Cultural Perspectives on Food Midterm–Japan

Here’s the midterm paper I did for my Cultural Perspectives on Food class on Japan. I warn you it is not a literary piece of art. I did not even try to connect paragraphs really. I just answered the questions as best I could and put them in essay form. >.< I wasn’t graded on that at all so I didn’t bother putting the time into it. =/ Just warning you.

I did love doing this project though.


My family from Hungry Planet: What the World Eats is the Ukitas family in Kodaira City, Tokyo prefecture, Japan. Japan is an island nation consisting of 145,844 squares miles, which is slightly smaller than California. Japan gets all four seasons including hot humid summers and mild winters, plus a ton of rain. The Ukitas don’t live in metro Tokyo however, but in a smaller urban city called Kodaira. Japan has a population of 127,333,002 people and 66% live in the urban setting. (1) By solely looking at the photograph of what the Ukitas eat in a given week in the Hungry Planet, I’ve made two assumptions: they eat a lot of seafood and they rely on oils and sauces for flavor. Perhaps these two assumptions even each other out. Eating seafood can be very good for your body (but perhaps give you high levels of mercury) while using a lot of oil and sodium heavy sauces can be linked to high cholesterol and hypertension.

There are 3,891 McDonald’s Restaurants in Japan. (1) A lot of Japanese are eating less and less traditional foods since fast food restaurants like McDonald’s make it so easy to get cheap fast food. Japan is also huge on advertising everywhere, so I’d be very surprised if there was a child there that hadn’t heard of McDonald’s and thus want to go try it. With the rise of this easily accessible and quick food, I’d assume that weight issues are becoming more of a problem in Japan along with high blood pressure and diabetes.

Statistics in Japan are as follows: overweight: 25% male 19% female; obese: 2% male 2% female. (1) Even though the Japanese are getting their hands on less healthy food such as more fast food, the society as a whole still has some very healthy traditions engrained in it. For example, kids are very active. After school activities and clubs are taken very seriously and the majority of children participate in more than one. This gives kids less time to just sit in front of the TV and snack.

Annual meat consumption per person per year is 97 pounds. (1) Now this isn’t anywhere near the levels of high consumption that the USA has but it isn’t miniscule like poorer countries like Bhutan either. The Japanese do eat meat but their main protein component is seafood since the entire country is an island and thus surrounded by the sea! In my own experience there, meat and seafood was more of a side dish while rice or noodles were the main part of the meal.

The Available Daily Caloric Intake in Japan 2,761 calories. (1) This number is slightly higher than the recommended intake of 2,200 calories but in my opinion is reasonable for the Japanese. It is engrained in the culture to go to be active everyday; to walk or bike instead of take a car (which, especially in urban areas, has to do with the lack of space for parking). This extra 600 calories could definitely be burned off during these extra activities that a lot of Americans don’t do.

The Life expectancy (in years) in Japan goes as follows: male – 78 female -85. (1) This is the highest in the world! Clearly what they are eating is helping them out and, in my opinion, it is the abundant amounts of fish that’s giving them the leg up with heart healthy fats.

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats does not mention what percentage of the population of Japan have access to safe water but having lived there myself I’m willing to make the assumption that pretty much everyone does. It’s a very industrialized country and something like clean water has not been an issue for years. However, perhaps with the damaged nuclear plants in 2011 having clean water is once more an issue.

It’s very hard to find any reliable sources on meal patterns in Japan since the majority of information that comes up in my research is on how to eat a traditional Japanese meal which is very different from what the Japanese eat in their day to day lives. That said, I’m going to rely on my own experiences I had while living three months in Japan three years ago. Take in mind that the majority of my experience was dealing with the children of Japan, so I’m not 100% on how the average Japanese adult eats. From what I could tell the Japanese eat three meals a day, starting with a light breakfast, a hearty lunch provided by the school, and a late hot dinner. Snacks are big in Japan since convenience stores and vending machines line the streets offering fresh rice rolls, sweets, and sodas for very reasonable prices.

