The Social and Cultural Diversity of Food and Cuisine in Japan


The Social and Cultural Diversity of Food and Cuisine in Japan

Often reduced to the simplistic image of a cuisine centred around white rice and sublimating raw fish, "the Japanese cuisine" is actually characterized by its extraordinary diversity. With a long history of several millennia during which the populations of the archipelago exchanged among themselves but also with foreigners, many culinary techniques and forms of food practices were developed and codified differently according to the social strata. Sometimes borrowed from the appropriation of continental or foreign models, sometimes claiming to be specific to Japanese territory, Japanese cuisines are part of a society with changing social structures, strong geographical and cultural dynamics, and a set of scholarly, moral and religious conceptions. Between the transmission of technical gestures, the transfer and adaptation of recipes, the appropriation and development of technologies and culinary tools, "the Japanese cuisine" is defined above all by a historical construction of tastes and practices reflecting varied lifestyles from both a socially and a culturally point of view.

From “high” to “low” cuisine: a social distribution of food practices

Eating, as well as cooking, is not only a physiological necessity, it is also a socially constructed act. The different social classes thus appropriate codes, types of food, cooking recipes or even dishes that reflect varied lifestyles. In Japan, "high cuisine" is built on the basis of two culinary models: honzen and kaiseki cuisines.

Honzen 本膳 ("main stray") cuisine was developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) among the warrior class, then at the head of political power. Characterized by an abundant service of sake before and during the meal, it consists of a service of three to seven trays depending on the circumstances, each containing between one and five dishes. Following well-established codes, it was simplified several times during the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). Today, it is still served on rare occasions such as weddings.
Kaiseki cuisine was born towards the end of the 16th century. Developed by tea masters, its primary objective was to offer a light meal in order to better prepare the guests to taste the tea afterwards. Quickly divided into two branches during the 17th century, one consisting of large feasts (kaiseki ryōri 会席料理) and the other of more sober meals (kaiseki ryōri 懐石料理), kaiseki cuisine remains today one of of the most representative elements of Japanese cuisine and its identity.

schema explicatif

(image 1) Drawing explaining the differences between honzen and kaiseki cuisines in a cookbook written in 1898.
Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

“Low cuisine”, meaning the cuisine eaten by the vast majority of the population, tends to be less theorized, but is not deprived of codes and systems. Popular diets have often been distinguished between urban and rural areas. If peasant cuisines are often described as strong in taste, unrefined and relatively simple in the historical texts, we also know that culinary cultures with strong identities have been developed in rural areas and even have sometimes penetrated those of the cities. In urban areas, street food has long dominated food practices, especially since the 17th century. Eating quickly outside the family home was, and continues to be, one of the most common eating practices in Japan.

schema explicatif des variantes

(image 2) Representation of women cooking sweet potato rice in urban area in a cookbook published in 1888. Source : Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

Estampe de Utagawa

(image 3) Print of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) showing a busy street in Edo where all kinds of street food are accessible to the bystanders. Source : archives du musée préfectoral d'histoire de Kanagawa

Speaking of home, it was not before the early 20th century that the very idea of "home cooking" (katei ryōri 家庭料理) was created on the archipelago. It was born from a strange hybridization between "high cuisine", “low cuisine” and the influence of Western lifestyles where the meal plays a central role in the idea of family cohesion. Built around a bowl of rice, a soup, some pickled vegetables, a main dish (protein) and two side dishes (vegetables), it is still today the symbol of a "bourgeois" diet implying a set of social representations.

un diner à Tokyo

(image 4) Illustration titled "Dinner in Tokyo" depicting the "bourgeois" family ideal in 1911. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète (NDL) japonaise.

Although the social structure tends to delimit different modes of foodways, it is interesting to note that some dishes travel from one class to another according to the times, or are even common to several social environments at the same time. Sushi is a good example of this: first sold as a street food product in the 17th century, it is now one of the flagship products of the most luxurious restaurants, but also in the most common supermarkets.

