed millet with rice, especially in mountainous regions where rice did not proliferate.[2]

During the Kofun period, Chinese culture was introduced into Japan from Korea. As such, Buddhism became influential on Japanese culture. After the 6th century, Japan directly pursued the imitation of Chinese culture of the Tang dynasty.[3] It was this influence that marked the taboos on the consumption of meat in Japan. In 675 AD, Emperor Tenmu decreed a prohibition on the consumption of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens during the 4th-9th months of the year; to break the law would mean a death sentence. Monkey was eaten prior to this time, but was eaten more in a ritualistic style for medicinal purposes. Chickens were often domesticated as pets,[citation needed] while cattle and horses were rare and treated as such. A cow or horse would be ritually sacrificed on the first day of rice paddy cultivation, a ritual introduced from China. Emperor Temmu's decree, however, did not ban the consumption of deer or wild boar, which were important to the Japanese diet at that time.[4]

The 8th century saw many additional decrees made by emperors and empresses banning the killing of any animals. In 752 AD, Empress Kōken decreed a ban on fishing, but made a promise that adequate rice would be given to fishermen whose livelihood would have otherwise been destroyed. In 927 AD, regulations were enacted that stated that any government official or member of nobility that ate meat was deemed unclean for three days and could not participate in Shinto observances at the imperial court.[5]

It was also the influence of Chinese cultures through Korea that brought chopsticks to Japan early in this period.[6][7][8][9][10] Chopsticks at this time were used by nobility at banquets; they were not used as everyday utensils however, as hands were still commonly used to eat. Metal spoons were also used during the 8th and 9th centuries, but only by the nobility.[11] Dining tables were also introduced to Japan at this time. Commoners used a legless table called a oshiki, while nobility used a lacquered table with legs called a zen. Each person used his own table. Lavish banquets for the nobility would have multiple tables for each individual based upon the number of dishes presented.[12]

Upon the decline of the Tang dynasty in the 9th century, Japan made a move toward its individuality in culture and cuisine. The abandonment of the spoon as a dining utensil – which was retained in Korea – is one of the marked differences, and commoners were now eating with chopsticks as well. Trade continued with China and Korea, but influence en masse from outside Japan would not be seen again until the 19th century. The 10th and 11th centuries marked a level of refinement of cooking and etiquette found in the culture of the Heian nobility. Court chefs would prepare many of the vegetables sent as tax from the countryside. Court banquets were common and lavish; garb for nobility during these events remained in the Chinese style which differentiated them from the plain clothes of commoners.[13]

The dishes consumed after the 9th century included grilled fish and meat (yakimono), simmered food (nimono), steamed foods (mushimono), soups made from chopped vegetables, fish or meat (atsumono), jellied fish (nikogori) simmered with seasonings, sliced raw fish served in a vinegar sauce (namasu), vegetables, seaweed or fish in a strong dressing (aemono), and pickled vegetables (tsukemono) that were cured in salt to cause lactic fermentation. Oil and fat were avoided almost universally in cooking. Sesame oil was used, but rarely, as it was of great expense to produce.[14]

Documents from the Heian nobility note that fish and wild fowl were common fare along with vegetables. Their banquet settings consisted of a bowl of rice and soup, along with chopsticks, a spoon, and three seasonings which were salt, vinegar and hishio, which was a fermentation of soybeans, wheat, sake and salt. A fourth plate was present for mixing the seasonings to desired flavor for dipping the food. The four types of food present at a banquet consisted of dried foods (himono), fresh foods (namamono), fermented or dressed food (kubotsuki), and desserts (kashi). Dried fish and fowl were thinly sliced (e.g. salted salmon, pheasant, steamed and dried abalone, dried and grilled octopus), while fresh fish, shellfish and fowl were sliced raw in vinegar sauce or grilled (e.g. carp, sea bream, salmon, trout, pheasant). Kubotsuki consisted of small balls of fermented sea squirt, fish or giblets along with jellyfish and aemono. Desserts would have included Chinese cakes, and a variety of fruits and nuts including pine nuts, dried chestnuts, acorns, jujube, pomegranate, peach, apricot, persimmon and citrus. The meal would be ended with sake.[15]

Kamakura period

The Kamakura period marked a large political change in Japan. Prior to the Kamakura period, the samurai were guards of the landed estates of the nobility. The nobility, having lost control of the Japanese countryside, fell under the militaristic rule of the peasant class samurai, with a military government being set up in 1192 in Kamakura giving way to the period. Once the position of power had been exchanged, the role of the court banquets changed. The court cuisine which had prior to this time emphasized flavor and nutritional aspects changed to a highly ceremonial and official role.[16]

Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shōgun, punished other samurai who followed the earlier showy banquet style of the nobility. The shōgun banquet, called ōban, was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The ōban originally referred to a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period, and was attached to the warrior class. The menu usually consisted of dried abalone, jellyfish aemono, pickled ume called umeboshi, salt and vinegar for seasoning, and rice. Later in the period, the honzen-ryōri banquet became popularized.[17]

The cuisine of the samurai came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity while being substantial. The cuisine avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury, and shed all further Chinese influence. One specific example is the change from wearing traditional Chinese garb to a distinct clothing style that combined the simple clothing of the common people. This style evolved into the kimono by the end of the Middle Ages.[18]

The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period as it began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of slaughtering animals for food or leather came under discrimination. Those practicing this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life, while under the Shinto philosophy they were considered defiled. This discrimination intensified, and eventually led to the creation of a separate caste, the burakumin.[19]

See also


  1. ^ "Road of rice plant". National Science Museum of Japan. Archived from the original on 2015-04-05. Retrieved 2011-03-24.
  2. ^ Kiple & Ornelas 2001, 1176.
  3. ^ Ishige 2001, 46–48.
  4. ^ Ishige 2001, 53–54.
  5. ^ Ishige 2001, 55–56.
  6. ^ Ishige 2001, 67 "chopsticks originated in ancient China, spreading from the Yeelow River basin, which was then the center of Chinese civilization, to surrounding regions from about fifth century BCE."
  7. ^ The International Institute of Hashi Archived 2012-03-25 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Osaka Kyoiku University 箸の伝来 "Transmission of chopsticks"
  9. ^ University of Marketing and Distribution Sciences Mori Takayuki (professor of Department of Commercial Science)
  10. ^ Komazawa Women's University "箸と日本人 (Chopsticks and Japanese)
  11. ^ Ishige 2001, 67–69.
  12. ^ Ishige 2001, 71
  13. ^ Ishige 2001, 50–51.
  14. ^ Ishige 2001, 71–72.
  15. ^ Ishige 2001, 73–74.
  16. ^ Ishige 2001, 51.
  17. ^ Ishige 2001, 74–75.
  18. ^ Ishige 2001, 51–52.
  19. ^ Ishige 2001, 58.


  • Heibonsha (1969) [1968]. 世界百科事典(Sekai hyakka jiten). (world encyclopedia, in Japanese)
  • Ishige, Naomichi (2001). The History and Culture of Japanese Food. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0710306571.
  • Kiple, Kenneth F.; Ornelas, Kriemhild (2000). The Cambridge World History of Food. 2. Cambridge, UK: ColuCambridge University Press. ISBN 0521402166. Archived from the original on 2012-05-04.
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