Traditional and Modern Eating in Japan

  • Sumio ImadaEmail author
  • Isato Furumitsu
Living reference work entry


In order to understand the Japanese food culture, the past and present eating behaviors of Japanese were discussed from the viewpoints of what and how they have eaten in their life. Although rice has not been a staple food in the nutritional sense for almost all Japanese, it has held a symbolically important role for them in the past and present. Fermentation by fungus specific to Japan, namely Aspergillus oryzae, characterizes Japanese food culture and its typical products sake, miso, and soy-sauce. Personalization of chopsticks and eating utensils, together with the ritualistic behavior before and after the meal, also characterizes Japanese eating behavior. Although saying “Itadakimasu” before a meal and “Gochisosama” when a meal ends are ordinary and common ritualistic behaviors today, these behaviors seem not to have traditional base. Focusing on Okinawa, where a modern diet characterized by high fat and high calorie was rapidly introduced after World War II, the possible relationship between a modern diet and health deterioration is discussed. Ever since the dawn of history, the Japanese diet has undergone three major changes: the period from prehistoric to ancient ages, the latter half of the nineteenth century and after World War II. Despite such changes, the Japanese attitude and mentality toward food appears to have been relatively stable. Nevertheless, food globalization and denationalization are in progress in Japan and it is important to distinguish between the true tradition and the idealized and/or invented tradition.


Just as in many other dietary cultures, the Japanese dietary culture has also been changing through conflicts and frictions with other dietary cultures. Through their history over a thousand years, Japanese positively accepted other cultures three major times. The first time such acceptance took place was when cultures were brought from China and the Korean Peninsula in the period from prehistoric to ancient ages. For instance, as for rice cultivation, it is said to have been stretched from China to northern Kyushu around 350 B.C. and reached the Tohoku area around A.D. 0. Thereafter, rice started to play a central role not only as food but also in Japanese politics and economy. Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan via the Korean Peninsula in the sixth century, implanted the idea of the meat-eating taboo in Japan. Moreover, partly because of the influence of Shintoism, which is a native religion of Japan, many Japanese still do not like offal or variety meats and “bloody” steaks.

Chopsticks are also tableware introduced from China, although the period of their introduction is not identified. In Japanese history, it is known that Japanese ate with their hands in the third century and that chopsticks were used at formal events in the seventh century and became used also by common people by the early eighth century. Interestingly, although spoons were introduced with chopsticks since spoons were also used along with chopsticks in ancient China, the use of the spoon did not take root in Japan. While people in China and the Korean Peninsula today use both chopsticks and a spoon at meals, Japanese generally use only chopsticks. It is unknown why spoons did not take root in Japan.

The second time was when the Western culture was positively accepted in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this period, a series of political incidents occurred to bring about a major transformation of Japanese politics, economy, and society (Meiji Restoration). Japan ended its national isolation policy which had continued for more than 200 years and started to adopt Western civilization and culture positively (civilization and enlightenment). Not only meat-eating but also Western-style meals and table manners soon came to be accepted mainly by the ruling class. What is interesting is that an eclectic cuisine of Japanese and Western food was created by integrating the Western cuisine into the Japanese dietary culture instead of accepting the Western dietary culture as it is. Sukiyaki, which is now known as a typical Japanese dish, is one that was created in this period as a dish of the eclectic cuisine in which Western and Japanese dietary cultures were integrated. Over time, more dishes of the eclectic cuisine have been created to this day including tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), Japanese curry, omuraisu (omelet containing fried rice), nikujaga (boiled meat and potatoes with soy sauce and sugar), gyudon (beef bowl), Japanese-style spaghetti, and ramen. The eclectic cuisine composed of those dishes is now called yoshoku (Western dishes).

The third time was when American and European cultures represented by American culture were positively accepted after World War II. In 1945, Japan was defeated in World War II and unconditionally surrendered. For the period from that year to 1951, which prolonged to 1972 in Okinawa, Japan had been placed under the rule of the Allied Forces mainly composed of the US forces. The United States supplied a large amount of food, typically wheat and skim milk powder, in assistance to Japan, which was suffering from postwar food shortage. At the same time, the Japanese government promoted the Nutrition Improvement Campaign which idealized a diet with foods such as breads, meats, milk, oil-based dishes, and dairy products. It is since this period that Western cuisine and Japanese–Western fusion cuisine have spread not only to the ruling class and the middle class but also to ordinary citizens. Japanese as a whole started to move toward an “affluent diet” and “the westernization of diet.”

Japan is an island country 75% of whose territory is covered with mountains and forests. Japan had never been invaded or occupied by other nations or ethnic groups for a long period of time. While, in 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to inscribe “WASHOKU; Traditional Dietary Cultures of the Japanese” (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: MAFF 2019a) on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it seems to have been against the backdrop that Japan has a relative stable political, economic, and cultural traditions. There are various opinions, however, as to whether washoku inscribed on the UNESCO’s list truly reflects the traditional dietary culture of Japanese.

