As in many cultures, food in Japan is not merely nourishment but a way of life and an integral part of the nation’s identity. And so, if you want to get to know Japan better, it wouldn’t be wrong to start with its food culture.
With ramen, sushi, sake, matcha, and bento becoming commonplace in many parts of the world, interest in Japanese food is also increasing. But Japanese food culture (shoku bunka), in particular the customs surrounding it, is as confusing as it is fascinating.
Fret not. This article will shed light on the many facets of Japanese food culture — not just the traditional rules but also the history, the unique flavors, the aesthetics, and the trends. Ready? Itadakimasu!
History of Japanese food
Japanese food culture history is very much a part of Japan’s long and colorful past. Here, we look at how this cuisine evolved and yet remained ingrained in the Japanese identity.
1. Prehistoric Japanese chefs likely cooked seafood.
The discovery of ceramic vessels or fragments from sites dating between 11,200 years and 15,300 years ago suggests that pottery was used for cooking in the Jomon period.
Jomon people were hunter-gatherers who lived in Japan during the final phases of the last ice age. They enjoyed a diversity of natural resources: seafood in spring and early summer, deer and wild boar in the winter, and fruits and seeds in the fall.
Samples taken from the ancient pottery showed that pots had been used to cook freshwater and seawater creatures like fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. And millenniums later, seafood is still at the heart of the Japanese food culture!
2. But the Japanese diet was once vegetarian.
It may be hard to believe but the fish-eating nation of Japan used to subsist on rice, soup, and seasonal vegetables.
During the Yamato period, the Chinese introduced Buddhism and in 675 AD, Emperor Temmu banned the consumption of cattle, horse, dog, monkey, or chicken meat. During the Nara period, Empress Koken went a step further and banned fishing.
This ban ended in the Heian period. However, meat and fish were still rare up until the Meiji period, with most Japanese only eating fish on special occasions.
3. Sake is one of the oldest Japanese beverages.
No one knows when exactly sake, also known as nihonshu, came to be. But like many enduring dishes and beverages in Japan, it’s said that the production of rice sake was introduced by the Chinese, a practice that dates back to the 3rd century.
The drink, brewed from rice, water, yeast, and koji mold, became popular in the Nara period. It can be drunk either hot or cold. At one point, it was even fermented with human saliva, after being chewed and spat out. But don’t worry, the regular sake you’ll see in izakayas (Japanese pubs) aren’t made that way.
4. Tea is steeped in history.
For those who want to stay sober, tea is a popular choice in Japan. Brought in by a Japanese Buddhist monk from China more than 1,000 years ago, green tea was the drink of nobility.
The tea ceremony using matcha (powdered green tea leaves) became part of religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries before the Kamakura Shogunate got wind of the interesting drink. Soon, matcha became a status symbol among the warrior class, so expensive that only monks and samurai could afford it.
Fortunately, matcha and other types of Japanese tea are easy to find and quite affordable these days.
5. Japanese cuisine flourished in the Edo period.
The Edo period (1603-1868) was the golden era in the history of Japanese cuisine. As Edo (present-day Tokyo) grew into a global megacity, people from all over the country came and brought with them a variety of regional cuisine and gave birth to a culinary fusion.
Some of the dishes that prospered during this time were sushi, tempura, unagi no kabayaki (grilled eel), and soba noodles — the earliest fast foods of Japan served at small stalls called yatai. Mirin (rice wine used in Japanese cooking) also took its place in traditional recipes.
6. Umami was coined over a hundred years ago.
Perhaps the most defining aspect in the Japanese food culture we know today is umami, one of the five basic tastes.
Scientifically defined as the taste of salts (e.g., glutamate, inosinate, monosodium glutamate), umami is often described as a meaty, savory, broth-like taste and can be found in a variety of ingredients.
But while only recognized as a scientific term in 1985, the term umami was coined in 1908 by Japanese scientist and professor Kikunae Ikeda. Then in 2002, scientists finally identified umami taste receptors on the human tongue.
