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Effects of Globalization on Japanese Food Culture and Health

by Cherise Fuselier

“Japan Today”

spring quarter 2006

Dr. Harumi Moruzzi

Final Draft
Effects of Globalization on Japanese Food Culture and Health


In this paper I will attempt to describe the changing Japanese diet as a

result of the effects of globalization. I will discuss several Japanese staples of

past and modern times. These include rice, millet, soba and udon noodles,

seafood, cattle, and soybeans. Their origins, past applications, and modern

place in the Japanese diet will be examined. Delving deeper into Japanese

cuisine, I will discuss Japanese food aesthetics and the impact of selected

imported and fast foods.

Finally, I will end with current diet and health statistics and draw

conclusions from these and previous discussed topics to theorize the future of

Japanese health based on their Westernizing diet. I hypothesize that due to the

adverse consequences of globalization on the changing Japanese diet, Japan’s

population will experience increased instances of nutrition-related health



Rice is certainly among the first foods one thinks of within Japanese

cuisine. The Japanese word for cooked rice- gohan- means “meal”, and indeed

rice has long been the main staple of the Japanese diet. In the year 2000, Asia

was responsible for 95 percent of global rice cultivation and consumption, with
East Asia alone consuming 35 of that 95 percent (Cambridge World History of

Food 133).

Rice cultivation was introduced from China and is debated to have started

between the third century B.C. and the late Jomon era (1,000 B.C.) (139). Rice

could not be cultivated in certain areas of Japan because of unsuitable climates

until the Meiji era (1868-1912) when modern technology was implemented to

combat this problem. In the southern regions of Japan where rice cultivation was

not possible pre-Meiji era, the more common staples of the diet were sweet

potatoes, wheat, varieties of taro and radish, and millet (Naorai 11).

Where rice cultivation was impossible due to climate in the pre-Meiji era,

millet was a much more common staple. Japanese millet (Echinochloa crus-

galli) is a type of temperate grass with a little known history. While once grown in

mild European climates, today E. crus-galli is only grown as a cereal grain in

China, Korea, and Japan.

Millet was once consumed instead of rice by peasants living in climates

where rice productivity was low. However, due to more modern rice cultivation

techniques, millet is no longer the common staple it once was. Nor is it still a

mark of poor class status, although old prejudices about this may continue. Millet

is more nutritious than that of white rice, and can be cultivated more easily. Millet

grains are hardier than that of rice, and can grow more efficiently in harsher

conditions. In the 2004 article “Japan: Cooking a New World”, Kobayashi

Kazunori argues for the frequent use of millet rather than rice.
One of the arguments Kobayashi cites is the growing of millet instead of

rice would be a more efficient use of farmland, and Japan wouldn’t have to rely

on imported food so heavily. This would reduce pressure on global farmlands

and allow some of Japan’s former imported food to be exported to a less self-

sufficient country. Kobayashi expands:

“Considering Japan’s self-suffiency rate of food supply is 40 percent
(calorie-base) and the fact that it imports more than half of its food
from overseas, changing from white rice to miscellaneous grains is
one way that Japan could help mediate the world’s food problem”.
The last argument Kobayashi makes for the revival of millet is that it is

nutritionally superior to white rice. Millet contains balanced proportions of

protein, vegetable fat, and starch and has more dietary fiber, vitamins, and

minerals compared to white rice. More of the grain’s nutrients are retained, as

compared with “…nearly a 50 percent loss of the vitamin B complex and iron”

(Cambridge World History of Food 144) in the milling process of rice.

Two more important staples in the Japanese diet are udon and soba.

Udon are made from wheat flour, while soba are made from a mix of buckwheat

and wheat flours.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, noodles made from flour

became popular as a light snack or lunch. Consumption increased significantly

after the development of a soba processing technique in Edo. Even today, soba

are mainly popular in Eastern regions, whereas udon are mainly popular in

Western regions.
Soba and udon were the original fast-food items, providing quick and

nutritious meals for those on the go. Perhaps because of the prevalence of such

noodle carts (and the people who patronized them), soba and udon were once

thought of as a low class food.