First of all, per the conception of washoku, rice is regarded as traditional staple food for the Japanese from a historical perspective, but people who eat rice on a daily basis have been mainly in the ruling class. Most of farmers who produced rice ate miscellaneous grains and cereals as staple food, and rice was valuable food which they were able to eat only on special occasions such as national holidays. Second, although according to the conception of washoku, ichiju-sansai (three dishes and one soup) with rice as a staple food is regarded as the traditional meal structure, this is a meal style of samurai or warriors who were the ruling class from the middle to modern ages (honzen-ryori) and not that of ordinary people. The majority of Japanese were historically farmers, who were not able to afford to serve a meal of ichiju-sansai for daily meals. They might have eaten a bowl of hodgepodge. Third, it is problematic that, according to the conception of washoku, dishes of the Japanese-Western fusion cuisine mentioned above (sukiyaki, Japanese curry, fried pork cutlet, etc.) are called “the new traditions of WASHOKU.” Numerous dishes of the Japanese-Western fusion cuisine have been created in Japan, including teriyaki hamburger, spaghetti with spicy salted cod roe sauce, pizza with dried seaweed and dried bonito shavings, and green tea ice cream, and they are common for many Japanese nowadays. This implies that the boundary line or definition that demarcates washoku is vague. The fourth problem is that the Chinese character “wa,” the first letter of the word washoku, is used to refer to Japan itself and also associated with the Yamato court, the first unified state in Japan from the fourth to seventh centuries. While this regime was born in the Kansai area, its sphere of control did not include Hokkaido and Okinawa areas. In other words, for Japanese people indigenously inhabited in Hokkaido and Okinawa, “shoku” (food or eating) of “wa” is associated with “shoku” of an out-group. In particular, Okinawa is remote from the other four main islands in terms of distance, and many Okinawans regard “wa” as an out-group.

For the above reasons, it can hardly be said that washoku inscribed on the UNESCO’s list reflects the traditional dietary culture of the entire Japanese people. Washoku promoted by the Japanese government is grounded on political and economical intentions and can hardly be said to be academically grounded. In other words, washoku can be said to be a notional dietary culture with political ornamentation (cf., Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Onuki-Tierney 1993; Cwiertka and Yasuhara 2016).

Now, there is an essay titled Hojoki by Kamo no Chomei (1212), which is said to be one of three great essays of Japan. One of its famous passage goes, “Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same….” Although the water of a river is always changing (not motionless), we perceive a river as such. Although it may vary how different persons perceive a river, the river should be perceived as something stable and almost unchanging.

A “tradition” may be compared to a stable and almost unchanging presence of a river in this sense. If you examine it closely, the water of a river is changing constantly and unstable. The “river” exists as such, however, as long as water flows. If a deluge occurs, the river water will overflow and the flow of the river itself may change. Still, it exists as a river. In the following discussion, a dietary tradition will be discussed as an unchanging stable river given above.

Now, when it comes to the historical transition of the Japanese dietary culture, numerous technical books have so far been published mainly in fields of cultural anthropology and history. This chapter refers to the following four books for historical details: Nihon no shoku-bunkashi: kyu-sekki-jidai kara gendai made [History of Japanese Dietary Culture: From the Old Stone Age to the Modern Era] (Ishige 2015), Kouza shoku no bunka dai-2-kan: Nihon no shokuji bunka [Lectures on the Dietary Culture Vol.2: Japanese Meal Culture] (Kumakura 1999), and Nihon shoku-seikatsu-shi [History of the Japanese Dietary Life] (Watanabe 1964). These are all written in Japanese.

What Japanese People Have Eaten in the Past and Eat at Present

Two Dimensions for Describing Traditional and Modern Eating

Sproesser et al. (2018) compiled and systematized characteristic elements regarding traditional and modern eating through an extensive review of relevant literature, and proposed two major dimensions for distinguishing between traditional and modern eating. These two dimensions, in other words, constitute traditional and modern eating. The first dimension is what people eat and has six subdimensions: ingredients, processing, preparation, temporal origin, spatial origin, and variety. The second dimension is how people eat and has six subdimensions: temporal aspects, spatial aspects, social aspects, meals, appreciation, and concerns. In what follows, distinctive features of the Japanese dietary culture are examined from the perspective of tradition and modernity generally in accordance with these two dimensions and several subdimensions. First of all, let us dwell on what Japanese people have eaten.


As stated above, rice has occupied a special position politically, economically, and culturally in the history of Japan. Paddy rice cultivation is thought to have been brought to Japan from China around 350 B.C. Until the transition to a modern state system in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in the latter half of the nineteenth century, farmers had delivered rice as tax. During the Edo period, the Daimyo, who were rulers of their territories, were ranked in accordance with rice production. Rice had been treated as a basic political and economic unit.

From a nutritional perspective, rice was not necessarily a staple food for many Japanese. Historically, it was a part of the ruling class and urban residents in the Edo period who ate white cooked rice as a staple food. Traditionally, for many Japanese, it was limited to special occasions such as holidays and festivities that they ate white cooked rice. Their ordinary staple food was miscellaneous grains (such as wheat and Japanese millet) with or without an addition of a little amount of rice. Even for Japanese today, according to the government statistics for recent years, the percentage of rice in the food calorie consumption is only 23.4% in 2014 (MAFF 2019b), far lower than other Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Particularly in recent years, there has been a consistent trend, “moving away from rice,” and, in terms of consumption expenditure, the amount of expenditure on bread has become greater than that on rice. In particular, for breakfast, those who eat mainly bread (48.6%) has become greater than those who eat mainly rice (36.1%), according to the survey conducted in 2002.

Although rice is said to be the staple food, it is not because rice is nutritionally important for the Japanese diet but because it has symbolic importance rooted in culture (Onuki-Tierney 1993). The Japanese word “gohan” means both meal and cooked rice. The word “rice” can be said to symbolize food as a whole. Furthermore, rice symbolizes both Japan and Japanese and has played a role as a metaphor whereby Japanese identify themselves. In 2019, the Emperor Akihito, who is stipulated to be “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People” in the present Constitution, will abdicate and be succeeded by the Crown Prince. It is the Daijosai ceremony that is supposed to be the most important among events performed by the new emperor. This is a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony whereby a newly enthroned emperor not only celebrates the rice harvest of the year but also declares that the emperor is an entity linked to rice. It is for this reason that a special building dedicated to the Daijosai ceremony is constructed and removed immediately after the end of the event. Rice can be said to continue to be the symbol of Japan and of the unity of the Japanese people still today.

