Food and Culture: Differences between Japanese Eating and American Eating

by Chikako Nishimura, OCFL, Japan, April 23, 2008

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Although the Internet and accessibility of continental flights have made globalization a reality, it is often difficult for one country to imitate another’s culture, particularly when it comes to food. There are many cuisines in the world, and Japanese cuisine might be one of the hardest to replicate properly in other countries because it requires unique ingredients and special products, and the Japanese way of eating is often very different, especially from American ways. Though most Americans eat industrial processed foods, there is a new food movement in the U.S. and globally, which encourages buying local, seasonal foods.

If Japanese people who live in a foreign country try to cook Japanese food, they might feel that it is difficult because Japanese foods are not available in most places in the world. Certainly, there are Japanese markets in some places such as New York City, where there is diversity among goods available, but for the most part Japanese ingredients and seasonings are not always available in local grocery stores and shops. Japanese food is hard to copy because Japanese people emphasize seasonal produce, called “shun,” which translates as “seasonal abundance.” “Shun” indicates particular times when fish, vegetables, and fruits are in season and abundant. Japanese people believe that it is most important to have food in times of “shun” because it is most delicious and nutritious. For example, it is more delicious to have a strawberry in spring than in winter. Also, seasonable Japanese foods of “shun” are clearly defined within the four seasons of Japan. Therefore, in Japanese culture, the best way to have foods should be during the “shun” season. Most people in the United States, however, do not limit their ingredients to those which are “in season.” In fact, typical American eating habits have become indiscriminate. On CNN.com, there was an article that stated over the years Americans have become obsessed with time: they do not want to spend time preparing their meals. Instead, they depend on frozen and prepared foods. Many foods are available in the U.S., but fresh vegetables, legumes, and whole foods are relatively expensive, so Americans are likely to choose pre-prepared and frozen foods. To a Japanese person, it is surprising that American supermarkets seem to have much more of frozen and prepared foods than fresh ones.

There has been a movement growing among some American people, however. They realize that eating only industrial, processed foods causes harm to the body. Macrobiotics, a part of this movement, is a dietary regime that insists on the concept that “food is our best medicine.” The macrobiotic philosophy argues that food is “the foundation of health and happiness.” (The Macrobiotic Guide) This regime suggests that people should follow a balanced, healthy diet of whole foods and fresh organic foods. When they follow this diet, macrobiotic eaters find that they feel better and look better, even to the point that many people find that they can stop taking some of their medications.

Macrobiotics is similar to the traditional Japanese way of eating. A Japanese army doctor, Sagen Ishizuka, first developed this idea in the last century. He criticized the adoption of Westernized foods and medicines, and he recommended eating foods that were unrefined, whole, and natural. Macrobiotics teaches that foods which people buy should be grown locally and eaten in season. It also suggests having whole cereal grains such as brown rice, vegetables, beans, and occasionally nuts, fish, and fruits; on the other hand, tropical fruits or nuts, baked flour products and refined grains, poultry, dairy foods and artificial beverages should be avoided as much as possible because they are often refined which is an unnatural process. Thus, macrobiotics reflects traditions of people, seasons, and ecologically based products, such as fresh vegetables (The Macrobiotic Guide).

In the U.S., this food regime became popular among the health-conscious, including celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. Also, natural- supermarkets are booming. For instance, Whole Foods Market, the well-known urban natural-supermarket, is very popular and always crowded. This movement indicates that some people in the U.S. share the Japanese idea that foods should be local, fresh, and unrefined.

In addition to the “macrobiotic movement”, many American authors have expressed concerns about American eating habits. In the article “Harvest for Hope,” Jane Goodall states that since many vegetables and fruits, which are transported from non-local areas, contain chemical pesticides and fertilizers; people should return to eating more local and fresh foods so that they will appreciate the gifts of the different seasons and become aware of the cycles of nature (Goodall, 191-2). Her suggestion is similar to the previously mentioned custom of “shun” in Japan, which indicates that seasonal foods are most delicious and healthiest. She also promotes the “Slow Food” movement in the U.S., which works towards the protection of regional markets and to preserve the availability of local crops and traditional ways of cooking these foods (Goodall, 194). Such commitments would benefit the environment, at both global and local levels.

Although the numbers of Americans are moving towards healthier eating habits, deeper cultural issues are often involved as well. Modern Japan, for example, has lots of fast food, etc; however, this difference of culture between United States and Japan is also shown in portions of meals and the ways of eating foods. The average meal that Americans eat has grown larger since the 1970s, and new portion sizes are served in the home and restaurants, and even written in recipes from cookbooks. For example, the average bagel was about 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories about twenty years ago; today the average has become 6-inches in diameter, and 350 calories. Drinking coffee seems, on the surface, not to add many high calories, but today its portions are about double the 8 ounces from 20 years ago. The old cup held about 45 calories, now people usually take 350 calories for coffee because they add sugar, milk, cream, and syrup to coffee today, the average cup of coffee now holds almost eight times as many calories. Americans also do not seem conscious about their eating. A survey shows that people often did not notice even double-sized portions of meals which were served. Without even noticing, people consumed a very high amount of calories (CNN).

