How of food culture is rooted back to the

How does food hybridization of Japanese and Western food represent the modernization of Meiji Japan?



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Today, the Japanese cuisine attracts many attentions from around the world. The unique focus on color and season and the distinct taste of the Japanese cuisine have enthralled the hearts of many. From the wide variety of foods that the Japanese cuisine has supplied us, we often believe that these dishes derive from traditionally eaten Japanese dishes, when in fact, apart from some traditionally-eaten dishes, most of the Japanese dishes are a product of Japanese and Western food culture. This hybridization of food culture is rooted back to the Meiji period.


Before Meiji, Japan was known as a sakoku, which meant that the country was closed—there was almost no trade between Japan and foreign countries, and there were only few treaty ports. The age of sakoku continued until the arrival of American warships lead by Commodore Perry in 1853. Perry presented the shogun with a presidential letter demanding that Japan is opened for trade, and by 1858, Japan had been forced with military power to conclude commercial treaties with the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. The treaties contained unequal provisions giving foreigners immunity from Japanese law and denting Japan the right to set tariffs autonomously. In reaction to the treaties, a movement arose that demanded the expulsion of foreigners from Japan. As a result of foreign trade, domestic prices rose and made the lives difficult for lower-ranking samurai and the peasants. The social discontent of the people coalesced with the movement to expel foreigners and gained a momentum that threatens to topple the shogunate. After several military clashes between the shogunate and feudal clans that supported the rebellion, the shogun recognized that he had lost the capacity to govern, and handed over to the emperor. This return of power to the imperial house in 1868—known as the Meiji Restoration—marked the start of the modernization of Japan (Naomichi, 2011).


At this turning point in the Japanese history, the primary goal of the Meiji government was to modernize, or in other words to westernize. The defeat of China by the British in the First Opium War and the forced opening of Japan had lead Japanese intellectuals to realize that China was no longer the leading force in Asia, but was replaced by the technologically and militarily advanced Western powers (Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine Food, Power and National Identity, 2006).


In this age of exponential growth and modernizing, the establishment of a national cuisine symbolizes the spirit and nationalism of Meiji Japan. From the introduction of Western culture in a traditional Japanese context, the domestication of western culture in Japan, to the rise of capitalism in Japan, the hybridization of Japanese and Western food culture embodies Meiji Japan.


Japanese Food in Pre-Meiji (Edo) Period


            The food culture in Edo Japan was by no means inferior to other cultures. From the late seventeenth century, restaurant culture began to flourish in Japan, and by the early nineteenth century, more than six thousand restaurants were counted in Edo (Tokyo). Nevertheless, there were no restaurants serving foreign food in early Japan, but the cuisine itself was by no means free from foreign influences. There were Chinese borrowings such as soybean products and tea, and there were Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish impacts on Japanese dishes such as kaiseki, sushi, and tempura.

Introduction of Western Food to Japan


The widespread of Western-style eating all began on the Emperor Meiji’s birthday. As the new Meiji government and constitutions were being formed, the country lacked a true national identity. The common people in 19th century Japan had neither a strong sense of national identity nor a clear idea of the emperor as the Japanese national symbol. Customs, beliefs, and practices were localized and diverse, with little national uniformity. One of the first things that the Meiji government placed an emphasis on was to elevate the emperor as the symbol of the nation.


On November 4th, 1871, distinguished foreign officials residing in Japan gathered for a dinner party to celebrate the emperor’s birthday the day before. A Western-style banquet was prepared under the supervision of a French chef. By no means was this the first Western-style banquet organized by Japanese authorities, however, it signifies the important functions that Western food played in late 19th century Japan. Western-style dining became an integral part of the power politics as it was designed to impress foreign dignitaries with Japan’s Westerness. Moreover, it marked the beginning of carefully orchestrated measures to turn the young emperor into a modern monarch. The Iwakura Mission (1871-1873), which was a diplomatic voyage by the leading statesman and intellects to the ‘West’, further convinced Meiji leaders that Japan still had far to go before it would be in a position to negotiate with Western powers. From these experiences, two conclusions were drawn: Japan was to avoid being confused with China and the country was to be modernized by reforming its legal and political system and industrializing its economy based on Western models. Additionally, it was important for Meiji politicians to fully restore the emperor to power and differentiate themselves from the bakufu—the government that was in power in Edo period. A project with the slogan of “Civilization and Enlightenment (bunmei kaika)” was inaugurated, and Western-style dining became an integral part of the project (Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine Food, Power and National Identity, 2006).


In the summer of 1971, it was the first time that Western cuisine was served In January 1872, it was publicly announced that the Emperor ate beef and mutton on a regular basis, breaking the century-old meat-eating ban. This announcement placed the emperor at the center of the newly emerging meat-eating fashion. That being said, meat was somewhat prevalent in Japan. Westerners living in colonies or semi-colonies throughout the Far East generally retained a strong preference for their native food. Moreover, the Japanese food at the time was not sufficient to fulfill the modern western tongues. This is well-represented by the characterization of Japanese food by Isabella Bird (1831-1904):


“The fact is that, except at a few hotels in popular resorts which are got up for foreigners, bread, butter, meat, milk, poultry, coffee, wine, and beer are unattainable, that fresh fish is rare, and that unless one can live on rice, tea, and eggs, with the addition now and then of some tasteless fresh vegetables, food must be taken, as the fishy and vegetable abominations known as “Japanese food” can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after longer practice.”



The shortage of meat supply was felt as a most severe inconvenience by the Western communities. As so, meat was imported alive from Shanghai. As the volume of international trade increased, the Japanese who socialized with Western traders had more opportunities for them to taste Western (meat) dishes (Cwiertka, Eating the World: Restaurant Culture in Early Twentieth Century Japan, 2003).  


These circumstances propelled the rise of a beef-eating fashion among progressive Japanese. The new trend emerged in the mid-1860s and took a form of gyunabe, a beef stew with miso or soy sauce. The emergence of gyunabe was also an expression of the free spirit of the urban culture. The gyunabe fashion rested on the foundation of the ‘medical eating’ that advocated meat consumption was beneficial for one’s health. This concept of ‘medical eating’ was derived from the superior physique of westerners, and it was believed that meat consumption was the primary reason for it. The consumption of meat by the emperor elevated meat into the symbol of Japan’s transformation into a modern nation. The daily meat consumption in Tokyo increased from one and a half cows in 1868 to twenty-five cows five years later. By the late 1870s, several hundred establishments were serving gyunabe. The Meiji government propagated meat-eating through the encouragement of a domestic cattle industry (Zaraska, 2016).


As the Japanese had to accustom to the eccentric taste of Western food, it was more than just a simple change of the menu. The form and taste of the food differ greatly from the native fare, eating utensils and dining furniture contradicted Japanese customs, and on top of that Western-style banquet required its participants to be dressed in Western clothing. As the occasion for Japanese elites to interact with Western officials increased, it was important that these elites were acquainted with the necessary etiquette. Sensitivity to Western opinion and approval very strong in the motivation to recreate Western ways in minute detail. By the 1890s the Japanese elites had become fully acquainted with Western-style dining (Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine Food, Power and National Identity, 2006).

Spread of Yoshokuya


            From the Meiji period onwards, familiarity with things Western and Western-style dining became a sign of sophistication and signified social prestige. Through a deliberate adoption of Western-style dining, members of the Meiji elite and, most importantly, the emperor converted themselves into creators of fashions. The association of the exclusive image of Western food and elite culture encouraged the diffusion of certain types of Western foods that were within the financial reach of the urban population, such as beer and biscuits.