I gleaned that breakfast was normally kept pretty light with Western-style and Japanese-style food being more or less equal in popularity. Western-style items such as bread, yogurt, eggs, jam, and sausages and Japanese-style items such as rice, miso soup, and natto (fermented bean curd). (2) When I was asked in Japan what I ate for breakfast and I said oatmeal hardly anyone knew what it was. That’s right, no oatmeal cookies in Japan!

I dreaded lunchtime at my elementary school in Yamagata prefecture. Don’t get me wrong, the schools feed their children very well, in fact I was surprised by how big of portions these children plowed through, but almost every meal had a few key components that repulsed me. #1 Seafood: not your average seafood either but seafood such as whale and squid! #2 Noodles: Give me a bowl of rice and I’m happy, but one surprisingly thing I found in Japan is that most of the time they eat Asian noodles. I was hard pressed to find a simple bowl of white rice. Brown rice was unheard of. #3: Mayonnaise or Pickling: I never saw a fresh vegetable in the school lunches. They were either drenched in mayonnaise or pickled beyond belief. One thing I did enjoy about these lunches is that most of the time the “sweet” on the tray was always a piece of fruit. Fruit is highly priced and often very expensive. This is great that it makes one crave a juicy, perfect piece of fruit over a highly processed chocolate bar, but it also makes fruit very hard to afford.

Dinners were often late in the evening since children were often at afterschool clubs, activities, or cram schools until 8pm. The average Japanese dinner consists of rice/noodles, miso soup, pickled vegetables, fish/meat, and normally some sort of soy product as flavoring. (3) Composition-wise rice/noodles are the main component while the fish/meat is more of a small side dish as well as the vegetables.

There are all kinds of restaurants in Japan and each restaurant normally concentrates on just one style instead of doing Asian-fusion ones like we do in the USA. For example, if you want sushi you go to a sushi-ya (“ya” meaning store) and f you want ramen you go to a ramen-ya. Because these restaurants concentrate on only one type of food they usually are extremely good at what they do and very traditional. There are still more general restaurants in Japan too, though are often more targeted towards tourists. And of course there are foreign cuisines such as Indian, Italian, and fast food joints.

When not eating out, traditionally meals are prepared by the young wife of the household. I say “young wife” because a lot of times you will have multiple generations living under one roof. The majority of the time the wife moves into her new husband’s family home and works to earn her place there.

Traditional-style Japanese meals are eaten sitting on pillows on tatami mats at low lying tables. Your shoes are left at the door in order to keep the tatami mats clean. Once seated, you are given a wet towel (oshibori) to clean your hands before eating even though you do not eat with them. Instead, chopsticks are the common utensil though if you are eating curry rice you will be given a giant spoon (about the size of our serving spoons!).

Sushi and sashimi are pretty much the only raw food you’ll find in Japan. In fact, I was surprised that even in the stifling heat of summer you’ll find Japanese crouched over steaming bowls of ramen or udon and drinking cups and cups of hot coffee or tea. I never saw anyone eating a nice cold fresh salad and was often told I was strange for carrying around a bottle of cold water. One of the teachers at my school, Reiko-san, told me that the Japanese believed the hotter the food/drink you took into your body, the more your body wouldn’t notice the outside heat. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t sweat as much as me!

Another interesting food related thing I noticed while in Japan was that when the Japanese purchased a snack or soda from a vending machine or convenience store, they didn’t take a sip or bite and then walk away with it. Instead, they would stand there and eat/drink the entire thing. I think this is a good thing because it gave whatever they were ingesting their entire attention making them more aware of how it tastes and their hunger levels as well.


Core foods:

  • · Rice
  • · Udon/Somen/Ramen noodles
  • · Fish
  • · Potatoes
  • · Mayonnaise
  • · Pickled vegetables
  • · Milk
  • · Yogurt
  • · Green tea
  • · Instant or canned coffee
  • · Sodas such as Calipis
  • · Eel
  • · Rice balls (Onigiri – often eaten as a snack)
  • · Sweet snacks such as small cakes and Pocky
  • · Rice crackers

Japan's population pyramid

The most major health issue in Japan is the fact that it has a large aging population and not enough young people to support it. This is due to declining fertility rates and lengthening of life spans. Like the majority of the industrialized world, woman are marrying at later ages, delaying having children once married, and never marrying at all in greater numbers. (4) This doesn’t have much to do with nutrition since it is not due to woman being infertile but having higher goals in life than marriage and motherhood.