Japanese cuisine basics, staples, and customs
Curious about Japanese eating habits and customs, common ingredients and dishes, and more Japanese food culture traditions? Read on!
7. Washoku is Japan’s holistic approach to food.
Washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, is more than just Japanese food itself. A dietary culture based on respecting nature, washoku has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Japanese spirit of respecting nature is the building block of what the Japanese eat, how they process and cook what they eat, and how they eat. Some notable features of washoku include:
- Five cooking methods that carefully use ingredients without any waste
- Indulging the five tastes and five senses
- Using five colors (red, yellow, blue/green, white, and black) in preparation and plating
- Using fresh, seasonal, and nutritious ingredients with minimal seasonings
- Observing etiquette and showing appreciation before and after eating
- Celebrating annual events with special foods
Like I said, food in Japan goes beyond sustenance.
8. A typical Japanese meal is called ichiju sansai.
The basic form of washoku is a balanced diet based on ichiju sansai or “one soup, three dishes”.
This core format of Japanese eating culture is composed of the four elements — rice, soup, main and side dishes, and pickled vegetables:
- Gohan – a bowl of plain steamed rice
- Shiru – a bowl of soup, which may contain vegetables or tofu. The most common soup is miso soup.
- Okazu – main dish and two side dishes composed of vegetables, tofu, fish, or meat
- Kouno mono – a small plate of pickled seasonal vegetables
Rice and pickled vegetables are mainstays so ichiju sansai only refers to shiru and okazu. This meal format is followed in home-cooked breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Of course, different rules apply to sushi, ramen, and other non-traditional dishes.
9. Soba and udon are the OG noodles of Japan.
Rice may be at the core of traditional Japanese food culture but noodles play an important role, too. And no, despite the sweeping ramen culture that Japan is known for, ramen is not originally from Japan.
Japan’s traditional noodles are in fact soba and udon. Soba, the thin, grayish-brown noodles, are made from buckwheat flour. It’s usually served cold with a dipping sauce, sliced green onions, and wasabi.
Udon, on the other hand, is made from wheat flour and is thicker than soba. Udon noodles are typically served hot, but occasionally served chilled in the summer. Usual toppings include a raw egg or deep-fried tofu.
10. Dashi is the secret to that umami flavor.
Umami can be found in many ingredients but it takes special cooking techniques to bring out this flavor. And for the Japanese, the key to bringing out umami is through dashi or stock.
Dashi commonly uses kombu (kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) but sometimes, niboshi (small dried fish) and shiitake mushrooms are also used. These ingredients are soaked in boiling or near-boiling water to produce the base for many sauces, seasonings, and soups in Japanese cooking.
11. Special annual events always include celebratory dishes.
No celebration in Japan is complete without food. Japanese food culture is closely tied to religious events and annual celebrations, with special food and drinks provided not just for people but for gods.
Here are some of the traditional Japanese dishes prepared for holidays and special events:
- Osechi-ryouri – a combination of special dishes packed into jyubako (lacquered boxes). Each dish is believed to bring good fortune, happiness, and good health.
- One soup and three dishes with whole grilled sea bream – traditional Japanese meal prepared for Okuizome held on the 100th day after a child’s birth
- Toshikoshi soba – eaten every New Year’s Eve. Out of all Japanese noodles, soba is said to break the easiest and by eating it before the New Year comes, you can break off all the bad luck.
- Sekihan (red rice) – often eaten at different celebratory events. The color red is believed to ward off evil spirits.
- Kashiwa-mochi – rice cakes wrapped up in oak leaves together with ingredients like sweet red bean paste. This is usually consumed during Tango no Sekku (Boys’ Day), an event where people wish for boys to grow up healthily.
Japanese food preparation and presentation
Part of what makes Japanese food culture unique is the attention given to cooking and presentation techniques. It’s not enough to have fresh and delicious ingredients — they also have to be cooked well and presented in a visually appealing way.
