Japanese cuisine is largely appreciated all over the world for its use of exceptional, nutritious, fresh, and mouth-watering ingredients.
Delve into the savory story of Japanese cuisine, a rich tapestry of flavors and traditions evolving over centuries.
This exploration uncovers the historical influences and culinary innovations that have shaped Japan’s gastronomic identity, from humble rice dishes to the exquisite art of sushi and beyond.
Japanese Food Culture History: Broadly Explained
1. Jomon Period (-14000 – -400 BCE)
The Jomon period refers to early Japanese history.
This is the period when people started to leave the nomadic hunter life and took initiations for a settled life with mastering agriculture and cooking.
In prehistoric Japan, the Jomon islands had a great diversity of Natural Resources. People used to fulfill their food demands by hunting and fishing.
In early summer and spring, deep-sea fish Tunas and bonitos, Salmon, and other marine species were fished. They also used to catch some marine mammals.
Also, there was a strong presence of shellfish in the diet due to their abundance on the shores of the Japan Sea and the Pacific.
During the fall and throughout the winter, deer, wild boar, bear, and hare were hunted to meet the need.
Besides, many tree species provided enough food both for humans and animals.
The cultivation technique had not been certified yet, but people showed a gradual interest in cultivating certain types of plants, such as squash, nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and millets.
Yams and other wild plants were also present to supplement the diet.
According to research and evidence, soybeans were already present and probably cultivated during that time.
There were significant variations in seed size, which indicates human hand selection.
The pottery has proved the first evidence of cooking.
The first Jomon pottery can be found throughout the archipelago. The archaeologists got 70 different styles and some more sub-styles.
Although the pottery was small in size initially for easy portability, their size gradually increased, and the style was also diversified, reflecting the gradual settlement of people.
Then, the population was drastically reduced after 1500 due to the harsh cold climate. Only a few sites could prove the human presence after 1500.
From 900 B.C., new populations started arriving from the Korean Peninsula.
They bring new techniques and new ingredients. The rice cultivation and mastering bronze, iron, and pottery were also introduced by them.
Both populations coexisted for a thousand years.
The new agriculture was named after the name of a site near Tokyo called yayoi. It is also the name of the next period in the history of Japan.
2. Yayoi Period ( 400 BCE – 250 AD)
In addition to rice cultivation, the Japanese people also farmed wheat, barley, millet, buckwheat, and soybeans during this period.
For the first time, the food in that period was described as rice, raw vegetables, and fish without utensils.
Various Chinese sources from the 3rd century confirmed this food menu of the people of the Yayoi period.
However, the additional information is these foods were served on wooden and bamboo platters (takatsuki).
A dish made combinedly with bonito and Palourde is known to have received great appreciation.
According to a history written in Kojiki, Nihon shoki, and Takahashi ujibumi, Emperor Keiko, chief of the imperial court, greatly appreciated this dish.
At present, he is considered the founder of seasoning culture in Japan.
This seasoning culture even preceded the concept of today’s soy sauce, consisting mainly of salt and vinegar from seasoning.
Soy sauce was becoming more common in this period. It was being used as a common culinary ingredient.
3. The Yamato Period (250-710 AD)
The Yamato period was featured with Korean and Chinese migrations.
This migration, in turn, plays a vital role in introducing Confucianism and Buddhism, which triggered the first decree of banning meat consumption.
Soy sauce was becoming more common in this period. It was being used as a common culinary ingredient.
Actually, there is very limited information on the eating culture in Japan during this period.
However, it cannot be denied that strong waves of Chinese (in the 5th century) and Korean (in the 4th century) immigration might have had a significant impact on Japanese food history.
Anyway, the introduction of Buddhism in ancient Japan was attributed to King Baekje Seong in the year 538.
Wars of influential clans took place for more than a century to fight Buddhism.
Later in 675 AD, Emperor Temmu banned the consumption of wild animals such as horses, cows, dogs, monkeys, birds, etc., to respect the rules of Buddhism.
Consumption of pests, wild boar, and fallow deer was not prohibited, though.
This ban was renewed again and again throughout the Asuka period, but finally, it ended in the Heian period.