So there aren’t as many young people coming into the world in Japan and there aren’t many leaving it either due to Japan having the highest life expectancy in the world. This causes a major problem when you have a large population that require assistance and medical care. Who will cover the costs? There’s also a smaller workforce available so there are not enough workers to keep up with Japan’s economic superiority. This health issue could affect all Japanese in the years to come if something isn’t done about it.

The next major health issue is, like the rest of the world, cancer. It is the leading cause of death in Japan since 1981. (5) Lung cancer is “a cancer that originates in the tissues of the lungs or the cells lining the airways. It is when normal lunch cells become abnormal, usually after a series of mutations, and being to divide out of control.”(6)The Japanese particularly struggle with lung cancer due to a high rate of cigarette smokers. Japan is one of the last industrialized nations in the world where adult smoking is still widespread. (7) It’s still “cool” to smoke. It’s also readily available. While in Japan, I found whole vending machines along the sides of streets that you could buy whole packages of cigarettes from. All you needed was a smart card developed by the cigarette company that thereby verified that you were of age.


Lung cancer in Japan mainly affects the urban populations in the prime of their lives. It isn’t directly related to nutrition but since smoking affects your ability to absorb vital nutrients such as vitamin C and, since vitamin C helps you absorb iron, iron, it is indirectly related. However, just taking vitamin C supplements isn’t going to save you from lung cancer. Quitting smoking is really the only answer.

While I don’t feel like I learned any new information in my research on this culture, I have been reminded just how very different it is from my own. Having carbohydrate heavy meals is the norm and so is not having an oven! It’s important to remember these aspects of a culture so that one does not ask changes that are unreasonable culturally. For example, I wouldn’t ask a Japanese person to give up seafood or rice. This would be culturally insensitive. I also wouldn’t tell them they need to bake all their chicken instead of cooking it on the stove since the majority do not have the means to make that a reality. Being informed on what are necessities in a cultures diet and what cooking sources are available is essential in dealing with them from a nutrition standpoint.

The Japanese have had a long standing love and respect for food. Food is very ritualistic to them. Before each meal they say “itadakimasu”, I humbly receive this meal, and finish the meal with “gochisousamdeshita”, it’s been a feast. Always. They learn it at the very start of their academic career in nursery school and continue using it until death. My old Japanese teacher, Naito-sensei, who hasn’t lived in Japan since she was 7, told me that she still said these words, even when no one was around. It’s engrained.

From my own experiences in Japan I have learned how ritualized food is to these people. When I told them I put tofu in my curry instead of beef they gasped in shock. One just simply doesn’t mess with recipes that have been made a particular way for decades. There is a right way and a wrong way to cook. I found it very interesting that when I asked what was in a particular food, the majority of the time no one could tell me. It was simply “curry rice”. It was definitely an interesting take on food and kind of a beautiful one as well. We don’t know what’s in it, but we’ve been eating it for years and have been healthy. What I took away from the Japanese view of food is to stop worrying so much about what’s in one’s food, and instead focus on the enjoyment and beauty of it.


  1. D’Aluisio F, Menzel P. Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Material World; 2007: 180-185.
  2. “Survey: Breakfast in Japan.” Japan Guide.Com. David Warlick & The Landmark Project, <> Accessed 28 Oct 2012.
  3. “The Basics.” Japan Zone. Japan Zone, <> Accessed 28 Oct 2012.
  4. “Japan’s Population Problem.” Forbes. LLC, June 2012. <>. Accessed 28 Oct 2012.
  5. “Cancer in Japan.” Japan Cancer Society. <>. Accessed 28 Oct 2012.
  6. Eldridge, Lynne. “Definition of Lung Cancer.” <>. . Accessed 28 Oct 2012.
  7. “Smoking in Japan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, Oct 2012. <>. Accessed 28 Oct 2012.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Perspectives on Food Midterm–Japan

  1. Amen, on the beauty and enjoyment of food!! I feel like I forget that.. Why does it feel so complicated? Anyhow well done Robyn! Yet again another informative post thank you 🙂

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