To many individuals, Japanese cuisine is seen as relatively free of foreign influence. The ingredients, methods of preparation, and presentation all seem to be completely unique to the island of Japan. Yet even in this pristine and ‘untainted’ culture, foreign influence has had its effect. Instant ramen, gyoza, and shumai are all dishes that are inherently foreign in origin, even as they are considered part of Japanese cuisine. Though these examples primarily represent China, a much more recent form of influence, the West (ie. America), has had its effect as well. Since the first interaction with Commodore Matthew Perry, the Japanese have been noticeably less resistant to foreign ideas and culture. In 1853 Commodore Perry sailed his American steam warships into Tokyo Bay in search of a trade agreement with Japan, thus ending 400 years of self-imposed isolation by the Tokugawa shogunate. This point is seen as the beginning of Japan’s ‘modernization’ period known as the Meiji Restoration for the return of the Emperor to supreme power. Japanese infatuation with Western culture truely began with the ‘Western craze’ in the Meiji Restoration but truly had a lasting effect starting in the Taisho period when yoshoku or Western cuisine became more broadly accepted. The Taisho was an extension of the Meiji in which sweeping social reforms finally took hold. No other type of food illustrates this change in Japanese eating habits better than quick, cheap beef dishes such as gyuudon, which features stir-fried beef and onions over rice. These ‘foreign dishes’ crafted nearly a hundred years ago are now considered standard Japanese fare. Analogous to this shift is a more modern example of beef acceptance and incorporation: hamburgers. This ‘American’ dish has been widely embraced with multiple restaurants across Japan offering it. Acceptance of beef as a symbol of modernity in the Taisho period led to its assimilation into modern Japanese cuisine and paved the way for similar incorporations over time.
The Taisho pattern refers to a sequence of events repeated twice over Japanese history and occurring in similar contexts where beef, a notably foreign ingredient, became part of the Japanese culinary lexicon. It is so named due to the fact that the greatest amount of change and cultural shift with regards to beef occurred during the Taisho period. Japan has had three major periods in which foreign cultural traits were adapted: 900 A.D. or the Nara Period, the Meiji and Taisho era from 1860 through 1930, and post-World War Two or 1946 to the present. This ‘Taisho pattern’ definitively incorporates two out of the three historical eras and may even be applicable to the Nara period as well. This sequence of events can be seen most easily through beef or more broadly, yoshoku.
The Japanese concept of yoshoku is much different than one would originally expect. Many translators use the definition of “Western-style cuisine” (Cwiertka 2006: 20). This seems very appropriate with a breakdown of the characters. “洋”refers to Western-style and “食” means meal or food. However, the word may also imply foreign rather than simply Western. Many times Chinese cuisine was roped in with the West to create a generalized difference. Yoshoku gave the Japanese a way to differentiate their food (washoku) from other cultures. “The term began to be used in Japan in reference to native food only in response to the proliferation of the term yoshoku, which represented the food of the most powerful ‘other’.” (Cwiertka 2006:21) While the West was most powerful when the term came into usage, it was the Chinese who gave Japan many of the elements of their ‘traditional’ culture in the 9th century. Cwiertka’s reference to the “powerful other” means any culture that holds power over Japan in some way: culturally or militarily. The Japanese sought to not necessarily differentiate between types of foreign food, but to keep it separate from their own native cuisine. Therefore, yoshoku can be seen as an exclusionary, rather than an inclusionary term. While this term still exists today, many of the original items branded with this word in the Taisho period have ceased to be considered Western-style cuisine. For example, beef, especially in the form of gyuudon, is now considered to be a part of Japanese cuisine. While a noble cause the exclusionary term of yoshoku did not stop incorporation of foreign elements, specifically beef.
Beef, traditionally, was not considered desirable meat in Tokugawa society. Spanning from the 16th to 19th century, the Tokugawa shogunate was the last feudal military government in Japan. It was noted for its extreme isolation policy and focus on internal stability. Due to shogunate restrictions as well as Buddhist beliefs, eating beef was illegal until the Meiji Restoration. These constraints came from purity ideals as well as geographic realities. In Japanese society, until quite recently, butchering an animal was considered religiously unclean to the point that a separate, marginalized class was created to attend to these tasks (burakumin). Also, the terrain of Japan is not suited to large-scale livestock production due to a lack of pastures and abundance of mountainous terrain. If individuals began eating cows, these work animals would disappear and new ones were not easily attainable. (Cwiertka 26) It is worthy to note that while considered illegal and improper, some did partake of beef, primarily in the 19th century. This group ranged from the Bakufu governmental administration to Dutch studies advocates who merely ate hunks of rare beef for shock value. Dutch studies was a specific school of thought in scholarly Japan, willing to embrace the scientific texts of the only foreigners allowed to trade with Japan: the Dutch. However even those who did eat beef consumed it in such small amounts that it had little bearing at the time on a national Japanese cuisine. However, from a historical perspective, these individuals began the erosion of beef taboos that eventually led to appropriation. Official prohibitions and dietary laws on consumption of beef hampered its overall acceptance.