You can see in this prohibition the beginnings of the shojin ryori (vegetarian meal), though it was not widespread until the 13th century.
Besides, the soy sauce originated from a paste called hishio. Firstly, it was made with meat and fish marinade, but later with soybean seeds and flour.
Actually, it was introduced to Japan during the Fujiwara period that extends from 694-710.
4. Nara Period (710 AD -794 AD)
The Nara era brought a lot of changes in the Japanese food timeline.
The proficiency of fermentation increased, and ingredients such as natto and bread were also inaugurated in this period.
The seasoning that was previously reduced to vinegar and salt was replaced by the ancestors of the classic seasonings miso, hishio (the precursor of soy sauce), and shi (soy nuggets).
There is evidence that Japanese seasoning was greatly influenced by miso, hishio, and shi.
Two Chiefs at the Imperial Court showed their expertise to produce these three ingredients, which were also popular among the common people.
So it was a dairy product made between the 7th and 10th centuries in Japan.
The recipe of this dish is noted in Engishiki as it could be officially used as a gift for the emperor.
Another ancient Japanese dairy product, Diego, is said to have been made from soy in this period.
Apart from this, fermentation is an important process for the preparation of many Japanese dishes like miso, rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, natto, tsukemono, katsuobushi, kusaya, etc.
Though some manufacturing processes can be known, fermentation remains a process that depends on controlling the fungus used for it.
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Evidence of early mastery appears in some incidents.
For example, the Kin-jinja temple in Shiga Prefecture was dedicated to the fungus used in the production of narezushi.
It was the most primitive type of sushi, where the fish was salted and coated in fermented rice.
While eating, only the fish was eaten, discarding the fermented rice.
This ancient Japanese food was an important source of protein for the people.
The fermentation process was gradually being brought under control.
By that time, another dish called natto had become a traditional ingredient of the Japanese diet.
A Buddhist monk introduced its two most common versions: itohiki-natto and shiokara-natto. The progressive spread of Buddhist vegetarian practices started promoting its consumption.
After coming in contact with the Chinese Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the Japanese brought bread (bing) from China. Bing was quite similar to French pancakes.
5. Heian Period (794-1185)
The notable changes during the Heian period are the arrival of chopsticks and the introduction of two major dishes of Japanese cuisine: tofu and noodles.
The chopsticks were introduced from China for daily food that was once reserved for ritual and religious uses.
People started using chopsticks in their everyday casual life. The development of the chopsticks trade at that time proved this matter so well.
On the other hand, tofu was also introduced to Japan from China. But there is controversy over by whom it was actually done.
Some say it was carried in 754 AD by the Buddhist monk Kanshin. However, another version of the story is that the zen monk Ingen introduced tofu in 1654 AD.
Anyway, overlooking the prevailing view, Shinoda Osamu attempts a study of ancient Japanese texts.
According to his study, the earliest records of tofu can be found in an imperial menu of 1183 AD and eventually in the letter of a monk dated 1239 AD.
Whatever the case is, Shinoda confirms that Buddhist temples have played an important role in the manufacturing and spreading of tofu.
The prohibition of eating meat forced the monks to look for a vegetarian and nourishing alternative to animal protein, which was tofu.
Therefore, we can assume that tofu probably came to Japan at the end of the Tang or under the Song.
Probably the Buddhist monks brought it at the time when cultural exchanges between the two countries were intense. It was even passed on to Korea at that time.
Though it originated from China, Japan’s tofu-making technique was quite different from that of China. The tofu used to be softer, lighter, and also had a finer flavor here in Japan.
From the ending of the Heian period (1185) to the start of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the Buddhist monks also introduced Chinese noodles, importing them from The Song Dynasty (1127-1279).
They even introduced all the cultivation related to flour production and objects closely linked to it, such as the grindstone.
The Kyoka hitsuyo jirui zenshu, a book written around 1279, gives a list of those imported recipes, namely somen, suikamen, tettaimen, suiromen, koshimen, and pasta.
The codification of osechi ryori is defined as a banquet kitchen for the first time in this period.
Multiple dishes were available there for guests. It is the direct predecessor of the osechi served at the beginning of this year in Japan.
6. Feudal Period (1185-1603)
The maturation of techniques, customs related to cooking, and consumption patterns prevailed in this Feudal Period.