Imada (2013) had 236 Japanese, 97 Korean, and 209 Taiwanese college students to write down up to 3 words they freely associated with the word “food.” The result was that the occurrence of “rice” and rice-related words was the highest among students of all three countries (Table 1). Distinctively, the occurrence of “kimchi” was higher among Korean college students than among students of other two countries. Likewise, the occurrence of “noodles (including related words)” was highest among Taiwanese college students. It is thus suggested that rice is a symbolic entity that represents meals for modern Japanese.
Table 1

The frequency of occurrence of most free-associated words

Associated word



































Total Num.







aIncluding “rice,” “steamed rice,” “steamed white rice,” and other words related to rice

bIncluding “noodles,” “ramen,” “rice vermicelli,” and other words related to noodles or noodle dishes

Rice Products: Mochi, Sake, and Others

Rice is eaten not only by boiling it but also by processing it for various uses. The most typical products of such processing are sake and mochi (rice cake). Sake is made by alcoholic fermentation using koji (Aspergillus oryzae), a fungus unique to Japan, and yeast. If koji only is used, saccharification only progresses, resulting in a sweet beverage. This is called amazake (literally, sweet sake).

While mochi is made by pounding steamed rice, it is kneaded by a machine these days. Fresh mochi is soft and stretches very well. Traditionally, mochi was eaten on special occasions such as local festivals. Even today, there are many Japanese who eat mochi on the New Year’s Day, the most important holiday of the year.

Mochi is also used as an ingredient in confectionery. Numerous traditional confections have been made by combining mochi with sweetened beans, and modern Japanese eat them regularly. Furthermore, rice cracker (arare or okaki), a typical Japanese snack, is made by drying thinly sliced mochi and grilling or frying them.

Nuka or rice bran is residue from rice polishing and used for making pickles. Nukazuke, which are called dobuzuke or dobozuke, are typical pickles of Japan made by pickling vegetables in nukadoko which is made by the lactic fermentation of nuka. Above all, nukazuke made of Japanese white radish is called takuan and often colored in yellow. Today it is served at Japanese restaurants here and abroad.

Fishery products and Sushi

Japan is an island country composed of 6,852 islands. While its land area is the 62nd largest in the world, its total coastline distance is longer than those of the United States and Australia and the sixth longest in the world. Owing to such geographical conditions, Japanese have traditionally eaten fishery products. With a lack of active stock raising, fishery products had been valuable sources of animal protein for Japanese before modern times.

Sashimi, sliced raw fish, and sushi, sashimi placed on a bed of rice, are known as dishes representative of Japan. In the past when there was no refrigerating technology, however, raw fish dishes were available only to residents of fishing villages on the sea. Many fishery products were eaten by salting or drying them to improve their preservability. For fish for sushi, their preservability had been improved by soy sauce or vinegar historically.

Figure 1 shows what Japanese have eaten during the past century by kinds and Fig. 2 shows the amounts of protein calculated to have been supplied by those kinds of food (MAFF 2019c). It is shown that the major sources of protein were rice and soy beans about a hundred years ago (1911–1915) and that fish and shellfish were not an important source of protein then. They are foods whose intake increased after World War II (1945 and after), just like wheat, meat, milk, and dairy products.
Fig. 1

The change of the dietary habits from 1910s to 2005 on an annual basis. Supply of net food is the amount of edible portion of food which is calculated by subtracting the amount of portions to be disposed from the amount of supply of food for commercial use, not including the amount of those for certain processed foods, livestock feed, or industrial use (gross food supply). Values of soybeans from 1930 exclude portions processed to make fermented soybean paste, soy sauce, and fats and oils. Values of wheat and rice include bread and thick white noodles which are not individually grouped, and portions processed to make rice crackers. From 1911 through 1925, values of fish and shellfish include whale and seaweed (l.0 g and 1.4 g in 1930, respectively). Since 1926, whale has been included in meat, and seaweed others. (Sources) “Food Balance Sheet” (in Japanese) and “Basic Statistics on Food Demand” (in Japanese), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. “Revised Basic Statistics of Japanese Agriculture” (in Japanese), Association of Agriculture and Forestry Statistics (newly created based on Fig. 5 in MAFF 2019c)

Fig. 2

Supply of protein per day per capita in 1911–1915, 1960, and 2005 on an annual basis. (Sources) “Food Balance Sheet” (in Japanese) and “Basic Statistics on Food Demand” (in Japanese), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. “Revised Basic Statistics of Japanese Agriculture” (in Japanese), Association of Agriculture and Forestry Statistics. (Newly created based on Fig. 5 in MAFF 2019c)

Sushi developed as narezushi, namanarezushi, and hayazushi during the ancient and middle ages to become nigirizushi. Narezushi is made through the lactic fermentation of fish and rice for several years for the purpose of preserving fish, and it is still eaten in some areas today. Namanarezushi is made by simplifying the preparation method for narezushi with a short fermentation period of several days to 1 month. Hayazushi is a way of eating that spread in Edo in the beginning of the nineteenth century whereby fish and rice were eaten just by adding acidity with vinegar without waiting for lactic fermentation. It was called nigirizushi because rice was hand-pressed into a ball.