In contrast, the Japanese way of eating is, overall, much healthier despite the growing popularity of western-style fast food. According to the CNN article, “5 nutritious habits of the planet’s healthiest countries,” Japanese people have healthy habits. Meals are served in smaller sizes and are eaten out of bowls, rather than large plates. Traditionally, Japanese people practice “hara hachi bu” which translates as “eight parts out of 10.” This indicates that Japanese people tend to stop eating when they become full at around 80 percent.

Also, Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods. A typical meal might include plain rice; a couple of side dishes which contain vegetables, meat, fish and soy products such as tofu; and miso soup made from soybean pastes. These are typical Japanese dishes that also satisfy daily nutritional requirements. “Sashimi” is sliced, very fresh, raw sea food that Japanese people use frequently in a variety of dishes. White fish flesh is usually sliced thinly, while red fish flesh is cut into thicker pieces. Typically, they are also served with shredded white radish, cucumber or seaweed and the herb “shiso” with sashimi. Wasabi, Japanese horseradish or ginger, is also served in order to help to mask the fishy smell, improve the taste, and assist digestion.

Despite assistance from relishes, raw fish should be served as soon as possible in dishes such as sashimi, because freshness, as was previously mentioned in the “shun” season discussion, is so important in Japanese cuisine. Purchasing raw ingredients in Japan is easier than in America. Supermarkets and direct sales store sell fresh ingredients. If Japanese people want to have raw fish, it is possible to get it fresh from a fish store. It is also available to have imported, defrosted fish from the coast of the Indian Ocean. Such fish is cheaper than fresh, which is caught around the sea surrounding Japan, but many Japanese people are more likely to have domestic raw fish because it is much fresher and smells less.

Also, Japanese people use many kinds of vegetables, particularly ones not native or common to American soil. Some vegetables used for Japanese dishes are familiar to for people in the United States, but others might be unfamiliar such as daikon(radish), gobo(burdock root), and shiso(Japanese basil). As previously mentioned, the row shredded daikon, and shiso are used as relishes for sashimi. Additionally, the way of cooking these Japanese vegetables vary. For instance, daikon is typically used as food boiled and seasoned. Gobo is used for stir-frying and for making tempura, which are deep-fried vegetables, meats, and fish. These vegetables are also good ingredients for soup. On the whole, there is huge variety of vegetables in Japan and relishes made from these vegetables are very popular. Every vegetable should be eaten as soon as possible for it to be fresh. Once I tried to cook a Japanese dish here, and went to a local store. However, much of what I needed was not available and, to make matters worse, most ingredients, especially the vegetables, were not fresh. I finally decided that I could not make this dish, after all. It was nearly impossible to get my ingredients in this rural area because there is little demand for them.

In addition, the distribution system is well developed in Japan. For instance, Yamato Transport Co, Ltd, which is Japan’s largest delivery service company, began to provide an innovative delivery service for customers with express delivery door-to door service in order to enhance convenience. Japanese people also frequently use this company’s refrigerated trucks to send raw materials and foods to their families or friends. Imagine that there are students who live alone and really miss meals that are made by their mothers.

Using the refrigerated delivery service, it is possible for students to enjoy those meals even if they live far away from their home town. In fact, my mother used to utilize this service in order to send dishes that she made for my sister. My sister used to go to university in Tokyo, which is far from my hometown. Owing to this service, she had the opportunity to enjoy the taste of my mother’s food. Moreover, the cost for shipping is relatively low and the package can be quickly sent. To keep fresh, these raw materials are be distributed quickly throughout the country, and the small size of Japan itself might be an advantage to these distributions.

On the whole, eating habits in United States and those of Japan are quite different. Japanese cuisine is not easy to cook in other countries. Japanese dishes taste simple, but they require the right conditions such as fresh Japanese vegetables. Also, Japanese people enjoy foods such as fish, which is only caught in time of “shun,” so a delivery system is convenient. As a culture, too, Japanese people have very different eating habits than average Americans. As a result, Americans are rarely able to enjoy the real tastes of Japanese food--unless they come to Japan. Even though Americans are known for their unhealthy eating habits, recently there have been movements in the U.S. to encourage eating local and fresh foods.

Works Cited:
“A nation’s eating habits.” Williams, David E. CNN: 8 December. 2006.
<http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/diet.fitness/03/24/hb.eating.habits/index.html>.
Huber, Lia. 2007 Cooking Light magazine. CNN: 31 August. 2007

5 nutritious habits of the planet's healthiest countries


The Macrobiotic Guide.

Goodall, Jane. Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating. New York: Warner Wellness, 2005.

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