Fermentation was developed, cutting became an art, noodles appeared in their present form, and shojin ryori and honzen ryori were each introduced as a particular meal style.
Shojin ryori is one of the three major types of food in modern Japan, consisting of vegetarian ingredients.
Though shojin ryori was first introduced to Japan around 531 AD, as I mentioned earlier, it was greatly considered and adopted by a large number of Japanese people in the 13th century.
Another notable meal of this era was honzen ryori, which was reserved only for Samurai.
It was known as the formal Japanese cuisine in the later Edo period (1600-1868), though it started declining from the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Today, it is found in a modified way in the Kochi region of Shikoku island, popularly known as sawachi cuisine or sawachi ryori.
Udon noodles were first mentioned under the name of uton in a document called the Kagen-ki on July 7, 1347.
The first mention of soba noodles can also be found in Onryo-ken Nichiroku, October 12, 1438.
The noodles in Japan at present days are slightly different from these versions.
They had taken their present form during the Eiroku era (1558-1570).
The first document that referred to edamame dates back to 1275. A famous Japanese monk named Nichiren wrote a note thanking a parishioner for leaving edamame on the temple.
The presence of edamame in haikai in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) was also reported.
During the Muromachi period (1336 -1573), the Japanese preferred the namanari or the namanare instead of the narezushi ancestor. It was the most popular type of sushi at that time.
Raw fish was wrapped in rice and eaten fresh before the taste deteriorated. By that time, this namanare had already become a dish. It was no longer just a method of preserving fish like the primitive narezushi.
The preparation process of meat and poultry began to be ritualized in medieval samurai society.
From 1394 to 1573, the value of knife masters was recognized.
Where the preparation methods were previously limited to cutting only, it was extended and codified with specialized tools and processes.
In the latter days, Portuguese Jesuits introduced some recipes that were easily adapted to local tastes and became a must in Japanese cuisine. Some such dishes were tempura or tonkatsu and panko.
All the dishes, resulting from the combination of Portuguese and Japanese cuisine, are often referred to as Nanban cuisine or barbarians of the south.
7. Edo Era (1603-1868)
The Edo era is the golden period of Japanese cuisine.
Economic and social growth allowed more people to consider cooking as an art and pleasure.
Another key aspect of this period was evolutions in culinary culture and changes in dietary habits.
Modern Japanese cuisine was greatly influenced by the customs developed during the Edo Era.
This era changed the conception of food from a means of survival to something pleasant.
Cooking books, side dish rankings, and a seasonal food calendar, known as the Hatsumono calendar, were printed to keep people on track of current and upcoming seasonal foods.
People began to eat three meals a day instead of two.
The holy trinity of Japanese flavor was also incorporated during this period.
Mirin started playing an important role in traditional Japanese cuisine.
Though the alteration took place in the upper class of the society, it was the streets where the true changes were occurring.
The culture of mobile food stalls (yatai) and restaurants was also introduced to feed travelers and busy commoners on the go.
The ‘yatai’ served affordable meals. The breakfast dishes included rice, dried fish, boiled beans, and fried tofu.
Ordinary meals generally consisted of rice, soup, and one or two side dishes, as well as tsukemono. The most common ingredients were rice, daikon, tofu, mushrooms, and seasonal vegetables.
However, the four kings of Edo dining were eel, soba noodles, tempura, and sushi.
You can check this article if you are curious to learn more about Edo period food. It will give you a comprehensive idea.
Anyway, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal called kaiseki ryori was also introduced by merchants and artists.
The third type of sushi was also created, known as Haya-zushi. Rice and fish could be eaten together with Haya-zushi.
Rice was no longer used for fermentation. It was mixed with vinegar, fish, vegetables, and various dried ingredients.
This kind of sushi is still popular nowadays though each region has a local variation.
Another type of sushi called nigiri-zushi was found at that time.
Nigri-zushi consisted of a cluster of oblong rice topped with raw fish.
After the Kanto earthquake of 1923, the experts who used to prepare the nigiri-sushi left Edo and spread across Japan, popularizing the dish throughout the country.
Today’s world-famous sushi is this nigirizushi invented by Hanaya Yohei ( 1799-1858).
