Vegetarian Research Vol.3, 5-6, 2002.[Lecture]

Lecture delivered at the 35th World Vegetarian Congress

Three Main Vegetarian Influences on Japanese Cuisine

Mitsuru Kakimoto
Osaka Jogakuin College, 2-26-54 Tamatsukuri, Chuoh-ku, Osaka 540-0004, Japan

@@A survey I conducted on 80 Westerners, including Americans, Englishmen and Canadians, revealed that approximately half of them believed that vegetarianism had originated in India. Some respondents assumed that vegetarianism had its origins in Japan or China, each accounting for 8%. It seems right to me that the reason Westerners associate vegetarianism with Japan or China is Buddhism. It is hardly surprising, and in fact we could say that Japan used to be a country where vegetarianism prevailed [1].

The gisi-wajin-den, a history book on Japan written in China around the 3rd century B.C., says "There are no cattle, no horses, no tigers, no leopards, no goats, and no magpies in that land. The climate is mild and people there eat fresh vegetables both in summer and in winter." It also says "People catch fish and shellfish in the water." Apparently, the ancient Japanese ate fresh vegetables as well as rice and other cereals as staple foods. They ate some fish and shellfish but little meat. Several hundreds of years later, Buddhism came to Japan and the idea of prohibiting hunting and fishing permeated among Japanese people. In 675, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu proclaimed an ordinance prohibiting the eating of fish and shellfish as well as of meat and fowl. Subsequently, in 737, during the Nara period, the Emperor Seimu approved the eating of fish and shellfish. Over twelve hundred years from the Nara period to the Meiji Restoration in the latter half of the 19th century, Japanese people enjoyed vegetarian-style meals. They usually ate rice as a staple food, and beans and vegetables. It was only on special occasions or during celebrations that fish was served to guests. Under these circumstances, Japanese people developed a vegetarian cuisine native to Japan: shojin ryori. (Ryori means cooking or cuisine.)

The word "shojin" is a Japanese translation of the Sanskrit "virya", meaning "to have goodness and keep away evil." Buddhist priests of the Tendai and Shingon sects, whose founders studied in China in the 9th century before they founded their respective sects, have been handing down the vegetarian cooking of Chinese temples strictly in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. In the 13th century, Dogen, founder of the Soto sect of Zen, formally established shojin ryori, or Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Dogen studied and learned the Zen teachings abroad in China, during the Song Dynasty. He fixed rules aiming to establish dietary habits of a purely vegetarian life as a means of training the mind. One of the other impacts Zen had on the dietary habits of Japanese people materialized in sado, or Japanese tea ceremony. It is believed that Eisai, founder of the Rinzai sect, introduced tea to Japan and it is the custom for Zen followers to drink tea. The custom preserved in the teaching of Zen led to a systematic rule called sado. Strange as it may seem, a cha-shitsu, or tea-ceremony room, is so made that it looks like a shoin, a room for the chief priest in a Buddhist temple. Dishes served at a tea ceremony are called kaiseki in Japanese, which literally means "a stone in one's bosom." Monks practicing asceticism used to put heated stones onto their chests in order to suppress hunger. Then the word kaiseki itself came to mean a light meal served to warm up the body. Needless to say, dishes served at shojin and kaiseki meals had a great influence on Japanese dietary culture. As an example of a Buddhist vegetarian in the modern age, we might mention Kenji Miyazawa, a Japanese writer and poet of the early 20th century, who wrote a novel entitled "Vegetarian-taisai", in which he depicted a fictitious vegetarian congress. This bears some similarities to the congresses the I.V.U. has held since its foundation. His works played an important role in the advocacy of modern vegetarianism. The teachings of Buddhism are not the only source to which we may attribute the advancement of vegetarianism in Japan. In the late 19th century, a doctor named Gensai Ishizuka published an academic book on a dietary cure. He advocated vegetarian cooking with emphasis on brown rice and vegetables. His method is called Seisyoku (macrobiotics) and based upon old Chinese philosophy such as the principles of Yin and Yang, and Taoism. Now some people support his method, hoping for the benefit of preventive medicine. Japanese macrobiotics advocate the eating of brown rice as half of the whole intake, and vegetables, beans and seaweed as well as a small amount of fish. After World War II, Japan came under the great influence of foods introduced from the U.S.A.. In the 1980s, just as in the U.S.A., the Japanese experienced the serious social problem of a high rate of incidence of geriatric diseases resulting from supernutrition. S.D.A. vegetarian cuisine, which is supported by scientific evidence, started to attract interest. Then Japanese people adopted S.D.A. vegetarian cuisine based on the American style, and have now developed a new S.D.A. vegetarian cuisine in a Japanese style. That is, Lacto-ovo vegetarian cuisine, in which brown rice is eaten in addition to cornflakes and milk.

To summarize, the three main influences on vegetarian cuisine in Japan today have been Buddhism, seisyoku (macrobiotics), and S.D.A. vegetarian cuisine. It has been about 130 years since Japanese people began to eat meat. Recently Japanese people have become aware of the problem of geriatric diseases caused by an excess intake of fat in meat, and the possible hazards pertaining to agricultural chemicals and additives. They have begun to try to return to traditional Japanese cuisine and seek out natural and safe foods. In 1993, in order to shed light on, and deal with issues of, animal rights, global environmental issues and famines in the developing countries in addition to health, the Japan Vegetarian Society (NPO) was established. Members of the society, eager to face these issues, are working hard domestically and globally in order to advocate vegetarianism [2]. This lecture was presented at the 35th World Vegetarian Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland on July 8-14, 2002.


[1] Kakimoto M. et al.: Research conducted regarding Japanese attitudes towards vegetarians, as compared with those Westerners. The 34th World Vegetarian Congress Official Program, pp. 16-17 (2000).
[2] Kakimoto M.: A scientific cultural approach to vegetarianism. Vegetarian Res. 1, 3-10 (2000).