A cultural diversity of Japanese food: religion, regional specialities and foreign cuisines

In addition to the social aspect, cultural plurality, whether it is religious, regional or resulting from the appropriation of foreign know-how, reinforces further the diversification of food and culinary practices.

If the religious aspect in food remains today only in Buddhist temples, its influence on the development of foodways during the history of Japan was one of the greatest. In Buddhism, doing an act of ill will towards another living being, human or animal, is simply considered as a sin. Killing an animal to eat its flesh is therefore strictly forbidden. These principles have been the basis for the development of various diets since the Nara period (710-794) and in particular a "vegetarian" mode still applied today in certain religious spaces. This banishment of animal flesh from diets originates from a moral vision of food which was however far from being respected, even by the great lords whose piety was supposed irreproachable. If eating meat was gradually accepted in Japanese society since the 19th century after the arrival of the Western model, it was not until the second half of the 20th century that we could see a real difference in consumption patterns on a national scale.

photo d'un repas contemporain

(image 5) Picture of a contemporary Buddhist cuisine meal (shōjin ryōri 精進料理) with no trace of animal substances. © Licence Creative Commons

What would Japan be without its rāmen1 (wheat noodles and garnish served in a soup) , its gyōza2 (grilled dumplings) , its tenpura3 (fried vegetables and seafood) , its karē raisu4 (rice with curry) or its tonkatsu5 (breaded pork) ? All these dishes, which are currently the most popular on the archipelago, would never have existed without the relations that the Japanese have maintained with foreign countries.

China was the first to play a central role in the development of cuisine in Japan, whether with the importation of pasta during the Nara period (710-794), oil cooking, spices, or even more recently in the consumption of pork. During the 18th century, Chinese residents in port cities like Nagasaki were responsible for the opening of the first continental cuisine restaurants. They were then distinguished between those that served a "meal around tea" (fucha ryōri 普茶料理) where vegetable dishes are central, and a "meal on a four-legged table" (shippoku ryōri 卓袱料理) characterized by a service of meat dishes. Although mimicking the dietary customs of the Chinese, these cuisines are above all the result of a "Japanization" of the continental culinary and dietary practices. From the second half of the 19th century, exchanges between Japanese and Chinese populations increased and gave birth to a cuisine that was characterized as more "authentic" and simply called "Chinese cuisine" (shina ryōri 支那料理). Indeed, following the Chinese defeat in 1895, the number of Chinese students and residents in Japan grew and resulted in the development of new culinary practices. These new culinary practices continued to develop during the 20th century, giving birth to dishes that are still very popular today and appreciated by a large majority of the population.

Exchanges with other Asian countries also played a key role, although later, in the evolution of cuisines in Japan. During the colonial period of the Empire of Japan from the second half of the 19th century, the circulation of Japanese populations in neighbouring countries increased, thus leading to a diversification of culinary techniques, tastes and food products available. Whether with Hokkaidō, Taiwan, the Guangdong region in southern Siberia, Korea or Manchuria, Japan maintained asymmetrical and unequal relations with the populations of its colonies and therefore with their culinary and food customs. For instance, while Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines have been relatively influential, they have not been in the same way as those of the indigenous populations of the northern islands such as Hokkaidō or the lands of Manchuria. Korean cuisine, for its part, was already present on the archipelago at the end of the 19th century, but became popular only after the Second World War and played a key role in the evolution of meat consumption, particularly in through the spread of yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants.