Beef finally gained a more positive image during the Meiji Restoration. Emperor Meiji was a strong pro-Western advocate and supported any endeavor to ‘modernize’ Japan in the fashion of the Western Europeans and Americans. This policy was much more than royal eccentricism. The Opium Wars had, recently brought China, Japan’s neighbor and supposedly the source of a superior culture, to its knees. Emperor Meiji’s policy to modernize came from a distinct fear of Japan’s exploitation. As was the case with many Western institutions in Japan, the Emperor’s wishes and personal choice eventually garnered acceptance. 1872 brought a proclamation from the Japanese government that Emperor Meiji partook of beef on a regular basis. At this time Japan was adopting many different Western institutions, from forms of government to clothing. Contrasted with the sonno joi anti-foreigner movement merely 15 years before, Japan was not incredibly predisposed to the products of the West. The Emperor used his popularity among the people as well as his symbolic importance in order to promote acceptance of these new policies. By adopting a diet including beef, the Emperor was encouraging overall Westernization. However, his acceptance of this new food brought about changes in Japanese cuisine that would not truly be seen until the Taisho period.
The seemingly innocent pronouncement of the Emperor originally gave beef its status as a symbol of progress. At this time, the Emperor Meiji was adopting many different forms of foreign culture into his personal life. New clothes, mannerisms, and food all were designed to echo the changes happening throughout Japanese society. As Emperor, Meiji was a personification of Japan. In order to successfully change his nation, he had to remodel himself as well. This adoption of foreign culture by a national symbol became much more powerful than any official proclamation could ever have been, with far more lasting effects. Rather than forcing new ideas upon an unwilling nation, Emperor Meiji chose to make an example of himself. By thus associating himself with the modernization of the nation, any personal changes became associated with national progress.
However, just because the Emperor endorsed something did not equal instantaneous success for that concept. Especially in Japan, where foreign influence was forbidden for 300 years, individuals found it difficult to incorporate comparatively odd traditions with new ingredients and cooking techniques that may not have been easily accessible. Adoption by the Emperor and eventually the elites surrounding him, was the first step in Japanese beef acceptance. While the Japanese did not fully accept beef until the Taisho era, the Meiji Restoration was important for creating the building blocks of beef consumption.
The Taisho period continued the work of the Meiji, leading to the widespread adoption of beef. Instead of a cultural oddity or peculiarity, this meat was gradually accepted due to the spread of cheap, Western-style eateries (yoshokuya) throughout Japan. These restaurants existed in the Meiji but were peculiarities, serving foods that catered to the Dutch studies advocates or other eccentrics.. While yoshokuya brought about more interest in eating beef, cafeterias began to blur the line between washoku and yoshoku cooking by offering both on the same menu. The Taisho is the most critical time in the saga of beef as both acceptance and the beginnings of incorporation of beef into Japanese-style preparations occur.
Yoshokuya were the second step in beef acceptance. They were characterized as small eateries serving mainly English and American food, run by Japanese individuals, and catering to the same. Eateries serving foreign cuisine had existed in Japan before this point, mainly in port towns like Yokohama and Nagasaki. However these were mostly Western and Chinese restaurants run by expatriates for their own countrymen. Though they began slowly, by the Taisho period yoshokuya had become a standard highlight of local culinary scenes across Japan. “By the turn of the century the city of Tokyo counted 1,500-1,600 cheap Western-style restaurants, and they gradually became ubiquitous in cities and towns all over Japan.” (Cwiertka 2006:49) Most of these establishments served some form of beef dish on their menu, often roast beef or a version adapted to Japanese tastes, such as beef and rice (gyuudon). Slowly but surely, incorporation of this foreign ingredient occurred more frequently on a national level. However, beef was still quite separated from standard Japanese cuisine due to its segregation into yoshokuya.