Nigirizushi started to be offered at stalls in Edo (present-day Tokyo) from the beginning of the nineteenth century and developed as stand-and-eat food. Edo at the time was a densely populated area and had a large male population, which caused the development of an eating-out culture. In the Meiji period and after, the sushi culture spread nationwide, and restaurants offering sushi became specialty restaurants. It is because sushi restaurants in the form called kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi restaurants) increased that sushi was popularized again.

Kaitenzushi is a form of sushi restaurant which lets customers eat whatever sushi they like freely by picking up sushi plates on the conveyor belt that run through the restaurant. The first kaitenzushi restaurant was opened in Osaka in 1958, and this type of sushi restaurant spread all over Japan during the 1970s and after with a rapid increase in their number. According to the survey conducted by Maruha Nichiro Corporation (of 250 each male and female individuals living in Kansai and Kanto areas, respectively, totaling 1,000, in 2018), Japanese today eat sushi more often at kaitenzushi restaurants than at dedicated sushi bars, and 37% of survey respondents answered that they use kaitenzushi restaurants “once or more per month” (Maruha Nichiro Corporation 2018). As for the amount of payment per customer (including the payment for desserts and alcoholic beverages), the survey result shows that the largest number of respondents (62.1%) answered “1,000 yen or greater and less than 2,000 yen.” Compared with the fact that it is not uncommon that a guest at a dedicated sushi bar ends up spending 10,000 yen or more, it is found that kaitenzushi restaurants offer sushi at really inexpensive prices. In other words, Nigirizushi was born as fast food and became fine food in time but is now becoming popular food again. It can be said that a large percentage of fish and shellfish intake of Japanese today is supported by inexpensive sushi served at kaitenzushi restaurants.

Flavor Principles in Japanese Cuisine

According to Elizabeth Rozin (1983), three components of a dish of cuisine are staple foods, processing techniques, and flavor principles, and, among them, it is flavor principles that most characterize each ethnic cuisine of the world. Flavor principles that characterize Japanese cuisine are created by the combination of soy sauce, miso (fermented soybean paste), sake, mirin(sweet sake), and dashi, which are traditional condiments. Dashi is a soup stock mainly made from bonito flakes and kombu kelp. What is interesting is that almost all of them are fermented foods and that fungi unique to Japan are used in the fermentation of many of them. In particular, a fungus indigenous to Japan named koji is used in the production of soy sauce, miso, and sake to produce flavors unique to Japan. Furthermore, fermentation using other types of koji (Aspergillus glaucus and Aspergillus repens) is conducted at the final stage of the production of dried bonito. Many of the flavors characterizing Japanese cuisine can be said to be created by fermentation using koji.

An important psychological function of flavor principles is their role as a safety signal (Rozin 1982). Even if it is the first time to eat some food, one probably tries to eat it if it has a familiar flavor. Even if some food is familiar, one may hesitate to eat it if it has an unfamiliar smell. Just as it is case with rice, the flavors of soy sauce and miso enable most Japanese to identify themselves as Japanese.

This is manifested in cooking methods of meat, the eating of which came to be widely accepted by Japanese in the early Meiji period and after. At first, beef was cooked using a method of simmering chopped beef with miso in an iron pan (gyunabe or ushinabe). Beef, which was unfamiliar food, was eaten by providing a familiar flavor (miso). Figure 3 is an illustration in the novel, Aguranabe (by Kanagaki Robun) published in 1871–1872 (Kanagaki 1871–1872). It depicts a student clad in Western clothes, rare for the time, eating beef boiled in miso broth. Officially, the meat-eating taboo was practically removed when Emperor Meiji ate meat on a formal occasion for the first time in 1872, which helped meat-eating to be prevalent. It is said that there were 558 beef houses in Tokyo by 1878.
Fig. 3

A student eating unfamiliar beef cooked in miso with having a familiar flavor, depicted in an illustration in the Aguranabe, a novel written in the early Meiji period (1871–1872) by Kanagaki Robun

Before long, gyunabe came to be called sukiyaki, and it became customary to use soy sauce, sugar, and sake for flavoring. The combination of these three is a basic seasoning combination in Japanese flavoring and used also in flavoring grilled chicken (yakitori) and eel (kabayaki). A teriyaki sauce, a hamburger sauce first used in Japan, is flavored in this way.

As mentioned above, nukazuke (vegetables pickled in a fermented medium) are fermented products. Natto (fermented soybeans), which causes many foreigner visiting Japan an aversive reaction to it but which many Japanese like to eat, is also a fermented product using Bacillus subtilis var. natto.

A flavor characteristic of the Japanese cuisine is said to be umami. Umami is chemically synthesized and is used as monosodium glutamate (MSG) in areas mainly in Asia. Today, chemically synthesized seasonings using nucleic acid substances such as sodium inosinate, sodium guanylate, and sodium ribonucleotide have been developed besides MSG, and many products combining them are used. A large amount of these seasonings are used in take-out food and at restaurants offering relatively inexpensive food.

Eclectic Fusion Cuisines

As stated above, Japan experienced dynamic cultural contacts three times in its history spanning one thousand and several hundred years. Any of them was neither the result of an invasion nor the consequence of coercion or pressure by other ethnic groups. Rather conversely, different cultures were positively introduced and accepted on the part of Japan.

What happened when another culture was positively accepted was its fusion or eclecticism with the home culture. Its most representative example is the Japanese language. While the written Japanese language today is composed of kanji (Chinese characters), katakana, and hiragana, they derive from Chinese, Western languages, and the indigenous Japanese aboriginal language or Yamato-kotoba, respectively. Because of the mixture of ideographs and phonograms, learning Japanese is not easy for foreigners.