A curious custom when eating soba and udon (and menrui in general) is

that noises such as slurping is allowed. Hot and cold menrui alike are consumed

in this manner, with great amounts of noise permitted. One theory for this

custom presented by Donald Richie in his book A Taste of Japan, is that “…

menrui was originally a…low-class food…the lower classes are noisy, and

consequently…it is consumed in its original, highly audible manner” (59).


Japan is surrounded by oceans plentiful with aquatic life and seafood is an

important staple of the Japanese diet. Japan’s history is filled with Buddhist-

influenced taboos on eating meat, however the consumption of aquatic life was

largely ignored by all but Buddhist monks. The early meat-eating taboo that

permitted the consumption of seafood helped to develop such a large reliance on

seafood within the traditional Japanese diet. In 1989, the Japanese consumed

twelve million tons of fish and shellfish, with only two million tons being imported

from other countries (Naorai 38).

A proverb describes the preferable methods of seafood preparation, “Eat it

raw first if at all, then grill it, and boil it as the last resort.” (Cambridge World
History of Food 1177). The taste and texture of fresh raw fish is preferred.

Popular raw fish include sashimi and nigiri-sushi.

In addition, one seafood delicacy popular in Japan is fugu. Fugu are spiny

fish that blow itself up when threatened, and are known to the Western world as

blowfish or pufferfish. Parts of fugu contain a potent poison form of tetrodotoxin,

and consuming the liver or ovaries of fugu is fatal to a human being.

The poisonous properties of fugu are documented to have been known in

China around 200 B.C. (Richie 45). Japan developed careful preparation

methods to render fugu harmless and has consumed it for centuries, and even

the seventeenth-century poet Basho wrote about fugu. He said: “I enjoyed fugu

yesterday. Luckily nothing has yet occurred” (Richie 45).

Raising cattle for food is a relatively new practice in Japan, and meat-

eating was actually banned in Japan until the late 19th century (Cambridge World

History of Food 495). This meat-eating ban was largely influenced by Buddhism

and Shintoism, and permitted the eating of seafood. Today, the main sources of

protein in the traditional Japanese diet are seafood and soybeans. According to


“…in 676 the Emperor Temmu issued an ordinance aimed at
making his people stop eating cows…He did so because at this
time Japan has embraced Buddhism and its prohibitions
concerning meat eating…the cow was not mentioned until the
middle of the nineteenth century” (24).

Richie goes on to expand on this concept, eventually equating the rise of

eating cattle with Western globalization. Cattle was consumed in the West at the
time, and Richie says the Japanese learned to equate cattle with being modern

(or “Western”), and thus consumed meat to become more “Western” (or

“modern”). A popular Meiji era aphorism said, “A man who does not eat beef is

an uncivilized man” (25). Meat clearly represented modernization, and perhaps

this explains Japan’s sudden eagerness to consume formerly banned meat.

Soybeans are also a staple protein in the traditional Japanese diet.

Soybeans are largely versatile and nutritious, and several forms of this legume

manifest in the Japanese diet such as soymilk, tofu, miso, and shoyu.

Modern day soybean varieties (Glycine max), and there are more than

20,000, can be traced back to the wild soybean plant Glycine soja that originally

grew in northeast China. There is some debate as to how long soybeans have

been cultivated in Asia, with some sources placing cultivation as early as 4,500

years ago and other sources claming soybeans appeared in China only 1,000

years ago (Cambridge World History of Food 422). What is known about

soybeans is that their domestication in Japan is credited to Buddhist monks.

Being vegetarians, it makes sense for Buddhists to have an interest in the

soybean, which is a high-quality vegetable protein. They experimented with this

legume and developed a flour, milk, curd, and sauce. They brought the soybean

and their soybean inventions with them during missionary work. Japan was

introduced to the soybean in the sixth century A.D., by way of missionary monks

traveling from Korea (423).
Food aesthetics

The Japanese have many traditional aesthetic concerns with food that are

uniquely Japanese. Food is served in small, individual portions in separate

dishes. Pieces of meat are already cut small, and easy to handle with

chopsticks. There is a specific canon of presentation regarding the way

Japanese food looks. According to Richie, this canon of presentation involves

colors that are artfully opposite, different types of arrangement, asymmetrical

aesthetics, law of opposites, and seasonal variety (9).