The department store cafeteria completely changed the Japanese perspective of their cuisine. These eateries were established as part of the all-inclusive department store, an innovation taken from America and still in existence today. They contrasted with the yoshokuya in one critical way. Instead of serving yoshoku or washoku exclusively, cafeterias incorporated a variety of each on their menus. “Along with Japanese dishes, Western-style sandwiches and ice cream, as well as a selection of yoshoku, were available in department store restaurants.” (Cwiertka 2006:52) Indeed for this reason, older yoshokuya were many times replaced due to declining sales. Cafeterias, for the first time, had mixed the two traditions leading to an inherent blending that would see foreign ingredients make their way into the Japanese culinary lexicon. The novel concept of incorporating Japanese and Western-style food on the same menu forever changed Japanese cuisine. Cafeterias most obviously saw it as a way to cater to popular trends and traditionalists. However to put two different food traditions in the same restaurant, prepared by the same cook is to invite a fusion of sorts. Once this had occurred the segregation of washoku and yoshoku was noticeably diminished.
Yoshokuya, during the first half of the Taisho, gave Japanese the ability to engage in national progress on a culinary level. Much as the Emperor had eaten beef as a method of Westernization, so his people eventually followed suit. The Taisho period was, in effect, a continuation of the pro-Western policies of the Meiji Restoration. Instead of creating new policies and finding new ideas, the Japanese were now able to take the Western ideology and apply it to all aspects of society. A wide range of American cultural aspects were incorporated during this time such as the establishment of a democratic system of government, jazz clubs, and of course, beef. However as yoshoku dishes became more popular and spread across Japan, certain ingredients, specifically beef, began to lose its associations with Western cuisine, specifically due to cafeterias.
One other factor that blurred the line between Japanese and Western foods was the adaptation of certain items in order to conform to cultural tastes. Today, in Japan, the blending effect of the cafeterias has taken full effect. Beef has been incorporated into many styles of food considered to be washoku, or Japanese . Shabu shabu and sukiyaki are two cooking methods that typically contain beef. Kobe beef is famous worldwide as a Japanese product. While all these examples illustrate how beef as an ingredient has permeated Japanese cuisine, the best example is still gyuudon.
Gyuudon illustrates to what degree a symbol of Japanese Westernization can become fully integrated into society. It is probably the best example of this phenomenon. While beefsteak and roast beef require one to eat in a completely Western fashion with fork, knife, and plate, beef with rice requires neither additional technical skills nor even the ambiance of a yoshokuya. Putting rice with thin slices of soy-seasoned beef steak incorporated a foreign ingredient with the staple food of Japan while allowing for use of chopsticks, making it very accessible for most. This food item still exists in much the same form as when it was first introduced in yoshokuya as an adapted version of beefsteak; onions and thinly sliced beef over rice. Gyuudon is even served in the same setting, albeit an updated version. Just like the department store cafeterias, the fast food chains that serve gyuudon today are known for their low prices and fast service.
Today, Native Japanese fast food chains have completed the cycle begun in the Meiji Period and adopted gyuudon as an authentic Japanese dish. In Japan there are two major restaurant chains that list gyuudon as their main item: Yoshinoya and Sukiya. The English website of Yoshinoya specifically states that, “It’s traditional Japanese cuisine, served in an American fast-food environment.” (Yoshinoya 2009) While the company does acknowledge that some part of its product is inherently foreign, the website does not refer to the ingredients or even the cooking method as being imported.
Through a series of events in both the Meiji and Taisho periods, Japanese society was primed to incorporate beef into its native cuisine. The example of Emperor Meiji first gave beef the necessary tie to western-oriented modernism. Then, the Taisho period served to foster this connection through the rise of yoshokuya eating establishments and eventually transcend it in the mixed menus of the department store cafeterias. Today, beef is an integral part of Japanese cuisine and is no longer a ‘foreign’ ingredient. The historical example of beef draws parallels to current Japanese society. The influence of the Taisho was not a historical fluke. In fact the same chain of introduction and adoption is currently being replayed in Japan with regards to the hamburger, a particularly American form of beef preparation.
The example of the hamburger illustrates the same pattern that led to the popularity and ultimate incorporation of gyuudon. Both dishes consist of the same basic ingredients, beef and starch, so it is quite fitting that its road to integration follows a similar path.
The hamburger was originally seen as a symbol of progress and change. Immediately following the American Occupation, the Japanese began to exhibit a fondness for the conqueror’s culture. Being Western, or more specifically, American, was inevitably fused with concepts of power and dominance. The Japanese in the post-war period were beginning to rebuild their country and expand it based on American ideas and traditions. In a similar fashion to that of the Meiji Restoration, aspects of American culture were constantly being idolized and incorporated. Thus this political, cultural, and economic expansion created the association of Americana with that of modernity. In the 1970s, a Japanese businessman named Den Fugita opened the first McDonalds franchise in Japan and was able to use this implicit connection to spread the popularity of the hamburger. The locations of his restaurants, in trendy and fashionable areas such as Ginza, Tokyo, also heightened the connection between hamburgers and change.
