Formation of Japanese Meal

In this module we will introduce some of the archaeological evidence for the development of Japanese cuisine. We will consider the foods that were available, and how these were collected and cultivated. Many discoveries are helping us understand how ingredients were processed and prepared. And new scientific techniques, such as isotope analysis of human bones, are helping us identify exactly what was eaten.

Analysing food culture

Archaeologists can investigate past food cultures by analysing the remains of the food itself such as animal bones and plant remains. They can also look at the kinds of utensils that were used in food processing, preparation, eating and drinking. These kinds of remains or artefacts are not always present on archaeological sites however. For example, highly acidic soils will eat way bone, while plant remains are usually preserved only when they have been burnt or in waterlogged soils.

Part 1: Remains of food from medieval and Edo sites

Historical documents and drawings of the medieval period suggest that food cultures varied between villages and towns, by social class, and between daily and ceremonial uses. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

What foods were produced and consumed in the ancient and medieval periods?

Rice farming

Rice agriculture began in the Yayoi period and has increased steadily ever since. In the E period, the territory of the daimyo and the pay of the samurai class were determined in volumes of rice, and they turned rice into money. This led to even more new paddy fields being created. Harada Nobuo used historical documents to work out that there were 900,000 hectares of paddy fields in the ancient Heian period (10-11th century), and around 1,000,000 hectares in medieval Japan. This increased to 1,643,000 hectares in the middle E period (18th century) and reached up to 2,591,000 hectares in 1881. 948,000 more hectares were developed in only two hundred years from the 18th to the 19th century.

Fig. 01 – Proportions of foodstuffs from sites across Japan

1: Pie charts by Toizumi Takeji showing the proportion of foods from medieval sites across Japan

What do they tell us?

  • Rice was the most important grain at four out of seven sites.
  • Barley is found in five sites and and ranks top at Hachioji in Kanto district.
  • There is a wide variety of other types of grain, including barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), common millet (Panicum miliaceum), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor).

Why are barley and wheat the dominant grains in the Kanto district? Possibly due to the local topography and geology. Government records of agricultural production at the beginning of the Meiji period tell us that barley and wheat were 30 to 50% of the total grain most of the Kanto district.

Fig. 02 – Soybeans from Nakamura

2: Soybeans in the soil at Nakamura in Gunma prefecture

Fields were preserved under a volcanic mudflow of 1783 and still contained green soy beans. The beans lost colour immediately after excavation. Soybean was an important food to provide protein, as well as being used for soy sauce and miso (fermented soybean). Nuts such as sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts were also used.

Fig. 03 – Proportions of fish from sites across Japan

3: Pie charts by Toizumi Takeji showing the occurrence of different fish at medieval sites

Red sea bream (Pagrus major) was the main fish except in Hokkaido where herring is found. Herrings prefered its colder sea currents. Sea bass (Lateolabrax japonicus) and black porgy (Tautoga onitis) were also preferred fish. Shark meat was popular as it keeps longer because of the antiseptic effect of its contained ammonia. Common Japanese conger (Muraenesox cinereus) and pufferfish (Tetraeodontidae family of fish) are familiar in modern western Japan.

Not shown in the charts are shellfish, chiefly clams: Orient clam (Meretrix lusoria), Manila clam (Venerupis philippinarum), and clams of the Corbiculidae family were the dominant kinds eaten.

Fig. 04 – Stable isotope analysis

4: Stable isotope analysis

The red and blue symbols in figure 4 show the amounts of carbon 13 and nitrogen 15 in bones from the town cemeteries of  Fushimi in Kyoto and Hyogotsu in Hyogo prefecture.

Bones from both cemeteries have a low value of carbon 13 and a high value of nitrogen 15. The low value of carbon 13 shows the effect of eating a lot of rice, and a high value of nitrogen 15 indicates that they were relying on fish and shellfish for their protein.

Fig. 05 – Edo teeth and toothbrush

5: Teeth and a toothbrush excavated from sites of the Edo period

Approximately 64% of teeth at Hyogotsu had caries. Having caries in teeth is known to be caused by eating a lot of carbonised plant foods, such as nuts and cereal grains. Around 10% of Jomon people on the mainland had caries, as did around 15 to 20% of Yayoi people in western Honshu and Kyushu. We can say from this that earlier peoples ate less rice than people in the Edo period. At Fushimi, approximately 34% of people had caries. This is more than in the older periods but is almost half that of Hyogotsu. Maruyama Masashi suggested that the people at Fushimi were of higher status and took more care of their teeth. Handles of toothbrushes made with bone or antler were often found from excavations of sites in the late Edo period, in the 19th century. For comparison, less than 5% of hunter gatherers (such as the many of the first nations in America) had caries, while 90% of children in modern Japan have caries.

Fig. 06 – Kusado Sengen, in Hiroshima prefecture, showing the remains of the medieval trading town now on an island in the middle of the river

6: Kusado Sengen, in Hiroshima prefecture

This site is located in the mouth of Asida river. It was a medieval merchant town and port that was abandoned in the beginning of the 16th century and buried by a flood at the end of the century. The river route has been moved by river improvement work in the 1920’s, and now the site is under a sandbar in the river. Rescue excavations continued from 1961 to 1993, covering 67,000 square metres.

