Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Nobuo Harada was born in 1949. He is a professor of 21st Century Asian Studies at Kokushikan University, specializing in Japanese cultural history. Harada researches what kind of lifestyles people have led, how Japanese culture has been established over time, and how that culture is manifested today. Harada is especially interested in Japanese food culture. He is deeply knowledgeable about turning points in Japanese food culture throughout the ages, as well as how food is related to history.
March 26, 2019
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Kobe beef, sukiyaki, yakitori and more. When it comes to meat, Japan is a fan. Since opening its doors to the Western world in the 1800s, Japan has consumed an ever-increasing amount of beef, chicken and pork. But that wasn’t always the case—in fact, the consumption of meat was actually banned for over a millennium. In this meaty edition of Japanology Plus, we bite into Japan’s relatively nascent, but incredibly varied, meat-eating culture.
Wait—the country famous for its marbled beef banned meat for over a millennium? It’s true. As we learn on the program, the ancient Japanese ate meat, hunting various animals like deer and wild boar. But factors such as rice becoming the main part of the Japanese diet, and the adoption of Buddhism, which forbids killing, led to a decline in meat consumption. Finally, the Tenmu Emperor banned eating meat outright in 675.
This ban basically continued until 1872, when the Meiji Emperor celebrated the new year by eating meat. However, it seems there were often times during that 1,200-odd year span when the ban was skirted. For one, it seems while the Japanese were basically pescatarian during this time, dairy products were available. Pastures and cattle farms were found throughout the country during the Heian period (794-1185), and the Imperial Family is said to have consumed over five liters of milk on a daily basis.
There are also records of the ban being broken during the 1500s and 1600s, when Christian missionaries were spreading their religion in Japan, especially on the southern island of Kyushu. Domains controlled by lords who had converted to Christianity disregarded the ban on meat—there are even records of Easter feasts featuring beef cooked with rice.
A deli featuring many quality cuts of beef.
When the ban on eating meat was officially lifted 1,200 years after being established, some Japanese were understandably wary of the practice, despite the emperor’s approval. To warm the public up to the idea, respected intellectuals like Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University whose face adorns the 10,000 yen note, were conscripted to pen odes to meat. In his piece, Fukuzawa argued that the purported foul smell of meat was no worse than “pickled fish organs” and other Japanese favorites, and that the issue was “based more upon what we are used to and not used to.”
On Plus One, Matt Alt gets up close and personal with some Japanese cattle.
These days, as we see during the program’s on-the-street interviews, people in Japan are completely accustomed to meat, with many preferring it to fish. In fact, the average Japanese citizen now consumes much more meat than fish, with the turning point coming in the late 2000s, according to one survey. It’s been a rapid rise for meat, with an average of just 3.5 kg per year consumed per person in 1960 to 30 kg per year by 2013.
As of 2018, the most-consumed type of meat in Japan was chicken, which overtook pork in recent years. Some analysts attribute the rise of chicken to “salad chicken,” a pre-steamed, vacuum-packed variety that can be purchased in Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores. Chicken also appeals to Japan’s health-conscious consumers because it’s leaner than pork or beef, according to one official from a meat wholesaler. As for wagyu, the type of succulent, marbled Japanese beef enjoyed by expert guest Nobuo Harada and host Peter Barakan in this edition, the supply seems to be on the wane, with a current shortage of calves.
Chicken thigh meat, known in Japanese as “momo.”
A piece of wagyu. Check out that marbling!
In what may feel like an ironic twist to some, despite having banned meat entirely (well, mostly) for over a millennium, Japan’s relatively newfound love of meat means the country can be a frustrating place for vegetarians and vegans who want to eat out. However, as Peter Barakan notes at the outset, interest in vegetarianism and veganism appears to be growing worldwide, and Japan is no exception. And because of its unique history, Japan has several distinctive options that can appeal to herbivores: for example, Japan’s native vegan cuisine, the Buddhist temple staple called shojin-ryori, was created during the country’s ban on meat.
Japan will no doubt be known for its high-quality beef for some time to come.
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