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How Japan went from being an almost entirely vegetarian country to a huge consumer of meat

The first East Asian country to develop an appetite for meat, and one that can offer a glimpse into the process of going from almost vegetarian to meat loving in a relatively short period of time, is Japan.

As late as 1939 a typical Japanese person ate just 0.1 ounce of meat per day.

That’s a yearly average, of course.

Today, the daily meat portion of a typical Yamada Tarō (the Japanese equivalent of John Smith) is 4.7 ounces, and his favourite animal protein is pork, not tuna in a sushi roll. One reason behind this astounding change was the rise of Western influence.

Medieval Japan was practically vegetarian. The national religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, both promoted plant-based eating, but what was likely more key to keeping the Japanese off meat was the shortage of arable land on the islands.

Growing livestock takes land away from more efficient plant agriculture, and already in medieval Japan, too many forests had been cleared for fields and too many draft animals were being killed for their flesh — which prompted Japan’s rulers to issue meat-eating bans.

The first such ban was announced in 675 CE and meant no beef, monkey, chicken, or dog in Japanese pots from late spring until early autumn. Later, more bans followed. For some time, the Japanese could still satisfy their meat cravings with wild game, but as the population increased and forests gave way to cropland, deer and boars disappeared and so did meat from the plates of the Yamada Tarōs.

The winds of change started blowing, at first mildly, in the eighteenth century. It was the Dutch who sowed in Japanese minds the idea that eating meat is good for health. The Japanese came to see the meat-loaded diets of the tall Europeans as a symbol of progress, of breaking with feudal, hierarchical society.

In 1872, Japanese diets took a fast swerve toward meat. That year, on January 24, a feminine-looking, poetry-writing emperor Meiji publicly ate meat for the first time, giving the nation permission to follow his example.

Over just five years, beef consumption in Tokyo shot up more than thirteen times (what made it possible were imports from Korea). Meiji and his government saw meat not only as a way to modernise Japan and boost the health of the average citizen but also as a way to bolster the strength of the Japanese army. Back then, typical conscripts were small and thin — over 16% of candidates failed to meet the minimum height of four feet eleven inches.

The American occupation after the Second World War gave another powerful boost to the Japanese hunger for meat. The Japanese observed the war victors stuffing themselves with hamburgers, steaks, and bacon.

The words of Den Fujita, the chief of McDonald’s Japanese operations, sum up the prevailing sentiment pretty well: “If we eat hamburgers for a thousand years, we will become blond. And when we become blond we can conquer the world.”

Excerpted from MEATHOOKED: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat by Marta Zaraska. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.

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