Fortunately, the GIs had something in their pockets and backpacks that led to instant friendship with total strangers: the Hershey chocolate bar.
Laughing American soldiers handing out Hershey bars and Wrigley’s chewing gum to Japanese children remain one of the indelible images of the years immediately after the war. Today, many elderly Japanese recall with fondness and amazement their experience of receiving American chocolate, candy or ice cream at a time when food supplies were scarce.
Many Americans and Japanese who lived in the period say such experiences were one of the factors that eased the pain of the American-led Occupation among ordinary Japanese.
It was also during the Occupation years that food items such as bread and milk appeared in school lunches more commonly than before the war. Americans back home were meanwhile treated to quasi-propaganda reports, like the series of movie shorts entitled “Our Job in Japan,” which often hinted directly or indirectly that a steady “American” diet of meat, milk and bread would turn the Japanese into a “healthy democratic people.”
The past half-century has witnessed an interaction between the food cultures of Japan and the United States as the two countries formed and maintained close political, security and economic relations.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, the American diet was still mostly confined to U.S. military bases and their immediate vicinities.
In Okinawa, which remained under U.S. control until 1972, Spam, a staple of GIs, became a favorite item of the Okinawan diet. Even today, a typical Okinawan restaurant often serves Spam in a variety of ways.
In the meantime, a Japanese entrepreneur got the idea of introducing Japanese food and culture to the U.S., which would prove to be a huge success and make him the pioneer of the theme restaurant business.
Rocky Aoki, a brash young entrepreneur who arrived in New York in 1960, opened the first of his Benihana restaurants in the city four years later.
Benihana was not about sushi or sashimi served in a quiet tatami room, but about adapting Japanese-style cuisine to appeal to American customers. The restaurants featured steak and vegetables cooked in front of the customer on a “teppanyaki” grill by a personal chef who turned cooking into a performance art, twirling and juggling cutting knives like batons.
For many ordinary Americans, it was their first encounter with either Japanese food or culture, and Aoki’s restaurants spread throughout the U.S. and spawned dozens of imitators in the process.
In Japan, it was in 1971 that Den Fujita helped usher in the modern age of American fast food when he opened the first McDonald’s hamburger shop in Japan in Tokyo’s posh Ginza shopping district.
His claim that Japanese could catch up with the United States economically if they ate hamburgers instead of rice may have been scientifically spurious, but it struck an emotional chord.
Today, McDonald’s Japan operates nearly 3,700 franchises across the nation. Last year, Japanese consumers ate more than 1.2 billion McDonald’s hamburgers — an average of almost 10 per person.
McDonald’s is often held up as the quintessential example of a successful American food chain in Japan, but Kentucky Fried Chicken actually entered the market in 1970, the year before the Golden Arches arrived. What began as a joint venture between Pepsi Cola and Mitsubishi Corp. has turned into a nationwide business with 1,118 outlets.
Meanwhile, Japanese fast-food chains modeled on such U.S. restaurants have localized the American taste to suit Japanese consumers, offering soybean burgers and “tonkatsu” (pork cutlet) burgers. McDonald’s also introduced the teriyaki burger several years ago, while Mister Donut here sells Chinese noodles and dumplings together with its doughnuts.
While fast-food restaurants are the most obvious form of the American culinary presence in Japan, the past few decades have seen three additional trends: the advent of the “family-style” restaurant and the proliferation, at least in major cities, of American specialty restaurants and theme restaurants.
“Royal Host, Skylark and other restaurants that cater to families offer a chance to dine out without paying a fortune,” said Yasuko Horii, an Osaka-based freelance journalist who writes about popular culture. “They have become especially popular since the 1980s, as more and more families moved to suburban areas away from major train stations.”
The second trend is the explosion of specialty American restaurants. Whether it’s a New York-style deli in Tokyo, a northern California-style restaurant in Kyoto or a Texas barbecue restaurant in Osaka, new establishments open at a steady rate.
“Despite the recession, the bar and restaurant industry remains strong, and many foreigners are opening restaurants that cater to both the local foreign community and to Japanese who want to try something new,” said Carter Witt, editor of Japanzine, an English-language publication that serves as a guide to such establishments in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.
Finally, there is the growing popularity of theme restaurants. These places offer visitors a theme-parklike experience in addition to supposedly authentic American cuisine. One of the first, and still one of the most popular, American theme-restaurants is the Hard Rock Cafe.
The first opened in Tokyo’s Roppongi district in the early 1980s, and over the past decade has spread to Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
The Hard Rock Cafe immerses customers in rock and roll music and memorabilia, and offers a more authentic menu than American fast-food restaurants, which often adapt to local tastes. That, says company officials, is one of the main reasons for its appeal among younger Japanese who have lived in or traveled to the U.S. in much greater numbers than older generations did.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as fast-food and theme restaurants made great strides here, Japanese cuisine was spreading throughout the U.S.
By the early 1980s, young, trendy and health-conscious Americans were eating sushi. In major cities, sushi bars opened one after another and quickly became the place for yuppies to be seen.
Today, sushi remains popular, if not the hot new trend it was 20 years ago. On the west coast, baseball stadiums often feature sushi in some form or another, while supermarkets in many parts of the country feature “nigiri” sushi packs in the refrigerated sections.
If Americans have embraced sushi partially because of its perceived health benefits, the popularity of American cuisine in Japan, especially fast food, has been met with concern by health experts, who point to the growing preference for fast food as a major reason for increasing obesity among today’s children.
This has led to problems like diabetes. Currently, there are nearly 7 million Japanese with diabetes and the number is expected to reach 10 million by the end of the decade.
“Fast food contains an imbalance of vitamins and is high in calories and animal fat, and is one of the main reasons why today’s lifestyle is unhealthy,” said Kimiko Otani, a nutrition expert at Kyoto Prefectural University.
When the late Kin-san and Gin-san, Japan’s most celebrated twin sisters Kin Narita and Gin Kanie, celebrated their 106th birthday in 1998, commentators noted that their lifelong diet of fish and vegetables was the likely reason they had lived so long. The younger generations, with their fast-food lifestyle, would have a harder time growing old and staying healthy, they said.
While some researchers have even gone so far as to blame the American fast-food diet for youth problems ranging from truancy to bullying and school violence, Otani said the problem is more complex.
“I don’t think there is a direct relationship between fast food and violence among children or lower concentration in the classroom,” Otani said. “Rather, it’s more social. Mealtimes used to be a time when parents and children communicated naturally, but family structures have changed.
“Fast food, and an American diet, isn’t necessarily bad. The problem with children eating fast food is the lack of balance. Parents have become too easygoing, spoiling their children by letting them eat fast food without thinking about the health effects.”