It is the same with cuisine. You can enjoy almost all types of cuisine of the world in Tokyo today. Most of them, however, are adapted to Japanese taste. If you go out to eat steak, you will be asked whether to choose soy-sauce-based or others and to choose bread or rice to go with it. At gyudon (beef bowl) restaurants, a variety of toppings are offered including raw eggs, kimch, cheese, and so on. The same goes for pizza toppings.

The most typical fusion dish may be ramen. In Japan today, a variety of ramen restaurants are operating which are characterized by the thickness and shape of noodles, types of soup (mainly based on pork bone, chicken carcass, fish and shellfish, soy sauce, miso, or salt), and diverse toppings (sliced pork simmered in soy sauce, boiled fish paste, bean sprouts, vegetables, dried seaweed, kimch, shrimps, etc.).

The same is true of karee raisu (curry with rice, which was originally introduced from England around the late nineteenth century). At restaurants of the curry restaurant chain which has the greatest number of franchisees in Japan (1303; 2018 Dec.), you can choose whatever you like not only from 4 kinds of curry sauce, 8 different portion sizes of rice, 12 spice levels, and 5 mildness levels but also over 40 kinds of toppings (CoCo Ichibanya 2019). Their curry sauces are Japanese type sauces that have developed uniquely in Japan, and you can eat a curry dish based on one of them and combined with various kinds of meat, vegetable, cheese, and even kimchi.

While such eclectic cuisine may seem to decompose and dissect cuisines of the world and combine their elements in an apparently disorderly manner, this is the distinctive feature of the Japanese cuisine.

How Japanese People Have Eaten in the Past and Eat at Present

Dining Table

In a traditional Japanese house there was neither a room dedicated for dining nor a permanent dining table. At meal times, small individual tables called hakozen or meimeizen were brought into a living room, which temporarily served as a dining room. Figure 4 is an illustration in a book published in 1833, during the late Edo period. You can see that each family member is using their own individual table (Hata 1833).
Fig. 4

A dining scene in a merchant’s home in the latter half of the Edo period (the mid-nineteenth century): Small tables called hakozen or meimeizen were used individually

While people continued to have meals in such an individual meal table style, dining tables changed gradually from hakozen or meimeizen to chabudai with the advent of the twentieth century. Chabudai is “a small group dining table customarily placed on the tatami mat flooring of a Japanese-style room. It may be either circular or rectangular in shape. Normally it is outfitted with four short legs which can often be folded to facilitate storage” (Inohe 1993). Figure 5 shows a replication of a family’s dining table using a chabudai. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the family shared meal table style of chabudai further shifted to the current dining table style of having meals seated in a chair at a dining table.
Fig. 5

Replication of a dining table using a chabudai: by courtesy of the Museum of Ehime History and Culture

Ishige (2005) and his coworkers conducted a detailed interview survey of 284 women on meals at home from 1983 to 1984. Those subject to the survey were mainly women aged 70 or older at the time of the survey. That is, they were people who actually experienced meals in the individual-dining-table style using a hakozen or meimeizen and the shared-dining-table style using a chabudai and, later, a dining table. As a result, it was revealed that meal tables used by Japanese until the early twentieth century were mainly of the individual meal table style using hakozen or meimeizen and later transitioned to the chabudai style and that the dining table style became common in the latter half of the twentieth century (around 1970 and after).

While, ever since the dawn of history, Japanese have taken meals seated on the floor or tatami at an individual meal table, meal tables shifted from the individual style to the shared style and then transitioned to the current dining table style of having meals seated in a chair. It can be said that the meal table style of Japanese transitioned to a Western style after about 100 years from the civilization and enlightenment.

Even today, however, the style of meal taking is not uncommon whereby you are seated on the floor (tatami) to have a meal. Meals and banquets at a Japanese inn are in the hakozen or meimeizen style, and, even among ordinary households, there are many where members take a meal at kotatsu, a floor table equipped with a heater covered wholly with a blanket to contain heat, particularly in the winter period. Furthermore, many restaurants, particularly those serving Japanese cuisine, are equipped not only with chair seats but also a space where you can take off your shoes to be seated on the tatami to have a meal (called koagari or zashiki).

Personalization of Chopsticks and Eating Utensils

One thing that characterizes Japanese meals is the personalization of chopsticks and other eating utensils. While the origin of such personalization is unknown, it is considered to have a long history as we found a warning notice of “50 whips if you take this away without permission” on an individual eating bowl excavated from remains of the eighth century.

Even today, in many households, it is common for each family member to use their own chopsticks and eating utensils to have meals. Imada et al. (2012) conducted a survey of 467 mothers (age range: 25 to 44) raising young children (0–5 years old) on the dietary life in each family. The summary of responses to questions on the personalization of chopsticks and eating utensils included in the survey questionnaire is shown in Table 2. You can see that, as regards chopsticks and a rice bowl, more than 80% of the total respondents answered that each family member has their own chopsticks and a rice bowl and that, the lower the age group of respondents was, the lower the percentage of those answering “yes” was (89.4% vs. 76.3%). It can be said that, although the tradition of personalizing chopsticks and rice bowls has been passed on today, the trend is gradually weakening.
Table 2

Result of the survey on the personalization of chopsticks, rice bowls, Japanese teacups, and tumblers. Subjects were asked to answer binary choice (yes/no) questions, and the percentage (%) of respondents answering “yes” is shown



Each family member has their own chopsticks (meimei-bashi)

Each family member has their own rice bowls (meimei-wan)

Each family member has their own Japanese teacup (yunomi)

Each family member has their own tumbler































It is common to use disposable wooden chopsticks called waribashi when eating out. This is thought to reflect the tradition of personalizing chopsticks based on the premise that each pair of chopsticks should be used by a particular individual even at places where people eat out. Furthermore, there are many people who use chopsticks even with Western-style meals, and it is not uncommon for popular Western restaurants to provide waribashi along with knives, forks, and spoons.