12. There are five cooking methods in Japanese cuisine.
Japanese cooking can be categorized into five traditional cooking techniques or goho:
- Nama – cutting. Often seen in sashimi (raw fish).
- Niru – simmering or submerging ingredients into hot dashi, water, or liquid seasonings
- Yaku – grilling
- Musu – steaming
- Ageru – deep-frying in high temperatures for a short amount of time without any loss of flavor
A way to enjoy all five cooking methods in one seating is through a standard Kaiseki-style cuisine, Japan’s traditional course dinner.
13. Chefs in training are not allowed to handle the fish or meat for years.
In Japan, the title of head chef is revered and prestigious. This is especially true for sushi chefs. But it takes years of training to earn this respect and recognition. And I mean years.
A sushi chef-in-training may start at the absolute bottom, learning how to hold a knife correctly. After years of doing this and helping with other kitchen tasks, he is given the chance to prepare sushi rice. If the head chef is satisfied, the apprentice may start helping with the preparation of fresh ingredients.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it can take upwards of 10 years of training to be a sushi chef and be allowed to stand in front of the cutting board.
14. Japanese dining culture emphasizes harmony.
Japanese food doesn’t just taste and smell good. By using goshiki (five colors) in preparation and plating, the food stimulates the appetite, evokes a refreshed and clean feeling, and ultimately becomes visually appealing.
Japanese food itself is art. But to further elevate the dining aesthetics, artisanal tableware is used. Plates and bowls may contain seasonal designs like sparrows for spring, morning glory flowers for summer, autumn leaves for fall, and snowflakes for winter.
However, more than the ornate pieces, creating balance and harmony in table arrangement is what’s valuable in Japanese food culture.
15. Portion size is not big…
But it’s not too small either.
A common misconception about Japanese food is the serving size. Most of us think that the portions are incredibly small. While sushi and sashimi come in small portions, most Japanese meals are relatively generous.
Of course, when you compare it to serving sizes in Western countries, Japanese meals appear small. But remember, traditional Japanese meals come with soup, rice, and three dishes! And they are usually filling enough.
Japanese dining etiquette
Japanese food etiquette is both an important and tricky subject. While you won’t get kicked out of a restaurant for committing a faux pas, practicing politeness and proper etiquette will make for a more enjoyable experience for you and your eating companions.
16. Knowing a bit of the lingo helps.
There are a couple of Japanese phrases you can say during meal times to show your appreciation for the food.
The first one is itadakimasu, which translates to “Let’s eat!” and is said before a meal. Saying this phrase expresses gratitude to all the people who worked to make the meal happen — from the people who grew the ingredients to the people who cooked and prepared the food.
The second phrase is goshisou sama deshita or the more casual goshisou sama literally means “What a feast!” This is a way to say “Thank you for the food” or “What a great meal!” after eating. It’s also an expression of gratitude towards the ingredients — life forms that were converted into food to give us energy.
17. Seating arrangement matters…
Unless you’re with friends. But if you’re in a formal setting, like a business dinner or dining at an elderly’s home, it’s good to know traditional seating arrangements.
There is always an “honored seat” called the kamiza. This is reserved for the guest-of-honor, the highest-ranking person in the table, or the oldest. It is usually the seat at the corner of the room farthest from the entrance. If there is a tokonoma or alcove in the room, the kamiza is in front of it.
Meanwhile, the lowest ranking guest or the youngest in the group sits in the shimoza, the seat nearest to the entrance. Why? Because this allows for more room to order, move around to pass food, or pour drinks for the higher ranking or older guests.
18. Use wet towels only to wipe your hands.
In Japanese restaurant culture, wet towels or oshibori are often provided to clean your hands before eating. This may come in the form of wet disposable paper tissues or reusable cloth towels.
