Asian Traditional Food Diary: JAPAN

“We sell our life in order to get more convenient life,” observes Norihiko, “Of course technology is helping us, but what is the use of technology if we die?” he questions.

Journey with this mother-daughter team each week as they explore various vegetarian diets from all over the planet. By looking at the nutritional habits of cultures from Sri Lanka to Nepal to India, we can learn as much from various attitudes as we can from the recipes. This week’s focus is on:

JAPAN

Sometimes it seems that Japan is a country of bewildering contrasts. It is a country of ancient traditional culture and yet it is the world’s leading exporter of high technology products. Among Japan’s leading products for export are: ocean vessels, automobiles, bullet trains, computers, TV’s, videos, cameras, stereos and other ultra-modern electronic gadgets. The bustling cities like Tokyo dazzle with neon lights and shops filled with all kinds of electronic gimmickry. And yet if you go to the countryside, you will be fascinated by how rural Japan retains its serene and delicate beauty, its traditional food and values.

Our friend Norihiko Hanada, a 32-year-old student of ministry, describes to us what seems a spectacle of a typical Japanese traditional meal. Like any other kind of a religious ritual, a Japanese meal is always eaten slowly with a touch of art and solemnity. “In the morning, there is a bowl of rice on the left, a bowl of miso soup on the right, a pair of chopsticks in the middle,” says Norihiko. They just have to be arranged in that way because rice is eaten from the left hand and the miso soup is drunk from the right hand! “Then all around them, neatly arranged, are bowls of umeboshi (a healthy, nutritious sweet-sour preparation from the fruit ume (Japanese apricot), tsukemono – a vegetable pickle similar to kimchi, made of cucumber (kyuri), radish, Chinese cabbage, mustard leaf and rice bran. Then there is tofu, either cut in small squares and mixed in the miso soup or else eaten separately with soy sauce, says Norihiko. Seaweeds (nori) is wrapped with rice and eaten.”

At lunch, the chief masterpiece, among all the healthy food served artistically, is again rice. Rice comes in many different varieties, sticky and delicious—koshihikari and sasanishihiki, being the best varieties. Sometimes pasta or Udon (Japanese wheat noodle soup) is also served together with the rice. Then there is salad made from cabbage, onion, broccoli, tomato, and cucumber. Tofu, fine and silky, in its myriad forms such as yuba and others are always found on the lunch table. Also a favorite lunch mainstay is natto — fermented soybean in sticky thread. Then for a gentle, mild drink there is green tea.

At dinner, again miso soup and rice are served, tsukemono, one main dish of fried or some other form of tofu and fruits. In Japan there are plenty of fruits like apples, grapes, oranges, peaches, pears, watermelon and melon. Most Japanese people have a strong dedication to regularly drinking miso soup and eating tofu and umeboshi. And this is to their advantage. Miso has been found to be very nutritious and contain substances that fight cancer and ume is historically known to have medicinal and energy-giving properties. Tofu, a delicious protein source, is complete with the 8 essential amino acids.

Our friend Norihiko comes from the island of Fukuoka, a scenic volcanic island located near the southern tip of Japan. He says , “Our place is very beautiful. It is filled with lovely pink and white sakura (cherry blossoms), forests and mountains. There are also many hot springs and coal mines.” The four main islands of Japan are Hokkaido, Honshu (where the historic city of Hiroshima is found), Shitoku and Kyushu (where the city of Nagasaki is found).

Japan is an emperial country ruled by emperors. But the emperor has no power. The power lies in the Prime Minister who is the head of the Parliament. The main religion in Japan is Shintoism, which is basically ancestor and nature worship. Thus, until after the Second World War, the Japanese constitution worshipped Emperor Hirohito as God Himself.

The Japanese military force derives its energy and power from the emperor, Shintoism and political power being closely interconnected. After the war, when the Americans defeated the Japanese, Emperor Hirohito proclaimed that he was not God after all! General Douglas McArthur came to reconstruct the political system of Japan. Thus today, there is no more sole powerful military structure. What remains is simply a “self-defense” military force.

Norihiko takes us back to the ancient period of the Shogun (general), 130 years ago. “At that time, in Edo (the former name of Tokyo), the young soldiers staged a revolution ,” relates Norihiko, “As a result, the Shogun closed the whole country to foreign invasion and foreign influence. Thus, for a period of 270 years (from 1600 A.D. to 1869 A.D.) Japan remained closed. During this period, the Japanese people were able to preserve the traditional culture and food . And until after the Second World War, the Japanese didn’t eat meat. It was against the law and enforced by the emperor.”

In 1962, a Peace Treaty between Japan and America was signed. Politically, it was an important event. But for Norihiko, it was the beginning of the change of the Japanese lifestyle. That Treaty included observing security, and security dictated that the Japanese MUST trust the Americans. Thus, little by little, Japan became open to American and other Western culture, including the Western diet. Back in the days when the Japanese people kept their traditional lifestyle intact, the average lifespan of the people was 86-90. Today, as one Japanese scholar predicted, people who were born after the Treaty will have an average lifespan of only 43! This is because along with the arrival of the Western culture to Japan, also came the food additives, agricultural chemicals and pollution.

“We sell our life in order to get more convenient life,” observes Norihiko, “Of course technology is helping us, but what is the use of technology if we die?” he questions. And if the prediction of this Japanese scholar is to be believed, Norihiko himself who was born in 1967 has only 11 more years to live!!

Norohiko sadly notes, “We have come to the point where technologically, we can not turn our back anymore. But our way is a wrong way. I think we can still change. Some people try to change. I appreciate the efforts of ecologists and peacemakers. And we have been given the responsibility by God to maintain the peace. But humans cannot save humans. The only solution is God’s intervention.”

In the minds of many young idealists like Norihiko, many, many questions about life and peace come up. Among them is the question, if the Shogun had to do it all over again, would it be better if he isolated Japan longer than 270 years? Perhaps then, the healthy traditional diet of Japan would have been preserved longer? With a very practical outlook, Norihiko says, “Today, it is impossible to make our Japanese diet completely healthy, but at least we can choose the food that we eat.”

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