Despite Den Fujita’s claim that McDonald’s was not promoted as an import (‘from America’), the company has clearly capitalized on the fact that it is associated with American culture….The location of these two restaurants (Ginza and Mitsukoshi Department store) helped create an image of McDonald’s as a prime example of Americana, as imagined by Japanese people. (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006:172)
The importation of McDonald’s had a similar effect to the proclamation by Emperor Meiji. While ‘beef the ingredient’ needed and benefitted from an endorsement by a major icon, hamburgers also received this type of approval from location.
The inherent Western connotation, once again, necessitated the spread of hamburgers throughout Japan. The ideological motives were similar and the medium for dissemination bears a strong resemblance to that of the spread of beef and gyuudon throughout the Taisho period. Modern day yoshokuya, such as McDonalds, brought hamburgers to the average Japanese population. Today Japan is currently in the process of accepting this foreign beef dish into its own nationalized culinary tradition, again through the same pattern of acceptance and inclusion.
The transition period for hamburger acceptance closely follows the model of the Taisho era spread of gyuudon. . Fast food restaurants, as modern-day yoshokuya, spread across Japan throughout the 1970s and 80s. These establishments were able to introduce the new American cuisine so effectively because of its quick preparation methods and low cost. McDonalds, at this time, became the leader in number of restaurants and sales with “566 restaurants, amounting to a $766.5 million empire.” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006:162) However as hamburgers transitioned to become more accepted in Japanese society, the same business model became less effective.
In the 1990s, Japan reached the equivalent of the last half of the Taisho period. At this point McDonalds, much like the yoshoku, experienced a decline in sales. “By the end of the 1990s McDonald’s trendy appeal was over and it has joined the ranks of mundane eating places, like curry houses and noodles shops.” (Cwiertka 2006:166) Rather than a sudden lack of interest in hamburgers, the dish became seen as something more authentically Japanese. This is evident in the rise of native hamburger restaurants.
Mos Burger represents the beginning of hamburger integration with Japanese cuisine. This restaurant is a national? fast food chain with locations across Japan. The first location opened in 1972. Where McDonalds eventually declined in growth, Mos Burger succeeded, managing “to increase its market share steadily” in the past thirty years (Cwiertka 2006:170) . This is due to their adoption of a strategy similar to that of the department store cafeterias. Instead of segregating food into Japanese and American, as McDonalds and the earlier yoshoku do, Mos Burger has both cuisines on its menu. With representatives of different styles on the same menu, blending is inevitable. This is most evident with the line of Mosu Raisu Baga or Rice Burgers. A‘bun’, made of two compressed, grilled rice patties, surrounds a type of meat or filling. The most interesting of all the fillings is the thin slices of beefsteak, essentially creating a gyuudon burger. (Mos Burger) While Mos Burger food is still considered foreign, the adaptation of the hamburger to Japanese cuisine is a precursor to full acceptance.
Beef, in the form of gyuudon, and hamburger illustrates the way in which Japanese culture has assimilated Western cuisine. Throughout different historical periods, radically different foods are consumed and encouraged due to their association with modernity and ultimately become absorbed. “Whether better or not, fast food and its various expressions for most Japanese no longer can be used to experience, relate to, imagine, or construct the other.” (Traphagan 2002:132) American and Western-style cuisine in Japan have lost their original roots and connotations as the food of the other, transcending them to become more appropriate to their surrogate home. Much of this change can be attributed to the influence of the Taisho period on Japanese culture. If food, and specifically beef, has been affected to this degree by the Taisho pattern, many other aspects of Japanese culture may have been touched as well. Japan’s ability to adopt and change foreign cultural elements so completely that they become Japanese with a certain ‘pattern of inclusion’ provides the possibility that other cultures may have their own specific methods as well.
Bradley Good is a 1st- year Ph.D track student in the Anthropology program at Indiana University and an editor of the Indiana Food Review. He is currently interested in patterns of cultural transference in East Asia.
Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. Modern Japanese Cuisine. Reaktion Books: London, 2006.
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Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Ed. Watson, James L. “McDonald’s In Japan: Changing Manners and Etiquette.” Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia. Stanford U. Press: Stanford, 2006.
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Traphagan, John W. and L. Keith Brown. “Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns.” Ethnology. 41.2 (2002): 119-133. JSTOR. Herman B Wells Lib., IN. Oct. 24, 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4153002>
Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya America, Inc., 2009. <http://yoshinoyaamerica.com>