Presentation is best when the colors of the food items are opposite colors,

such as the bright pink of tuna sashimi with the light green of wasabi. There are

five different types of food arrangement, or moritsuke. Yamamori is a mound-like

arrangement, sugimori is standing or slanting, hiramori is a flat, ayamori is

woven, and yosemori is gathered. Of these, yamamori is the most popular.

Consideration between food and plate size is also part of the canon of

presentation. Food and plate size considerations include asymmetrical

aesthetics and the law of opposites. If a food is round in shape, it will appear on

a long, narrow, flat dish. Generally speaking, a food will be served on a dish that

is opposite to that food’s shape.

Seasonal variety is also an important part of the canon of presentation.

Dishware, foods, and garnishes all have seasons of use. Seasonal concerns for

food are still important in Japanese cuisine today. Some examples of seasonal

variety include eggplant, which is a summer food, and spinach, which is a winter

Imported Foods

Two of the most modernly popular foods in the Japanese diet are foreign:

curry, which came to Japan from England, and ramen, which is Chinese in origin.

According to Morieda Takashi in an article titled The Unlikely Love Affair

with Curry and Rice, “The average Japanese eats curry at least once a week—

far more often than the dishes most commonly associated with Japan—sushi,

tempura, and sukiyaki”.

Curry rose in popularity during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a time when

Western foods were becoming more accepted. During this time, perception held

that Western foods were nutritious. According to Morieda, “This consideration

would have been even more pronounced in the years immediately following the

Restoration, when the height difference between Japanese and foreigners was

positively startling”.

Curry came to Japan from England, not from India. This is due to British

colonization in India. The British learned to like the Indian foods they were

surrounded with, and took curry back to England where it eventually was

introduced to Japan.

Curry powder was first imported from England, but by the second decade

of the 20th century curry powder was being made domestically. The popularity of

curry rose with the popularity of instant foods after World War II. New

technologies were making cooking easier, and today the most popular form of

Japanese curry comes in an instant pouch (Morieda).
Like the importation of curry from England, ramen noodles were once

imported from China. However, after the rise of instant foods after World War II,

ramen noodles were being made domestically.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, starvation was a common possibility.

The United States provided shipments of American flour as a form of aid, even

though Japan paid for these shipments. Bread made with US flour was a staple

in school lunches instead of more traditional foods such as miso soup and rice

(Okumura). The postwar schoolchildren generation grew up eating more

Western foods due to incorporation into their school lunch programs.

In 1958, the first commercial instant ramen brand, Chikin Ramen, was

introduced. During that time, cooking technology was advancing and making

meals easier to prepare, and the Japanese exhibited a rise in working hours, as

well as a newly-emerging woman workforce.

Ando Momofuku, the inventor of Chikin Ramen, set out to create the first

instant ramen noodles using surplus American flour shipments with the intent to

make an easy-to-prepare, high-calorie food. He utilized the advertising potentials

of the new television technology, and 13 million packages of ramen were sold in

the first year alone.

In 1989, figures showed that annual per capita consumption of ramen

was forty servings (Naorai 90). This equates to about 4.5 billion servings

annually and, “in many ways instant noodles are symbolic of both

industrialization and the way other cultures have been absorbed into Japan’s

own” (Naorai 79).
A survey in 1999 asked 1,500 Japanese people of varied ages what the

most representative Japanese food of the 20th century was. The most common

answer was instant ramen with 78.9 percent of votes. Second was the

hamburger, with 33.6 percent, and third was instant boil-in bag curry with 27.9

percent (Traphagen and Brown).

Fast Food

While noodle carts serving steaming bowls of soba and udon were the

main fast foods of the past, these have been supplemented with several other

modern manifestations. One of fast food venues popular in Japan is the

American company McDonalds. Japan is home to the greatest number of

McDonalds locations in any single country outside the US. In 1993 McDonalds

had 1,043 Japanese locations, in 1997 it had more than doubled with 2,439

locations (Gaouette).

