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When Did Western Cuisine Come to Japan?

(The following is a post by Eiichi Ito, Reference Specialist for the Japanese Collection, Asian Division.)

An American friend once told me how, on the first day of his visit to Japan, he received an invitation to dine at the home of a Japanese family. While he enjoyed the meal, he was surprised to see that the dishes that his hosts served did not resemble those in a typical Japanese restaurant in the United States. There was no sushi, sashimi (sliced raw fish) or soba (buckwheat) noodles. Instead, he found dishes of korokke (croquette), tori no kara’age (deep-fried chicken), and tonkatsu (pork cutlet) arranged beautifully on the table with ohashi (chopsticks) and a small bottle of shoyu (soy sauce). This scene of seemingly familiar, but also different, foods made him curious about what defined home style cooking in Japan as opposed to America or Europe. He wondered when Western cuisine was first introduced to Japan and came to me for some answers.

The introduction of European food to Japan is closely linked to the history of ports designated for foreign trade. Portuguese merchants were the first Europeans to visit Japan, landing on the small island of Tanegashima in 1543. Just six years later, the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier arrived at the southwestern port city of Kagoshima. Local authorities opened the port of Nagasaki for trade to the Portuguese in 1571. In addition to introducing goods like matchlock rifles and tobacco, the Portuguese also brought new foods, such as tempura (fresh fish, shellfish, or vegetables dipped in a batter of flour mixed with egg and water and deep-fried) and kasutera (castella or sponge cake). Tempura grew in popularity over the following centuries, but it’s not exactly clear that Japanese viewed it as a “Western” dish. While it may have been the first example of European cooking in Japan, it wouldn’t be accurate to describe this as the introduction of Western cuisine more generally.

Figure 1: Dejima, a part in bottom center of etching illustration in “Vue et description de la ville de Meaco capitale du Japon avec d’autres particularitez du pays,” [between 1714 and 1720]. From: Chatelain, Henri Abraham. Atlas Historique. Amsterdam: L’Honoré & Châtelain, 1714-1720, vol. V, no. 156, p. 192. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Concerned about the potentially subversive influence of the Portuguese merchants and Jesuit priests on the local Japanese people, the Tokugawa shogunate (military government) first isolated them in Dejima, an artificial island constructed in Nagasaki Harbor in 1636. Then, after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637, which involved a number of Kirishitan, or Christian converts, the shogunate banned Christianity and expelled the Portuguese from Japan. Only the Dutch and the Chinese, who were solely interested in trading rather than proselytizing, were allowed to enter Japan. Even so, the Dutch were also confined to Dejima. This small island remained the only channel for commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West until Japan gave up its isolation policy in 1854 by signing the Treaty of Peace and Amity or “Kanagawa Treaty.” Under mounting Western pressure, the Japanese authorities opened a few ports for trade including the ports of Hakodate and Yokohama in 1856.

One testament to Japan’s new openness to the West after the Kanagawa Treaty is a plaque engraved with the phrase “Birthplace of Western cuisine in Japan.” This plaque now stands on the land of the Thomas Glover Mansion in Nagasaki, the oldest standing Western style house in Japan built by Japanese carpenters. Thomas Blake Glover was a Scottish businessman who founded Glover and Company in Nagasaki in 1859. Given that the Glover Mansion was completed in 1863, was this the year in which Western cuisine was officially introduced to Japan? Probably not, as Glover’s dinner table was not open to the public.

While some types of Portuguese food, like tempura and castella (sponge cake), clearly made their way into the Japanese diet a few centuries ago, when did the idea of Western cuisine enter into popular thinking? Were any Japanese books published to introduce Western cuisine or cooking to the general public? One particular book from the over 1.2 million items in the Library’s Japanese collection offers some more concrete answers to this question.

Figure 2: Illustration on the wrapper of “Seiyo ryori shinan = Cookery” (1872). Library of Congress Asian Division.

Seiyo ryori shinan” (“西洋料理指南,” “A guide to Western cooking”) by Keigakudo Shujin was published in 1872. In two volumes, this book not only described Western cuisine and recipes but also featured illustrations of a dining scene, cutlery, and kitchen utensils. Several dishes were introduced that were completely foreign to the Japanese palate and included items such as veal, pork, and cow milk. The author also wrote about the importance of establishing the habit of having a regular diet with three meals a day instead of two, which the Japanese easily adapted to. “Seiyo ryori shinan” appeared at the beginning of the new Meiji government’s “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) campaign, when the government adopted a policy of modernization that introduced Western civilization to Japan. During this time the government encouraged changes to many aspects of Japanese daily life, including the adoption of Western manners, clothing, and food. Authorities promoted the idea that Western cuisine, based on nutritious ingredients and detailed recipes, would strengthen and improve the health of the Japanese and, in turn, enable them to build a modern state to catch up with the West. Along with many other customs, Western cooking was considered by statesmen and intellectuals to be superior to their own traditional cooking. It was just one example of the then commonly held idea that Western culture was superior and Japanese culture lagged behind.

Figure 3: Japanese in Western style outfits dining at a table. From “Seiyo ryori shinan = Cookery” (1872).

Nowadays, many Japanese may not even consider korokke and tonkatsu as Western dishes. Those originally foreign dishes, introduced more than a century ago, have been fused and blended into the Japanese diet. Since then, Japanese cooking has become a hybrid cuisine that includes elements of both Western and Japanese cultures. When one sees that Americans crave “real” Japanese food, like sushi and sashimi, and that these foods can easily be found in supermarkets around the world, it is clear that something of a global fusion of various food cultures has been taking place for quite some time. The publication of “Seiyo ryori shinan” in 1872 is an important milestone in recording the changes taking place in this global fusion of food cultures.

Further reading:

Bestor, Theodore C. 2004. “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.” Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cwiertka, Katarzyna Joanna. 2014. “Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity.” London: Reaktion Books.
Rath, Eric C, and Stephanie Assmann. 2010. “Japanese Foodways, Past and Present.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Figure 4: Kitchen utensils and cooking pans. From “Seiyo ryori shinan = Cookery” (1872).

Figure 5: Instructions on how to place a fork and knife on a plate to indicate when a dish is finished or not. From “Seiyo ryori shinan = Cookery” (1872).

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