Rice remains a Japanese staple but per-head consumption has fallen consistently for more than half a century as diets have diversified.
Since the end of World War II, the dinner table has undergone significant changes in Japan.
In the aftermath of the war, many Japanese still suffered from serious food shortages. Rations of rice were delayed, while substitute foods, such as sweet potatoes and corn, were also in short supply.
City dwellers traveled to farming villages or the black market to acquire food and to stave off hunger. While receiving food aid from overseas, Japan pushed ahead with a national drive to boost the production of rice and other foods.
In 1955, 10 years after the war ended, the infant mortality rate was still high, with 39.8 of every 1,000 babies dying within a year of birth.
The Japan Nutrition Association was established in the year as an affiliate of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the predecessor of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
In 1956, the association launched a nutrition improvement campaign, with “kitchen vehicles,” or revamped buses equipped with cooking facilities, visiting many locations across Japan.
In efforts to promote Western-style dishes, staff demonstrated cooking methods, including the use of a frying pan and oil, a cooking style still not in wide use in the country.
Traditional washoku (Japanese cuisine) consists of rice, miso soup, fish, vegetables and potato. Experts warned this could result in excessive intakes of carbohydrates and salt.
“The campaign was aimed at improving meals that were nutritiously ill-balanced due to the heavy weighting of rice, said Ritsuko Uetani, chief of the Tokyo-based association.
In 1955, the electric rice cooker revolutionized the household chore of steaming rice in a pot. Due to its labor-saving benefits, rice cookers proved a smash hit. Within four years, about half of all households owned at least one, allowing many Japanese to eat white rice easily.
Around the same time, a theory that eating rice makes people dull provoked controversy.
The late Takashi Hayashi, an expert in cerebrophysiology and a then professor at Keio University, noted in his book published in 1958 that white rice does not contain the vitamin B group, which is found in wheat, a key ingredient of bread. Arguing that eating white rice impedes the proper functioning of the brain, Hayashi proposed bread as a staple food.
According to Uetani, the production of 12 “kitchen vehicles” used in the nutrition improvement campaign was financed with assistance from the Oregon Wheat Growers League. The aid reflected the U.S. aim of developing Japan as a major export market for its surplus agricultural produce.
The Oregon league did not set any conditions on the association’s campaign in exchange for its financial assistance, Uetani said.
A 1961 brochure by the Japanese association reported that laver sandwich, miso paste sandwich and mackerel hot dog were the most popular items with the Japanese public during cooking demonstrations.
In the high-growth period, a bread-centered diet came to be widely accepted in Japan as life became increasingly Westernized. Meat, eggs, milk and dairy products started to appear regularly on menus, while intakes of fruit and vegetables increased.
Average annual rice consumption reached a postwar peak of 118 kg in fiscal 1962. Consumption fell in the late 1960s, however, resulting in large amounts of unused rice. In a turnaround, the government adopted in 1970 the gentan policy of reducing the acreage under cultivation to promote carefully planned production cuts.
It was not long before obesity and lifestyle-related diseases became a problem due to excessive intakes of animal protein and fat. People started to take a fresh look at the good aspects of the traditional Japanese diet centered on rice.
Still, the shift away from rice showed no signs of stopping. By fiscal 2012, average annual rice consumption had fallen to 57 kg, decreasing by half in half a century.
“In my childhood, I usually ate two or three bowls of rice in each meal, but nowadays, people use small bowls and few have second helpings,” said Yoshiaki Tanaka, managing director of Shinmei Holding Co., a major rice wholesaler based in Kobe.
Tanaka believes there is little likelihood of rice consumption recovering in Japan amid a declining and aging population.
Washoku was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2013, while rice-centered meals have gained popularity overseas as a healthy diet.
But Issei Maeda, president of Tokyo-based Agri Holdings, which operates an onigiri (rice ball) shop in Singapore, said, “Even ramen noodles are considered healthy as they are Japanese food.”