This survey had separate questions for yunomi-chawan (Japanese teacups) and tumblers. This is because it is common to use a yunomi-chawan as a dedicated beverage container for sencha, a kind of green tea which Japanese drink in their daily life. When it comes to the personalization of yunomi-chawan, however, the percentage of respondents of a younger age group (25–34) answering “yes” was considerably lower (37.5% vs. 64.4%) than that of respondents of an older age group (40–44). This is considered to reflect not only the weakening tendency to personalize yunomi-chawan but also the fact that the younger the age group one belongs to, the less one tends to drink sencha.

Conversation Over the Dining Table

Ishige (2005), referred to above, also conducted a hearing survey on conversations during a meal for each type of meal table (hakozen/meimeizen, chabudai, or dining table) used. The summary of responses are shown in Fig. 6. 83.3% of 108 respondents answered that “conversation was strictly prohibited” during meals when hakozen or meimeizen were used. On the other hand, when it comes to meals using a dining table, 62.5% of 80 respondents answered, “it is allowed to converse (during a meal).”
Fig. 6

Acceptability of conversation during meals by types of meal tables. Compiled by authors from Fig. 25 in Ishige (2005). Although the results of six question items are shown in the original figure, only the results of three typical items are shown here. As multiple answers were allowed, the total does not add up to 100%

With regard to postures during meals, more than 80% of respondents answered they “sat in seiza (or straight)” during meals in days when hakozen or meimeizen were used and when a chabudai was used (see Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

Posture during meals by types of meal table. Compiled by authors from Fig. 23 in Ishige (2005). Although the results of eight question items are shown in the original figure, only the results of three typical items are shown here. As multiple answers were allowed, the total does not add up to 100%

In Japan today, there are many people who think that a meal where all family members are present is a place of communication where family members not merely enjoy a meal but also have an enjoyable conversation with each other. That is also what is taught in school education. In Japan, however, there is a tradition that regards meal taking as a solemn act, values various manners during a meal, and deprecates a lax way of eating. Such solemnness still partially remains today.

Ritualistic Behavior Before and After the Meal

Today, many Japanese say, “Itadakimasu” before a meal and “Gochisosama” when a meal ends. Itadakimasu means “I’ll have this meal with gratitude,” and, likewise, Gochisosama means “I finish this meal with gratitude.”

Imada et al. (2012) asked mothers raising small children to rate the importance of each of multiple items given regarding “eating education” by a 4-point scale (1: important, 2: somewhat important, 3: not so important, 4: not important) and to indicate whether they practice those items. As a result, with regard to the importance of “saying ‘Itadakimasu’ and ‘Gochisosama’” to children they are raising, 185 out of 427 respondents (43.3%) answered that they are “important,” and 167 respondents (39.1%) answered they are “somewhat important.” Furthermore, 400 respondents (93.6%) answered they “actually practice(d)” the item in question.

There are also many Japanese who make a gassho gesture (putting palms together upright) before saying “Itadakimasu” before a meal. According to a survey conducted by a private organization in 2015 of 1039 persons nationwide, 64.0% of respondents answered that they make a gassho gesture as they say “Itadakimasu” before a meal, and 28.8% of them answered that they say “Itadakimasu” without making a gassho gesture (J-Town Tokyo Prefecture 2015). Let us note that a gassho gesture is one whereby you put your hands together in front of your body, and, for ordinary Japanese, it is a special gesture that they perform on occasions such as praying at a Buddhist temple.

In contemporary Japan, the utterance of those routine words and the performance of a gassho gesture before and after a meal can be said to be extremely common behavior. It is not well known, however, since when such behavioral habits have spread. According to Kumakura (1991), in regard to meals in days when meimeizen were used, there were very numerous instances in which the utterance of such formulae and the performance of a gassho gesture were not reported. There are few examples reported in the survey of dietary habits in the early Showa period (1926–1989) by Seijo University Institute of Folklore Studies (1990). In other words, the utterance of the routine words and the performance of a gassho gesture before and after a meal are not necessarily traditional habits.

In Japan, the Basic Act on Dietary Education was enacted in 2005, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) asked educational institutions nationwide to promote dietary education in accordance with the law. The period of compulsory education in Japan is 9 years: 6 years of elementary school education and 3 years of junior high school education. School lunch is served at almost all public elementary and junior high schools. The MEXT asks schools to let students acquire “correct knowledge on eating and desirable dietary habits” through school lunch meals (MEXT 2019). There is no agreement, however, in views on what constitutes “correct knowledge” and what behavior constitutes “desirable dietary habits.” Judgments on relevant matters are often left to parties actually involved with school lunches, and, therefore, confusion has continued among them. For example, there are many schools which give instructions that prohibit students from not eating food they dislike, but there is no agreement in opinions as to whether it is a “desirable eating habit.”