Relations with the West were also at the centre of the development of many emblematic Japanese dishes. Initially, it was the exchanges with the Portuguese and the Dutch who were at the origin of culinary innovations such as tenpura (fried vegetables and seafood), kasutera (sponge cake) or even ponzu sauce (sour citrus-based sauce). European cuisine referred to as "southern barbarian cuisine" (nanban ryōri 南蛮料理) was also available in port cities from the 17th century, provoking mixtures with Chinese cuisines. Then, during the Meiji era (1868-1912), the accentuation of relations with the West brought many cooking recipes based on meat and dairy products, but also the consumption of various fruits and vegetables which changed radically the Japanese culinary landscape. The social distribution of these European and American diets was not uniform. Indeed, if the models of British and American cuisine were adopted mainly in bourgeois circles, French cuisine was chosen as a reference for Western-style meals in the high aristocracy as well as in the imperial palace. Going to Europe or the United States became more and more accessible for some Japanese at this time. Thus, several male and female cooks set up a style of mixed Japanese-Western cuisine (wayō secchū ryōri 和洋折衷料理) whose traces are still present today. Japan has thus appropriated a set of foreign culinary cultures, adapting it to its local conditions and giving birth to a large number of eclectic cuisines that are today one of its greatest richness.

1. Rāmen ラーメン is a dish of continental origin developed in Japan during the 1910s by Chinese cooks who settled in the archipelago.
2. Gyōza 餃子 spread to Japan after World War II following increased trade with China during this period.
3. Tenpura 天麩羅 was born on the archipelago during the 16th century after exchanges with Portuguese Catholic missionaries.
4. Karē raisu カレーライス is a dish that appeared between the end of the 19th centurey and the beginning of the 20th century. The curry spice was brought to the archipelago by the British army, but the dish then considered by the Japanese as Western, was adapted to local habits by gradually replacing the bread with rice.
5. Tonkatsu 豚カツ is the result of a long process of assimilation of breaded pork chops carried out by Japanese cooks during the beginning of the 20th century. They found a way to develop breading, sauce and cooking techniques to cook thick cuts of pork in oil to make this dish more suited to local tastes.

Bol de ramen @Licence creative commons

(image 6) Picture of a bowl of rāmen, a soup of Chinese origin adapted to the taste of the Japanese, which is today one of the most popular dishes in Japan. © Licence Creative Commons

riz au curry @ Licence creative commons

(image 7) Picture of tenpura, fried vegetables and seafood, a dish developed in Japan during the 16th century resulting from exchanges with Portuguese Jesuit priests.


In 2013, Unesco listed "washoku, the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese" as an intangible heritage. However, there is not one Japanese cuisine, but many cuisines in Japan. To make these diverse foodways an heritage under such a generic term that can lead to confusion makes actually no sense, except maybe for an international economic interest. Cooking and eating are two distinct practices, and although seemingly trivial, they actually reflect larger ways in which a society works, its internal structure and its relationship to the outside world. Having a rich history of cultural exchanges and social codifications, Japan can only stand out for its ability to ingeniously produce a culinary diversity that is both unique and at the same time universal.


  • CWIERTKA Katarzyna J., Modern Japanese Cuisine – Food, Power and National Identity, Reaktion Books, 2006.
  • ISHIGE Naomichi, Nihon no shokubunka shi 『日本の食文化史』 traduit du japonais par Emmanuel Marès sous le titre de L’art culinaire au Japon, Lucie éditions, 2012.
  • QUELLIER Florent, CORNETTE Joël (dir.), Histoire de l’alimentation : de la préhistoire à nos jours, Belin, 2021.
  • STALKER Nancy K., Devouring Japan, Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity, Oxford University Press, 2018.

About the author

PhD student at Inalco, Alexis Markovitch is doing his thesis on the history of Japanese cuisine. Following previous research work on culinary literature and recipe books from the Meiji era (1868-1912) carried out respectively at Inalco (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) and at EHESS (Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), this work consists in understanding the way in which the culinary practices – more than the food practices – of the Japanese evolved between 1872 and 1937, both from a social and cultural point of view.

Schéma explicatif des différentes variantes des cuisines honzen et kaiseki dans un livre de cuisine de 1898
October 2022
Doctorant contractuel à l’Inalco