Fig. 07 – Pot from Kusado Sengen

7: An earthenware cooking pot from Kusado Sengen (rim diameter 36.4cm)

Iron and earthenware bowl-shaped cooking pots were commonly used for boiling foods like rice. There are very few iron pots and kettles from excavations, because broken iron vessels were collected and melted down for new vessels.

Fig. 08 – Stone cooking pot from Kusado Sengen

8: A stone cooking pot from Kusado Sengen (mouth diameter 24cm)

Talc stone cooking pots were used mainly in the medieval period and were good for cooking rice porridge and soupy rice.

Fig. 09 – Lacquer bowls from Kusado Sengen

9: Lacquer bowls from Kusado Sengen

The wet soils have preserved many organic remains, protected by the sands which protected the site. It was previously thought that lacquered wooden bowls and dishes became major table wares only after the medieval period. But tools for making lacquer ware such as pottery with lacquer and wooden spatulas show that Kusado Sengen was also place of production of lacquer ware.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • What foods were produced and consumed in the ancient and medieval periods?

Secondary questions

  • What is the evidence that we can use to understand food cultures in the medieval period?
  • Is it fair to say that rice was the staple food in medieval Japan?
  • Can we see differences in food culture between the historical and Jomon periods?

Part 2: Social class and food vessels in towns

Pottery recovered by archaeology can tell us a lot about the status of the people who lived at the site and the kinds of foods they ate. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How does food reflect social status in the past?

Fig.10 – Reconstructed Heian period imperial meal

10: A reconstructed Heian period meal for an Imperial banquet

Differences in the foods eaten by different strata of society became more pronounced after the Ancient period. Dozens of dishes (from the upper left) for the highest group of nobles included grilled red sea bream, boiled or steamed white rice, soup, sake drink, abalone dressed with eggs of sea urchin, wheat noodles, stewed taro, cheese, kanten (Japan agar), fried dumplings, raw duck meat (like sashimi), and fruits which in total represent about 3,500 kcal.

Fig.11 – Reconstructed Nara period meal

11: A reconstructed Nara period meal for common government officials

A meal for commoners working in the government offices in the Nara period was much simpler than that of the nobles. From upper left we see salted vegetables, soup with green leaf vegetables, salt and boiled brown dehulled rice.

Fig. 12 – Naito-cho, Edo period site in Tokyo

12: The Edo residence of the lords of Kurume at Naitocho in Tokyo

The site of Naitocho in the Shinjuku ward of the modern city of Tokyo (Edo during the Early Modern period) was the official Edo residence of the Kurume clan who controlled large parts of the western island of Kyushu, the province of Hizen. Each year the feudal lords and their families had to spend six months residing in the Edo capital, a system which provided a convenient way for the Tokugawa shoguns to control the regional lords. Many high status objects, including beautiful porcelains from the Kurume lands in Kyushu were discovered. The Nabeshima style of porcelain was particularly highly regarded, and continues to be so today.

Fig. 13 – Hizen dish from Naito-cho

13: A fine Hizen dish from Naitocho (rim diameter 36.4cm)

More than 40 fine large size dishes made in Hizen were found. These large dishes might have been used for parties or dinners at a tavern or teahouse. Some dishes have signatures, probably those of the owners.

Fig. 14 – Hasami pots from Naito-cho

14: Hasami pots from Naitocho (left rim diameter 19.3cm, right height 26.3cm)

Cheaper, more mass-producted porcelains (commonly called kurawanka) from the Hasami area in Hizen are found in the old town area. Comparison with vessels of the Nabeshima style makes the difference in quality clear. The Hasami style has a dull white base colour and dull blue drawings.

Fig. 15 – Hizen glazed bowl from Naito-cho

15: An Hizen glazed bowl from Naitocho (rim diameter 11.3cm)

Glazed stoneware and porcelain bowls, cups and dishes became common. The mass production of Hasami style porcelain was a response to the demand for these.

Fig. 16 – Salt container from Naito-cho

16: An unglazed salt container from Naitocho (height of pot 9.7cm

Unglazed pots for cooking salt were used both to remove bitterness and as a container for sale. The stamp on the wall of the pot says Senshu Aso, showing that it originated in Osaka.

Fig. 17 – Hizen serving cup from Naito-cho

17: A small Hizen serving cup from Naitocho (height 9.0cm)

It is thought that small pitchers and small cups were used to serve soy sauce and vinegar.

Fig. 18 – Earthenware mortar from Naito-cho

18: An earthenware mortar from Naitocho (rim diameter 13.2cm, made in Setomino, Aichi and Gifu prefecture)

Sets of earthenware mortar bowls with inner textured surfaces and wooden pestles were used for a wide range of food processing involving fish, sesame, fermented soy bean etc.

A glazed stoneware bowl-shaped cooking pot (nabe) became popular with the new fashion for Japanese style hotpot. Easily-available vinegar, soy sauce and fermented soybean and sake gave a variety of flavours to these hotpot dishes.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How does food reflect social status in the past?

Secondary questions

  • What kinds of meals were eaten by different groups in society?
  • What functions were served by the different kinds of pottery vessels?
  • What does the archaeology tell us about the popularity of different foods?