What is accepted almost uniformly even under such a circumstance is the utterance of the said formulae (itadakimasu and gochisosama) and the performance of a gassho gesture before and after a meal. At school lunch time, students are instructed to eat the same menu served by themselves at the same, and it is customary for all students to say “Itadakimasu” simultaneously and perform a gassho gesture before eating. Such instructions for “desirable eating habits” at school lunch time is considered to have a great impact on the background for the wide acceptance of such eating habits by contemporary Japanese.

A gassho gesture is originally a religious gesture made in praying to a Buddha or Bodhisattva. In addition, a pious Buddhist chants a prayer to Amida Buddha before and after a meal to express gratitude to a wide range of objects. In Shintoism, which is a native religion of Japan, you are supposed to chant a Shinto prayer expressing gratitude to gods before and after a meal (instead of making a gassho gesture, you sit upright, bow once, and clap once). It can be said that the utterance of formulae (itadakimasu and gochisosama) and the performance of a gassho gesture before and after a meal, widely shared by contemporary Japanese, have such a religious root in both Buddhism and Shintoism.

Tradition and Modern Eating Conceived by Contemporary Japanese

It is not easy to describe the dietary tradition on the basis of historical facts. For the content of such description differs greatly by the age in which people subject to description lived, the area they lived, and the class they belonged to. Furthermore, the greatest problem is that there is little reliable historical material on what and how people ate, a matter related to their daily life. Sometimes, an “invention of the tradition” is made with a political intention, as was the case with washoku discussed in the introduction of this chapter.

How do Japanese lay persons perceive the “Japanese dietary tradition”? Sproesser et al. (2018) asked 340 Japanese (18–64 years old) to rate the degree of traditionality/modernness of 45 facets considered to reflect traditional and modern eating by 7-point scale. Table 3 lists facets rated as more traditional and facets rated more modern by what people have eaten and how they have eaten.
Table 3

Characteristics of traditional and modem eating behavior. Facets rated to be “more traditional” or “more modern” are listed by what they have eaten (eat) and how they have eaten. (Source: Sproesser et al. 2018)





Eating food that has been eaten in this area for many years

Eating grains

Eating locally produced food

Eating vegetables

Eating vegetables and fruit of the season

Strictly complying to collective rules (e.g., of the family, community, society)

Eating at home

Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at predetermined times

Having few food choices

Eating with other people


Eating food that is industrially ultra-processed such as chips and ready-made meals

Eating food that is only recently eaten

Drinking soft drinks

Eating food that has been imported from all over the world

Eating food that has been mass-produced

Frequent use of mobile phone, internet, or reading a newspaper while eating

Being able to buy food everywhere

Eating while walking

Eating out frequently

Snacking frequently

It can be said that contemporary Japanese regard eating grains, vegetables, and fruits grown in areas they live as traditional eating. Furthermore, it is found that they conceive modern eating as eating foods mass-produced at food factories, many of which are imported and have recently come to be eaten.

If we take a look at how people eat, it is found that a traditional way of eating is perceived as eating at home at predetermined times in compliance with rules and customs of their family and local community, with little room of choice for what to eat and often with other people. In contrast, a modern way of eating is found to be perceived as being characterized by such a way of eating that you eat readily available foods frequently outside home and often perform eating and other actions (such as reading newspaper and/or watching TV) concurrently.

Food and Health: The Case of Okinawa

Japan is known as the advanced country with the least number of obese persons. According to OECD (2017), the obesity rate (BMI > =30.0) of Japanese is 3.7%, which is significantly below the average among all OECD countries at 19.5%. Japan is also known as one of countries where people live long lives. The Japanese life expectancy at birth is 84.2 years (81.1 years for males and 87.1 years for females), and the Japanese healthy life expectancy is 74.8 years (each according to 2016 statistics: WHO 2018). Traditional Japanese food is regarded as one of the elements that have led to such long lives and health (e.g., Yamori et al. 2001; Kurotani et al. 2016).

Westernized meals of recent years, namely, an excessive intake of calories and fat, however, have increasingly caused the excessive overweight and obesity of Japanese, which has been pointed out as one cause for an increase in the prevalence of lifestyle diseases (e.g., Kagawa 1978; Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare: MHLW 2019). What follows will focus on Okinawa, where the relation between the westernization of diet and health is most significantly observed to investigate the relation between them.

Okinawa Honto or Okinawa Main Island is an island with the fifth largest area in Japan and is located geographically remotely from the four main islands of Japan. The direct distance from Naha, the prefectural capital of Okinawa, to Tokyo is 1,554 km and that from Naha to Taipei is 630 km. Okinawa is located closer to Taiwan than to Mainland Japan (Hondo). As one can imagine from such geographical relations, Okinawa has been greatly influenced not only by Mainland Japan but also by surrounding areas including the minor islands of the South Pacific (primarily Micronesia), Southeast Asia, Mainland China, and the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, not only Okinawa’s history but also its traditional diet differs greatly from those of Mainland Japan.

Okinawa was annexed by Japan during the early years of the Meiji period (1872), placed under US rule for 27 years after the Pacific War (1945–1972), and reverted to Japan in 1972, since which time it has remained a part of Japan. Active trade with Japan and China began during the Ryukyu Dynasty period and the distinctive culture of Okinawa was formed under their influence.

Okinawa has been known as a prefecture which has many people living long lives, people aged 100 or older, and people with a low risk of age-related diseases. The average life expectancy at birth of women in Okinawa prefecture ranked first among 47 prefectures in Japan, at 83.7 years (1985), 85.08 years (1995), and 86.88 years (2005). Many studies suggest that such high life expectancies are related to the traditional diet of Okinawa: namely, traditional diet whereby you eat a plenty of vegetables and fruits and do not take in much meat, refined grains, saturated fats, sugar, salt, and dairy products (Sho 2001; Willcox et al. 2007, 2009).