The Meiji period started after the Edo period.
8. Introduction of Foreign Cuisine
At the starting of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Emperor Meiji abolished a number of existing rules and reformed some new things as well.
Among those changes or reforms, two were related directly to Japanese food culture history.
They are lifting the ban on eating red meat and promoting Western cuisine.
The transformation of Japanese food characteristics was twofold: foreign techniques and recipes were introduced, on the one hand, enlarging the palette of tastes of old Japanese food.
And the lifting of the restriction on eating meat led to a decline in rice consumption on the other hand.
People started eating meat again, which also Increased the consumption of milk and bread. So, rice intake was largely supplanted by animal protein.
Recipes imported from the West and neighboring countries during the Meiji Restoration had been adapted to local tastes and ingredients.
Japanese western cuisine or yoshoku refers to those dishes.
Omurice, korokke, naporitan are some examples of yoshoku dishes.
These European cuisines often have European-sounding names, which are usually written using katakana.
These dishes are mostly based on meat, a new item in Japanese cuisine whose origins are European (English, French, Italian, etc.).
However, the fact is the Japanese versions are often quite different from their original versions.
In the 1980s, genuine European restaurants were opened. They used to serve original European recipes to make people aware of the distinction between yoshoku and European dishes.
While India was under the supervision of the English East India Company, curry was introduced here in Japan. That’s why curry is classified as a Western dish instead of an Asian dish here.
Because of the opening of the country, many popular dishes of the present day were imported from Chinese and Korean kitchens during the same period.
Though they have the same import system, these dishes are not yoshoku since they are not Western.
Among them, some most famous are the ramen, the shabu-shabu, and the gyoza.
Some new cooking techniques also appeared with these dishes, such as saute cooking with a wok, itamemono.
9. Decline in Rice Consumption
As I have said earlier, when the restriction on meat consumption was lifted, rice consumption started decreasing due to the influence of Western kitchens.
Meat, milk, and bread were introduced into Japanese cuisine and Customs.
Milk became a traditional constituent in the diet of Japanese children.
Before World War II, in 1939, where the average rice consumption was 330 grams per person per day, in the 2000s, it declined to 165 grams.
Rice was being replaced by meat.
As a result, meat consumption increased by 400% between the 1960s and 2000. And by the mid 1980s, the ratio of meat to fish intake reversed, with meat even exceeding fish consumption.
Food habits changed a little after that in Japan.
If you look at the present-day scenario of daily Japanese food, you can still find rice on their daily diet.
So, it seems that though rice consumption in Japan decreased significantly with time, it hasn’t disappeared fully. Instead, it has become a mandatory part of a regular everyday meal.
It is characterized by rice, fish, shellfish, seaweed, green and yellow vegetables, Japanese pickles, green tea, and miso. A lower intake of red meat and coffee is also included in the Japanese diet.
The notable thing about the Japanese diet is it mostly avoids junk foods and high-calorie.
Anyway, now the Japanese have a theory of five basic flavors.
Besides the salty, sour, sweet, and bitter, there is another one called umami that might be translated as meaty, savory, or mushroom flavor. The presence of this flavor is due to glutamate.
So, we have seen that the history of Japanese cuisine is not just what we find in traditional steakhouses or so-called restaurants that claim to serve Japanese foods.
Though Different culinary cultures of multiple countries greatly influence Japanese foods, it is still largely true to its root.
However, we can’t say what will happen next.
With the rise of commercialization, Japanese food is changing and becoming more westernized nowadays. Many Japanese even eat KFC chicken as a tradition at Christmas now!
Japanese Cuisine History Timeline: FAQs
When did Japanese start eating chicken?
The history of the very first chicken in the Japanese diet was recorded from around 300 AD. Various old records show that hunting chicken was a quite popular thing to do in some ceremonies at that time.
Also, in the Nara Period (710-794 AD), people used to eat dried chicken as a rudimentary preserved food.
What is Japan’s national food?
The national dish of Japan is Curry Rice. All the countries worldwide have their own curry, but Japanese curry is a little bit unique.
Japanese people cook the meat, potatoes, carrots, and the spring onion along with the curry to give it a thick and sticky texture.