Rice as main attraction
In ancient Japan, growing rice in wet paddy fields began around the 5th century B.C. Society came to be based on agriculture, with rice as the main crop and staple food.
The people of East and Southeast Asia look on a typical meal as one with rice as the main actor, and side dishes playing a secondary role. The typical Japanese meal is no exception. Rice is boiled and steamed, and goes straight from the pot into waiting bowls, with no flavor added. Fish and vegetable side dishes come with a variety of flavorings, but somehow their role seems to be to whet the appetite for more rice.
In Japanese, “eat breakfast” (or lunch or supper) is “go-han o taberu,” which literally means “eat rice.” The words go-han (rice) and shokuji (a meal) are used interchangeably.
In the past, poor people and those farming highland areas where productivity was low did not have access to much rice, so they would mix barley or some other cheaper grain with rice before boiling. But during festivals and formal occasions even poor people found a way to eat rice and mochi rice cakes without mixing in “inferior” grains.
Mochi are made by pounding cooked glutinous rice, using a large wooden mallet and receptacle. In the old days the Japanese—like the people of Southeast Asia—had a belief that the spirits of rice plants dwelled in the grains of rice. Sacred rice pounded into mochi was a food for festivals. Even today, on New Year’s Day, the most important festival of the year, families eat mochi in a zoni soup, together with seafood and vegetables.
Saké is made from rice, and it too has a place of honor at festivals. Japanese festivals are a time to eat rice and mochi, and to drink saké—in other words, to enjoy plenty of tasty food and drink from the rice plant.
So we can say that the traditional Japanese meal is designed to bring out the best of rice and saké.
No meat from mammals
Any history of food in Japan has to include the many centuries when eating the meat of four-legged animals was forbidden. The first law prohibiting meat eating was issued in the year 675, a little more than 100 years after the arrival of Buddhism.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, when a new emperor came to the throne he would issue an Imperial edict forbidding meat consumption. This was because, according to Buddhist belief, killing animals is wrong. The fact that these edicts were issued from time to time indicates that some found it hard to give up eating meat. But by around the 10th century just about everyone had stopped eating it.
In China and the Korean peninsula, the Buddhist clergy were not allowed to eat meat or fish, but in Japan even ordinary people did not eat meat. This was partly because of Buddhism, and partly because even the indigenous religion, Shinto, considered that eating the flesh of animals was unclean.
But the rule extended only to meat from mammals, not seafood. Whales are mammals, but the common folk thought of them as big fish and there was no prohibition against killing and eating them. Wild birds were also eaten. There was a belief that chickens and roosters were messengers working for the Shinto gods, and their meat and eggs were not eaten until the 15th century.
The indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido in northern Japan depended considerably on food from wild birds, animals and plants, and deer and bear meat was an important part of their diet. In the far south, the Ryukyu Kingdom in the Okinawan islands was in a different jurisdiction and prohibitions against meat eating did not apply. People there raised pigs, goats and other animals and ate their meat. In mountainous areas on the main islands of Japan, people who made their living fishing the mountain streams would hunt wild mammals for their fur and medicinal properties, and eat the meat of what they caught. And others, hoping to cure some illness or build up their strength, might practice kusuri-gui (eating medicinal flesh of wild animals). But in spite of all this, animals were not raised for meat, and for many centuries meat consumption in Japan was remarkably low.
Like their neighbors in China and the Korean peninsula, the Japanese did not drink the milk of domestic animals, and the manufacture of dairy products did not occur until much later. It is no wonder, then, that preparing fish for the table developed into a fine art.