That has not been the case with Okinawa in recent years, however, a trend which is particularly prominent among men. The average life expectancy at birth of men in Okinawa prefecture was 77.22 years in 1995 (the national average: 76.70 years), ranking fourth among the 47 prefectures. Its rank fell to 26th in 2000, however (at 77.64 years, with the national average being 77.71 years). This extreme fall in rank drew a lot of attention from many people and was known as “26 shock!.” The rank in the life expectancy of men in Okinawa prefecture subsequently continued to fall, ranked 30th in 2010 and 36th in 2015 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare: MHLW 2017).

Why has the rank of the life expectancy of men in Okinawa being fallen? The most convincing argument about its causes cites drastic changes in the dietary environment after the war, namely the westernization of diet.

Meats, processed meats (ham, bacon, luncheon meat, etc.), butter, beer, etc. were imported duty free or at a low tariff rate to Okinawa under US rule. A low tariff rate was applied after it was returned to Japan in 1972 as a special measure following the reversion. In other words, high-fat and high-calorie foodstuffs came to be supplied at low cost after the war, and the dietary life of people in Okinawa prefecture drastically changed from a traditional diet mainly composed of miscellaneous grains and vegetables to a contemporary diet or high-fat and high-calorie diet.

Figure 8 compares percentages of fat energy in the total energy intake nationwide and in Okinawa. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare notes that the percentage of fat energy in the total energy intake desirable for health is 20–25% for men and women over 30 years old. Assuming that 25% is the upper limit, the percentage of fat energy in the total energy intake gradually crossed the 25% line from the 1980s to the 1990s as a national average, as the figure shows. On the other hand, in Okinawa, it suddenly crossed the 25% line around 1970 and stayed at high values (around 30%) thereafter. According to a recent survey, two out of three adults in Okinawa prefecture take an excessive amount of fat (25% or greater). The diet of Okinawa people was rapidly “westernized” after the war.
Fig. 8

Annual Changes in Average Fat Energy Percentage Nationwide and in Okinawa (newly created based on Fig. 1 in Todoroki 2008)

With the progress of such westernization of diet, the degree of obesity of people (particularly men) in Okinawa increased and the prevalence of lifestyle diseases also rose. Figure 9 compares the percentages of obese persons (BMI > =25.0: the obesity criterion) by age in 2005 in Okinawa and national averages. It is found that the obesity rate is above the national average in almost all age groups of male and female adults in Okinawa. Figure 10 shows the transition of the mortality rate from diabetes nationwide and in Okinawa. It is found that the number of deaths from diabetes has been increasing since the latter half of the 1990s. According to Kuwae et al. (2006), the mortality rate of the male population of Okinawa (15–49) due to accidents and suicides, acute myocardial infarction, cerebral hemorrhage, diabetes, hepatopathy, etc. ranked within the worst five prefectures among the 47 prefectures of Japan in 2000 for each cause of death. Likewise with the female population of Okinawa (40–49), their mortality rate from cancer, liver failure, diabetes, etc. ranked within the worst five prefectures in 2000 for each cause of death.
Fig. 9

Percentage of obese male (left) and female (right) in Okinawa, in comparison with the nationwide percentage of obese male and female in 2005. Source: Interim Evaluation Report of the “Kenko Okinawa 2010” Project. (Okinawa prefecture 2006)

Fig. 10

Age-adjusted mortality rate from diabetes in Okinawa (comparison of the rate in Okinawa and nationwide, 1973–2003). In Okinawa, the male mortality rate from diabetes has approximately doubled since 1993. Source: Interim Evaluation Report of the “Kenko Okinawa 2010” Project. (Okinawa prefecture 2006)

Such a contrast in the relationship between health and diet as observed in Okinawa’s diet may be said to be a scaled-down picture of Japan as a whole. Okinawa appears to be an area in Japan that provides us with various clues as to the relations between diet and health.


Words Americans associate with the term “Japanese food” are said to be such words as healthy, light, raw, simple, clean, and beautiful as well as names of dishes such as tempura, sushi, teriyaki, and sashimi (Ishige et al. 1985). As Japan came to be known as one of the countries with the longest life expectancy and a country with an extremely low percentage of obese persons, the perception is further spreading that the traditional Japanese diet provides healthy meals. “WASHOKU; Traditional Dietary Cultures of the Japanese,” publicized by the Japanese government, however, is a “tradition” that reflects the content of meals of some parts of the past ruling class and cannot be said to reflect the dietary tradition of the Japanese as a whole. It is, so to speak, an idealized Japanese diet and an invented tradition (cf., Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

What and how people eat play the role of enhancing their sense of belonging to a group they belong to (ethnic group, nation, group using the same language, namely, inner group) and facilitating their identification with that group (Onuki-Tierney 1993). The denationalization of eating in contemporary Japan, however, goes against such a role of eating. It is becoming difficult for contemporary Japanese to identify themselves as Japanese by way of eating. A “dietary tradition” is probably one of things that enable Japanese to enhance their sense of belonging to Japan and identify themselves in a more stable way. By following eating habits that are said to be traditional, aren’t Japanese trying to alleviate their identity anxiety as Japanese, aren’t they?

Currently, food globalization and denationalization are in progress not only in Japan but also in other countries. It is not easy to know what the true tradition is, but it is important to distinguish between the true tradition and the idealized and/or invented tradition.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHiroshima Shudo UniversityHiroshimaJapan

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