Food and Japanese

Food and Japanese


I saw a Japanese news report that among developed countries, Japanese calorie intake have been constantly low. On average, Americans take in 3688cal, Western Europeans take in over 3500cal, Koreans take in 3200cal, and even the Chinese take in 3000 cal. But the Japanese average is 2723cal.

I always knew this from experience. Many Japanese women who lament,”I have to lose weight.” are actually thin as a pencil by American standards. They are thin because they watch what they eat.

Many foreigners complain about the amount of food served at restaurants in Japan. On the other hand, the Japanese are amazed by the huge amount of food served in the United States. One portion of Chinese delivery food in the U.S. can easily fill up three Japanese girls.

I remember that when I was in a high school, one of the girls in my class said, “I did really badly yesterday. I ate 10 potato chips!” I thought to myself, “Wow! I often eat a bag of potato chips.”

I admit that I have a hearty appetite for a Japanese, and it’s showing now. I still don’t seem fat in New York, but I feel obese by Japanese standards.

This same news report further noted that Japan has a very low rate of wasted food. Every single Japanese are taught from the time they are young not to waste food, because farmers made great efforts to raise their crop. My grandma said to me, “You will be blinded if you leave any grains of rice in your rice bowl.” In Japan, food is served in a small portion, and people are expected to finish it.

When I walk over rice on the sidewalk in front of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in my neighborhood after it had a wedding ceremony, I cannot help feeling guilty, because throwing rice is a cardinal sin in Japan. For Japanese, rice is sacred.

Recently, the Washington Post wrote an article about Japanese school lunch system. In each public primary and middle schools, lunch is made from scratch on the premises every day. Japanese children are eating delicious nutritious hot meal at school.

I often hear a word “shokuiku“, which means food education. They believe that nutritious food educates children from the inside, so they will be able to make correct food choices when they become adults.

Japanese children eat vegetables, but rarely take sugary drinks, junk and pre-packaged food. But in order to make it possible, someone has to make the sacrifice to cook food from scratch every day. That burden of cooking is usually on women.

It was more than 60 years ago when Japan was deprived of food. My parents generation in 70s still remember the experience of starvation vividly, but the rest of the population including myself grew up in abundance.

In a way it is amazing that a country of gourmet and charismatic chefs eats healthy, and maintains a decent calorie intake. I think it is due to the Japanese attitude towards food.

Almost all Japanese say a short word, “itadakimasu” before eating, and “gochisosama” after eating. They roughly translate, “I am going to eat now,” and “Thank you for the wonderful meal,” respectively.

But they are also an expression of the gratitude to all the people who made it possible to put the food on the table, including farmers, fishermen, food preparers, and the ones who earn money to buy food. Because of the efforts and sacrifices people make, the food must not be wasted.

A big challenge for Japan is to increase food sustainability within the country. Japanese food sustainability rate is extremely low. People consider grown and made in Japan food as safer than imports, so that they command a premium price. People are willing to spend extra for those products, particularly for children.

Currently, produce are locally grown, but the ingredients of processed food is largely imported. Government has to answer people’s demand, rather than answering to foreign trade pressures.

Here is one actual example from a Japanese restaurant in a northern island. The restaurant fines customers for not finishing meal, to honor the fishermen who brave dangerous conditions to provide the delicious food. The story was reported in Yahoo! News. My grandmother would deeply agree.

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2 Responses to Food and Japanese

  1. Chieko August 22, 2015 at 7:23 am #

    My mother, Kazuko, grew up during the war. She was born in Kobe and grew up in Osaka. Her mother died when she was about 10 years old. She had 2 little brothers. Her father had to work so she ended up raising her little brothers. Huge responsibility for someone so young. She told me all the horror stories about the war…the air raid sirens, blacking out all the windows so the US bombers couldn’t detect them, hiding in the rice paddies, etc. It was an awful time. Then after the war ended and relief food was dropped from American planes, she said everyone wanted rice but they got potatoes instead! I can imagine the frustration!

    She ended up marrying a career Air Force man, got to travel, had 5 children (my brother and I was born in Japan, one sister in Germany, and two in the US), and never had to work. Being a mother of 5 kids is a full-time job! When my father retired, he built a house for her. She was so happy to finally have a place to call home and not have to move around any more.

    I am not a big eater so most times when I eat out, I only order appetizers/tapas. A whole dinner is just too much food! I like my food fresh so I don’t really like leftovers. I’m single and I cook everyday. Luckily, my neighbor is a single guy and he’ll eat my leftovers! It’s hard to make some dishes for just one person

    I’ve always been thin and it’s not been difficult. I was brought up that way. My mother always cooked everything from scratch. She had a garden and would can and preserve vegetables and fruits. I grew up on a healthy diet…a combination of Japanese food and American.

    I used to shop for what I was going to eat for dinner daily. Now I have a freezer full of stuff and that’s not good. Food gets wasted because it’s in the freezer for too long and sometime is not salvageable. When you’re single, buying things on sale is not feasible. It may seem like such a good deal but if it ends up having to be discarded, then where was the bargain? It would be less expensive in the long run to just buy what you want for that day, maybe 2 days. Every time I open the freezer something falls out. I wonder if I’m becoming a hoarder? Lol.

    Thanks for Japanese-Kitchen! I appreciate your articles and food! ありがとうございます。

    • Yuki August 22, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

      Hi Chieko, thank you for your story. Probably our parents belong to the same generation. It seems the people who experienced food shortage retain a certain emotional attachment to food throughout their life. I was taught from my parents to eat quickly and not to waste or leave food on my plate. That’s not a good way to eat, but I still can’t shake off the habit.

      I heard about the sweet potato story from my parents, too. The sweet potatoes at that time wasn’t tasty as the current sweet potatoes we can find at grocery stores, they said. They were thin and tasteless. They grew sweet potatoes, just because they can survive in poor soil and yield much more food than rice.