Whichever type of oshibori you receive, this is given specifically for wiping your hands and nothing else. You may see others using it to wipe their face, mouth, or even the table, but it’s not considered to be good manners.
19. Slurping is okay but not all sounds are.
Ah, slurping. A common subject of confusion when it comes to Japanese food etiquette.
To be clear, unlike in many countries, slurping is common in Japan and even expected to a certain extent. Noodles are often served hot and slurping is done to cool them down while eating.
That said, slurping is not mandatory. And while it’s acceptable, other sounds aren’t. The noise made when setting down tableware, chewing or munching sounds, blowing your nose, burping — all of these are considered bad manners in Japan.
20. Use chopsticks the right way.
Another delicate matter in Japanese food culture is the use of chopsticks, the main utensil in Japanese dining.
The proper way to hold chopsticks is to first hold the upper chopstick like you would a pencil with your grip sitting at the top third of the sticks. The second chopstick sits on your ring finger and is held with the base of your thumb. You should be able to move the top chopstick up and down to grip food.
Other things to remember when using chopsticks include the following:
- Don’t use your bowl as a resting place for your chopsticks. If no chopstick rest is available, use the wrapper or paper binding that your chopsticks came in.
- Don’t stab food with your chopsticks.
- When having soup, use the chopsticks to eat the solid items from the broth. Then, bring the bowl to your mouth and drink the broth from it.
If you’re having difficulty using chopsticks, you’re better off requesting a fork and knife. Remember, however, that certain dishes like sushi and sashimi are not meant to be eaten with a fork and it would be rude to do so.
21. There are proper ways of eating sushi.
Preparing quality sushi requires years of training and the best ingredients. That’s why you’re expected to show respect and gratitude to the sushi chef by observing good manners.
We’ve covered common sushi etiquette and customs here, but it’s worth mentioning again that sushi is traditionally eaten by hand, not by chopsticks, so as not to ruin its perfect form. Nigiri sushi is also meant to be eaten in one bite.
22. And correct ways of eating ramen.
As is with sushi, you’re also expected to observe etiquette when eating ramen.
For instance, you’re expected to start with a few sips of the broth before slurping the noodles or putting in any additional seasoning. And it’s meant to be eaten fast!
You can educate yourself further with this list of ramen etiquette and customs.
23. Don’t pour yourself a drink.
Compared to ramen shops and sushi restaurants, izakayas or Japanese pubs are less uptight when it comes to table manners. However, there are still certain things to observe, especially when drinking with Japanese people.
When drinking alcoholic beverages, don’t pour your own drink. Instead, it’s customary to serve others and refill their drinks if their cups are getting empty. Likewise, you should let others serve you more alcohol.
Additionally, you should hold your drink until everyone has one and say “kampai!”, meaning “cheers”, in unison.
24. Eating while walking is frowned upon.
In many countries, it’s not uncommon to see people grabbing a bite from a sandwich or bagel while rushing to the office or heading to the next sightseeing spot. In Japan, it’s considered rude.
While there’s no law forbidding you to do so, it is requested to avoid doing this for a couple of reasons. First, it goes against the Japanese food culture of appreciating your food properly. Plus, eating while walking also produces litter and attracts unwelcome wildlife.
When buying food from a convenience store, vending machine, or a street stall, it’s best to eat it at the store itself or in front of it. You can also eat it at home or on a bench where you can finish your meal.
25. Tipping is not recommended.
Something interesting for penny-pinching tourists: tipping is not customary in Japan. In fact, in some cases, it may even be considered rude.
Japanese culture values hard work and dignity, making good service a standard rather than something special. This is especially true for Japanese restaurants. You may even be chased down by the restaurant staff to give back any money you left behind.
That said, tour guides and taxi drivers may sometimes accept tips. In general, however, saying thank you and being polite to people you encounter is enough.
Japanese food in contemporary times
Traditional Japanese food culture offers glimpses into Japan’s illustrious past but Japanese ingenuity is just as visible in the more recent (or reinvented) culinary developments.