It’s easy to zero-out McDonalds as a villain in the process of Western

globalization, but a 2001 article by Traphagen and Brown argues that

McDonalds, “…[expresses] long-standing Japanese cultural patterns, and

facilitate human intimacy and warmth not possible with some other, more

traditional styles of inexpensive and rapidly served food in Japan”. They argue

that the rise in popularity of Western fast food companies, and McDonalds in

particular, can be attributed to changes in Japan on a global scale, and not solely

as a Western invasion.
Based on their ethnography research, a common practice within Japanese

eating habits in these fast food chain restaurants is sharing foods between family

members and friends. They argue that these restaurant practices “…indicate the

importance of these venues in providing contexts for reinforcing emotive bonds

among family and friends”. These restaurants also provide family bonding.

Dining out in a place like McDonalds is often seen as a special occasion, and

provides an opportunity for the entire family to dine together. This gives children

a rare chance to dine with their fathers, who in 2002 only dined with their families

an average of once a week (Traphagen and Brown) due to long work hours.

Nutrition and Health Trends

In the article “Japan’s Ramen Romance”, Okumura Ayao describes a 2001

study she conducted about the frequency of noodle consumption. Okumura

surveyed a class of 151 women at Kobe Yamate College and found the average

noodle consumption was nine times a month. “Italian pasta” was the number one

favorite, followed by udon in second and ramen in third. When surveying men,

ramen was the number one favorite and Italian pasta was third.

Okumura explains this discrepancy by stating that, “…Women tend to like

Italian pasta because it is fashionable, whereas men tend to be more pragmatic

and see ramen as a better investment of serving volume”. Women could also be

consuming more foreign types of pasta because they are equating eating

Western foods with Western values, which are perceived to be less sexist

towards women.
A typical breakfast in the traditional Japanese diet contains plain rice, miso

soup, and tsukemono. In the Cambridge World History of Food, it is that said

that in the year 2000 thirty percent of the adult population ate bread for breakfast.

Bread is rarely eaten for lunch or dinner, and perhaps the prevalence at breakfast

can be accounted for by bread’s timesaving qualities versus rice (1183). The fact

that the post-war schoolchildren generation grew up eating bread in school

lunches could also account for today’s statistics of bread consumption at


Globalization has provided more of a variety of foreign foods to the

Japanese table. In 1995, Japan bought eleven billion dollars worth of American

foods, more than any other country (Glain and Kanabayashi). These foreign

foods are adapted into the Japanese diet depending on circumstances. The

flavors of the foreign foods must complement staple flavors such as rice and

must be able to be consumed with chopsticks. The Cambridge World History of

Food argues that “…such modifications should be viewed as part of an

expansion of Japanese eating habits and cuisine, rather than a headlong

adoption of foreign dietary patterns” (1183).

The Ministry of Health in Japan recommends a daily intake of twenty to

twenty-five grams of fiber for adults. In 1998, the average daily intake of fiber in

Japan was only fifteen grams, which compared to the averages of Western

countries. In 1952, the average daily fiber intake in Japan was 20.5 grams which

declined to 14.9 grams in 1970, and stayed steady around fifteen grams up to
1998. Lack of fiber intake is thought to be a factor in diseases such as colon

cancer and coronary heart disease, among others. Nakaji et. al expands,

“A decline in total [daily fiber] intake…is predicted for Japan in the
future, because these parameters were lower among the younger
generation. This may be due to the marked changes in the dietary
habits of the younger generation, and is a problematic trend for
Japanese health”.
A 2003 World Health Organization report places the life expectancy at 78

on average for males, and 85 on average for females, the highest in the world for

over 30 years (McCurry). In the 2004 article Japan: Cooking a New World,

Kobayashi says, “Life expectancy in Japan is currently…the highest in the world.

Available data indicates…that this longevity record is thanks to people born

before 1920, who have maintained a traditional diet”.

Statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare state that in 2004

among Japanese on non-traditional diets, more than half have lifestyle-related

diseases, a third suffer from allergic reactions, and a fifth are obese (Kobayashi).

