Cultural Intelligence: The Art of Eating in Japan

From the lecture series Food: A Cultural Culinary History

By Ken Albala, Ph.D., University of the Pacific

Formalized manners, etiquette, and rules for eating in Japan developed in the 16th and 17th century, especially among the samurai class, in order to prevent misunderstanding and violent outbursts. Everyone’s armed, but at the table, it’s understood there is a ritualized truce.

Two women, eating in Japan

The Japanese ate with their fingers before the seventh century. Along with Buddhism, from China the chopstick was introduced, and food would typically be cut into little mouth-sized bits or sometimes larger. For some strange reason, spoons didn’t catch on, and the Japanese usually sipped directly from the bowl. It sounds a little crude in a way, but when you have a cup or a bowl without a handle, it takes a kind of dexterity to hold it and it forces you to concentrate on the contents. The aroma has to go up your nose before you actually taste it, and you can feel the heat in the bowl and directly in your hands and lips. It’s a much more focused activity than if you have a bowl and you’re slurping liquid with a spoon. A lacquerware bowl remains traditional for drinking soup and for making of bento boxes and things like that. Ceramic bowls are usually for other foods: for rice and side dishes.

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Bowl of rice with chopsticks

Every individual would have his or her own set of chopsticks. Separate ones were used for serving; you didn’t pick with your own chopsticks. The same focus on manners and etiquette developed here roughly the same time, or if not a little earlier, than it did in the West, but obviously with very different results. There’s a similar avoidance of polluting common serving dishes with one’s saliva; and it’s not really a hygienic concern, but it has more to do with ideas of cleanliness and pollution that come from Shintoism.

This is a transcript from the video series A Cultural Culinary History . Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The other unique feature is that originally there were no chairs. You sat directly on a tatami mat on a wooden floor, and like drinking out of a bowl it forces you to do everything more slowly and methodically. It would actually be dangerous to eat food like this quickly. Usually, you bring the bowl close to your lips and you move food to your mouth with the chopsticks. That’s considered polite, unlike in the West where you really can’t pick up the plate; it’s better to have the food spill on your tie as you bring it to your mouth. Food is set on these little wooden tables, and while everything is brought out at once, you start with certain foods, and then you make your way around to others. The hot dishes would often have these little covers set on each to keep them hot, and sometimes it’s just another overturned bowl serving as a lid, and then you can open it and use it as a second bowl.

The Creation of Japanese Traditions

Probably the most ritualized ceremony involved taking tea, chadō.

Very formalized and ritualized manners developed in the 16th and 17th century, especially among the samurai class, and probably for the same reasons they developed among nobles in the West, and at exactly the same time: You prevent misunderstanding; violent outbursts; remember everyone’s armed, but at the table there’s a ritualized truce. The most ritualized ceremony involved taking tea, chadō.

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The tea itself came with Buddhists from China, but for some reason it fell out of favor and then became popular again in the Middle Ages. This is typically not black fermented tea leaves like you find in China but green tea in a powder form (today, green leaf tea or sen-cha is actually more popular and it’s a little easier to make, too). There’s a ceremony that’s developed in the 16th century meant to reflect Zen philosophy in that it sought to create an entire aesthetic experience of art, architecture, gardening, crafts, and food. There’s a formal feast that goes with the ceremony—it’s called kaiseki-ryori—and a very strict order of courses. The details about why, after being so open to outside influence, Japan suddenly closed off are fascinating. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set up trading posts in Japan.

At first, the Japanese happily adopted European foods; they started making desserts, eating yellow cake, and that sort of thing.

They brought with them Jesuit missionaries. At first, the Japanese happily adopted European foods; they started making desserts, eating yellow cake, and that sort of thing. There’s a Southern Barbarian Cookbook—that refers to the Europeans—that records all these Portuguese recipes, probably in the early 17th century. Then, in 1639 the Tokugawa Shogunate, feeling that all this contact was just a pretext for colonizing Japan (perhaps true) decided to ban Christianity, kick out the Portuguese, and isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Only the Dutch were allowed to trade from a little island off Nagasaki; and they basically took silver and Japanese products out but they didn’t really bring that many Western products in, and that lasted all the way to the middle of the 19th century.

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The result is that during this period, the Edo (named after the major city), Japan developed the arts, the literature, and the cuisine entirely on its own; and there’s stability, peace, and a real blossoming of culture.

Hanami bento in the Edo period.
Hanami bento in the Edo period.

This is when most classical Japanese dishes were developed. It’s a culture that’s wealthy, largely urban, sophisticated; one in which there’s a large and wealthy middle class of merchants and business types and artisans. The emperor wasn’t the real one with power in this period. It’s more the warrior elites, the shoguns, who administered the country, and they developed the rituals of court. They practiced martial arts, they ran the government, and they entertained themselves.

Although they ruled politically, economically the mercantile class was really the important one in this period. They had the money; they ate out often; they lived in these cities—Edo, Osaka, Kyoto—and they went to eat in what we should call restaurants. It’s safe to say this was the very first restaurant-based food culture that emphasized the beauty of the decoration, the tableware, the ornamental gardens that are usually attached to a restaurant; and their incentive was to innovate in order to attract customers. What they eventually invented was Japanese haute cuisine, which is the basis of most traditional Japanese cooking today. It’s these restaurants in the Edo period that placed so much emphasis on presentation and the philosophy that stresses the natural, the unaffected, and haphazard.