26. Not all bento boxes are created equal.
Another popular Japanese invention, a bento is a portable meal of rice and side dishes packed into a small container. Historically, bento boxes were used by Japanese farmers, hunters, and warriors who needed food while working outside.
Today, however, there are several types of bento boxes made for different settings, such as:
- Shidashi – bento delivered by professional caterers and are usually ordered for important occasions.
- Shokado – Developed in Osaka at the beginning of the Showa period, it has four types of dishes, arranged into four sections of a lacquered bento box. It’s essentially kaiseki in a box.
- Ekiben – bento found in many railroad stations
- Kamameshi (potted rice) – home-style bento traditionally cooked and served in an earthenware pot
- Koraku – large bento boxes meant to be shared among a small group
- Kyaraben – “character bento” or lunchboxes made for children, often shaped or designed to look like cartoon characters
27. Convenience wins in modern Japanese cuisine.
Convenience stores and vending machines did not originate from Japan but the Japanese have made it their own.
The first convenience store or konbini in Japan opened in 1973 and stores have since hosted a plethora of items ranging from edible to bizarre. Carrying bento boxes, instant ramen, sandwiches, salads, Japanese snacks, and drinks, convenience stores offer a quick and relatively cheap way to fill up one’s tummy.
Too busy to even visit a convenience store? A quick and tasty snack or drink from a vending machine is the way to go. Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita. These machines contain a dizzying array of products – chips, soda, coffee, dessert, edible insects, and even love letters!
28. Japan loves food delivery.
Interestingly, the concept of food delivery or demae has existed in Japan for centuries. It started over 300 years ago during the Edo period and continued to thrive during the Showa era.
Food delivery was done via bicycles, with drivers delivering more than 20 dishes each time. But with the emergence of cars, balancing stacks of dishes on bicycles became dangerous. Boxes to hold food behind bicycles and motorcycles were then created.
Food delivery remains popular in modern-day Japan, especially with the rise of fast food and smartphones. Popular food delivery companies include UberEats, Food Panda, and Maishoku and you can order pretty much anything — sushi, bento boxes, pizza, Japanese curry, ramen, donburi, and more!
29. They also love Western food… with a twist.
Speaking of pizza, the Japanese also eat and love food from the other side of the planet. But while hamburgers, fish and chips, and pasta are present in Japan, there is a type of Western cuisine that is unique to Japan — the Yoshoku.
Yoshoku is Western cuisine, reinvented the Japanese way. Make no mistake, this isn’t simply fusion food, but a distinctly Japanese adaptation of Western dishes.
Popular yoshoku dishes include:
- Kareraisu or curry rice (curry was introduced to Japan by the British)
- Hambagu or hamburger but served with rice, salad, and sauce
- Napolitan, spaghetti (with the consistency of udon) stir-fried with vegetables and meat, seasoned with ketchup
- Doria, baked casserole, similar to a French gratin
30. Street food in Japan is not as common.
Known as yatai, street food stands have been around since the Edo period. They provided the earliest forms of fast food and were commonly seen as part of Japanese nightlife culture. They were also more common in festivals or matsuri.
However, in the 1900s, stricter regulations made it difficult to open and run a yatai. They were frowned upon and thought of as unsightly eating spots that created litter and invited noise. Soon, the number of street food stalls declined.
The good news is, Japanese street food culture is seeing a resurgence after the relaxation of yatai laws. More chefs are also experimenting with street food and the influx of young tourists helps popularize this eating experience.
To know the food of a place is to know its culture. If you read this until the end, you definitely know about Japanese food more than you ever did!
But this list barely scratches the surface. For the Japanophile foodie, there is more to learn. I recommend reading your way through these Japanese food facts, exploring the nitty-gritty of sushi and ramen, satisfying your sweet tooth with Japanese candies and chocolates, and finishing it off with a Japanese beverage!