The Ministry of Health and Welfare says that one in six adults, sixteen million

people, have diabetes or are at high-risk of developing diabetes. The number of

at-risk people is rising, and includes men and women in their 30s (McCurry).

According to Weisburger in 1997,

“One of the best pieces of evidence for an enhancing effect of
many dietary fats in the nutritionally linked cancers [cancers of the
colon, breast, prostate, stomach, pancreas, and endometrium] is
the current increase in the incidence of these diseases in Japan as
the nutritional habits of people in that country become more
These emerging adverse health trends can largely be contributed to the
alteration of the traditional, healthier Japanese diet and other factors of a modern
lifestyle such as decreased physical excursion due to modern technologies.


In the modern industrialized world, one’s place in capitalism is primarily

that of consumer. Everything offered is a commodity, even the very things

required for human survival. Water is a commodity, which one can purchase in

hormone-leaching plastic bottles. Food is also a commodity. One has endless

variety when glimpsing at the colorful supermarket shelves full of pretty packages

dressed up to make food a capitalist commodity. One of the very things required

for human life is bought and sold, heavily marketed, imported and exported, and

one of the biggest commodities in modern industrialized life.

According to Cwiertka and Walraven, “During the last few centuries, the

number of people relying entirely on local products in their diet has gradually

been diminishing” (3). This reflects the effects of globalization on diet, with food

itself is becoming an increasing product of globalization. Transnational

corporations market global homogeneity in the diet by exporting the same food

products all around the world, so that it’s nearly possible to eat the same thing in

any industrialized country regardless of any unique national food culture. The

importation of Western foods into the Japanese diet reflects not solely the

invasion of Western culture, but the globalization of food commodities as a

Japan’s rising adverse health effects are directly related to changes in the

traditional Japanese diet, especially among younger generations. A fifteen year

study conducted by Nakamura Yasuyuki, an associate professor at the Shiga

University of Medicine and Science, found that “…men could reduce the risk of

dying from heart disease, strokes, and other causes by as much as [thirty

percent] by eating fish once every [two] days” (McCurry). I believe that by

returning to a more traditional diet and making general steps to improve health

overall, the Japanese can reduce their rising risks for nutritionally-related

diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. Once these changes are

made and the Japanese return to a more traditional diet, Japan will maintain its

status of having the highest life expectancy in the world.
Works Cited

Cambridge World History of Food. Ed. Kiple, Kenneth F. and Kriemhild Conee

Ornelas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 2 vols.

Cwiertka, Katarzyna and Boudewijn Walraven. Asian Food. Honolulu: University

of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Gaouette, Nicole. “More Hambaagaa, Less Sushi”. Christian Science Monitor.

Boston: 1998.

Glain, Steve and Kanabayashi, Masayoshi. “The grocery list in Japan includes

more U.S. foods”. Wall Street Journal. New York City: 1996.

Kobayashi, Kazunori. “Japan: Cooking a New World”. Women’s Feature Service.

New Delhi: 2004.

McCurry, Justin. “Japanese People Warned to Curb Unhealthy Lifestyles”. The

Lancet. London: 2004.

Morieda, Takashi. “The Unlikely Love Affair with Curry and Rice”. Japan

Quarterly. Tokyo: 2000.
Najaki, Shigeyuki, et al. “Trends in Dietary Fiber Intake in Japan Over the Last

Century”. European Journal of Nutrition. New York: 2002.

Naorai. Ed. Mitsukuni, Yoshida and Sesoko Tsune. Hiroshima: Mazda Motor

Corporation, 1989.

Okumura, Ayao. “Japan’s Ramen Romance”. Japan Quarterly. Tokyo: 2001.

Richie, Donald. A Taste of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd, 1985.

Traphagen, John W. and L. Keith Brown. “Fast Food and Intergenerational

Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns”. Ethnology.

Pittsburgh: 2002.

Weisburger, John H. “Dietary Fat and Risk of Chronic Disease: Mechanistic

Insights From Experimental Studies”. Journal of the American Dietic

Association. Chicago: 1997.