The Art of Japanese Place Settings

Food is never symmetrically presented; that’s an artificial arrangement. All sorts of different kinds of food on a plate as you find in the West, with garnishes; that’s avoided. In fact, empty space is better, and one piece of food placed on one part so you can focus on it and the proportion of empty space and occupied space is clearly necessary. The Japanese also have this obsession with packaging: the process of opening and revealing all sorts of beautiful layers, and the way it’s presented and wrapped; but also the way the food unfolds. You don’t want to give it away all at once—you want there to be little surprises at the bottom of a soup bowl or underneath an arrangement of food.

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Japanese cuisine is also the cuisine that pays the most attention to the size, shape, and color of the bowls food is served on. In the West, we expect all the dishes are going to be the same, and probably white, and everyone gets the same one. It’s a kind of industrial aesthetic; regularity. It’s also a very democratic one. It would seem unfair if you went to a restaurant and one person got a big plate, another person got a small one. But in Japanese cuisine, the bowls, the serving containers, they’re chosen to carefully heighten the tactile and sensory quality of the food, and it’s perfectly fine for them to be different shapes, sizes, and colors. The knowledge that a human hand formed the bowl is actually more valuable than a regular, machine-stamped-out shape. Japan’s a country that makes its potters and craftsmen national living treasures, so hand-made objects are truly revered. A real raku tea bowl can cost thousands of dollars, or handmade paper or a silk kimono, or hand- painted letters. The skill of the craftsman—and chefs are absolutely included in this—is valued much more highly than in the West, at least in this period.

Visual appeal is much more important than almost any other cuisine: careful attention to color, shape, how things sit on the plate, the overall design

Another feature of this meticulous arrangement is the attention paid to the different senses. Visual appeal is much more important than almost any other cuisine: careful attention to color, shape, how things sit on the plate, the overall design; but also the texture of food in your mouth. Is it crunchy, or slimy, or chewy? Does the aroma enter your nostrils as you bring it to your mouth? There’s also this attention to what kind of memories or associations a food might have with the diner: with a particular place or time of year, or a festival, much the same as we might associate turkey with Thanksgiving or ham with Easter; but they have a lot more specific associations that are consciously evoked, and there might be a whole range of foods that are grouped in one meal because they’re associated with autumn, or a boy’s day, or something like that.

Unlike Western cuisines or even other Asian ones, the Japanese appreciate single ingredients on their own rather than complex combinations of flavor and texture; and there’s something very minimalistic about it, which is why cooking (and art for that matter) has been very appealing to Westerners later, or more recently. Cooking techniques are also very simple. If cooked, it’s done to a precise length of time, usually over a stovetop. There’s not a lot of baking or roasting; the food is cut into small pieces so it cooks quicker and more evenly, and you never even need a sharp object at the table. Almost all foods are steamed, grilled, or fried.

The Bento Box

Image of a bento box
The bento box is really the quintessential Japanese food.

The bento box is really the quintessential Japanese food. It’s this whole elegant miniature lunch in a box. There’s rice at the core, but there’s also a little piece of grilled fish, a single shrimp, some pickles, some cold salads may be of gobo root or burdock arranged on a shiso leaf, there’s a little bit of fruit. Every item’s presented in its own artful little compartment so they don’t get mixed up, and it’s meant to be eaten on the go. Think of how different that is from the way we in the United States eat a sandwich or fast food. It’s fast but it’s uniform; it’s all heaped together; it’s salty and greasy and doused with ketchup, right? The bento box is all separate and every flavor and texture is its own miniature episode in a whole slew of courses; a tiny banquet in a box, if you want.

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The bento box and all other forms of Japanese food have, of course, changed with industrialization. But I think they still retain something of that original aesthetic of this period. It’s not surprising that Japanese cuisine had such a major influence on Western cuisine in the 20th century.

Common Questions About the Art of Eating in Japan

Q: What are the staples of a typical Japanese dinner?

A common Japanese meal will consist of a bowl of rice, fish or meat, pickled vegetables, and a bowl of miso soup.

Q: What is the most popular food in Japan?

Sushi/sashimi is the most popular food in Japan by far, with ramen coming in at a close second. Both are obsessed over and have many variations.

Q: How did the Edo period change Japanese cuisine?

Haute-cuisine such as Kaiseki, private room dining, and kappo, which were high end restaurants, flourished and advanced Japanese culture during the Edo period. However, the street food of the time took on a radical new character with an obsession over yatai, which were mobile stalls that served ready-to-eat meals to a growing population on the go.

Q: What were the “four kings” of Edo period cuisine?

The “four kings” of Edo cuisine were essentially finger foods. They were eel cooked with a sweet soy sauce, seafood tempura (which is still a craze) with dipping sauce, soba noodles and dumplings, and finally the towering gift to the world that is sushi. Sushi was born in Edo period as the type we now know as nigiri.

 This article was updated on 9/28/2019

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