Living in the area that could arguably be called Tokyo’s top tourist destination, this is something I see almost on a daily basis: visitors who for cultural, ideological or health reasons are looking for a restaurant without meat in its menu are left speechless (and often disappointed) at the realization that meat is so much present in Japanese cuisine that to avoid it you need to turn to either places catering only to vegetarians or to very specialized and expensive restaurants offering Buddhist temple cooking; these choices come of course at the expense of missing out on a large portion of characteristic Japanese dishes. And besides the practical difficulty this brings them face to face with their preconceptions: it is a well known fact that the Japanese don’t eat meat so how come that meat is everywhere?
The answer is “because meat had always been everywhere” and this is easily proven by the tens of references to texts written 500 or 1000 years ago. It’s just that a combination of demands by the ruling class who wanted to keep the good stuff to itself and of political and economic demands (Japan was basically an agricultural economy and livestock breeding takes lots of resources that the country couldn’t afford) passed through the, no pun intended, meat grinder of religion (in Japan’s case, Buddhism) and resulted to an official prohibition of meat consumption. The consecutive renewals of that first prohibition from 675 AD and Emperor Tenmou to 1872 when Emperor Meiji lifted it in practice by including meat in his celebratory New Year meal, show that the people of Japan didn’t actually detest meat; they just didn’t have enough to make it a part of their everyday diet.
All these changed with Japan’s modernization and, even more, with its post-war development; somewhere in there, and despite nationalistic hints to the opposite, one can also find the beginnings of the breeding of wagyu (和牛), the high quality beef from Kobe and the surrounding areas. In the Japan that I know and, I can safely say, in the Japan of the last 50 years, meat is as visible as curry, sushi, ramen, yakitori or tempura; especially “yakiniku” (焼肉) Korean-style barbecue places where patrons grill their own meat at their tables can, sometimes and in some areas, be found in significantly greater numbers than the “purely Japanese” options. And for those wondering, what makes Japanese diet healthier isn’t the absence of meat: rather, it is the much more rational (compared to most Western countries) consumption of it as well as its balancing with other food groups.
Photo © Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.