“Wa-shoku” was invented as a term at the same time as “yo-shoku” was being incorporated into Meiji Japan society reboot.
“Yoshoku” and “washoku” were terms developed under Meiji era when the Meiji “restoration” pre-text usurpers destroyed the Tokugawa Shogunate and sought to replace embarrasing Tokugawa era Japanese culture with reinvented customs to appear modernized in the eyes of onlooking Westerners.
Initially, yoshoku prestige was served in Western style hotel establishments catering to foreigners. At first, hotels focused on fancy French food and dining experience. Soon, Japanese trained as kitchen cooks set up their own restaurants with the lure of providing yoshoku foods. But instead of French, the shift was to English and American dishes that were far less complex to prepare with more rudimentary ingredients. Menus had to emphasize what was yoshoku from what was not.
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The second reason behind the prevalance of Anglo-Saxon rather than French cookery in cheap Western-style restaurants in Japan was the fact that English and American dishes were much less complex and therefore easier to prepare. Furthermore, they were relatively inexpensive, since they did not require ingredients that were extemely rare…
Fried fish, roast beef, roast chicken, beefsteak, veal cutlet, croquette, beef curry, beef stew, soup and omelette dominated the menus of the cheap Western-style restaurants that began to mushroom in Japan during the 1890s.
Their characteristic feature was to focus on meat and fat — the two ingredients that were hitherto lacking in the Japanese diet.
Of course, the fact that Victorian Britons took a dim view of vegetables, which they believed had no nutritional value and fermented in the stomach, contributed to the lack of vegetables on the menus of the new restaurants, except for the popular potato croquettes.
Yet, due to the poor food resource situation for most of the Japanese masses, when food resources grew from mounting exploitation of Joseon Korea’s resources through political intrigue backed by American interests against czarist Russia, the expanded food assortment of yoshoku and washoku was blurred greatly.
- On the other hand, claims Harada, even a hamburger may be instantly transformed into washoku by serving it along with miso soup, rice, and pickles.
Thus, yoshoku washoku.
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What makes yoshoku so intriguing is that the dishes have hardly evolved, making experiencing the cuisine like eating in a time warp back to the late 19th or early 20th Century.
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One traditional sub-genre of Japanese cuisine includes dishes like spaghetti with ketchup and Salisbury steak, a ground-beef-and-gravy concoction that is a cousin of the hamburger.
Raw horse meat sushi is a thing in Japan. The fortune cookie was invented in Kyoto in the 19th Century.
Let’s rewind to 8 July 1853. That’s when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay. His mission: to convince Japan — isolated and closed off from the world for the last two centuries — to sign a trade deal. He was successful.
Soon after, European powers signed similar agreements with Japan. And not long after that, the ruling shogunate was toppled for an emperor-based government known as the Meiji Restoration, which was much more favourable to the West.
- Omurice is an omelette stuffed with rice and served with ketchup (Credit: piyato/Getty Images)
Europeans and Americans began residing in some Japanese coastal towns to further hasten trade.
Locals, somewhat undernourished at the time — since Japan was a poor, undeveloped nation (though hard to imagine now) and because, for the previous millennium, eating meat was largely prohibited — collectively came to the conclusion that the much taller, beefier Westerners were stronger and healthier than the Japanese.
And so, the common wisdom at the time was that they should start eating Western food. In 1872, it was announced to the nation that Emperor Meiji had, in fact, eaten beef. And so began Japan’s fascination with Western food.
What makes yoshoku so intriguing today is that the dishes have hardly evolved, making experiencing the cuisine like eating in a time warp back to the late 19th or early 20th Century. After all, Americans relegated Salisbury steak to the TV dinner decades ago, not to be found outside of the bottom shelf of the freezer section in suburban grocery stores.
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Kobayashi soon shifts his attention away from these considerations and towards giving examples of atrocities from the histories of other countries with the transparent aim of exculpating war crimes committed by Japan during World War II.
It is significant, however, that he sets out by contrasting East and West through commenting on their food practices.
Throughout history, food has been employed culturally to represent meaning, and it has also often been used for ideological purposes. In particular, food issues have loomed large in building a sense of belonging-together of large groups, for example in the construction of national self-identity.
In Japan, the notion of a distinct entity of “Japanese food” even found its way into the lexicon: The term washoku has been formed as a separate word of its own, meaning “Japanese cuisine,”as opposed to yoshoku, “Western cuisine.”
The concept of washoku as a distinctly Japanese way of preparing, serving, and eating dishes, ignoring regional differences, was not created until the late 19th century and defies a precise definition.
Indeed, many of the dishes associated with the term are of recent origin and therefore lack the traditionality the term implies.
As food historian Harada Nobuo notes, none of the three dishes most Japanese name as typical of washoku — namely sukiyaki, sushi, and tempura — were part of the Japanese cuisine before the early modern period, the oldest (tempura) being basically a Japanese variant of a Western (in this case Portuguese) dish.
On the other hand, claims Harada, even a hamburger may be instantly transformed into washoku by serving it along with miso soup, rice, and pickles.
Likewise, food historian Katarzyna Cwiertka has emphasized the role eclectic combinations of Japanese and Western foodstuffs and the “creolization” of Japanese foodways have played in the formation of today’s “Japanese cuisine.”
Another way of approaching a definition of washoku would be to use this label for all food not available outside of Japan (or Japanese restaurants abroad). That way, even dishes perceived as having a clearly “foreign” origin can be classified as washoku today, such as kar̄e raisu (curry rice, i.e. white rice served with a curried beef sauce) or ramen (Chinese-style noodle soup with broth based on soy sauce, miso, or bonito stock).
The central component of washoku, as it is commonly understood, is rice.
Although rice did not become the main ingredient of everyday Japanese cuisine until late in the 19th century, self-identities in Japan have indeed often been constructed through identification with a grain diet, or more specifically, rice-eating culture, as anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney has pointed out.
Ohnuki-Tierney has also noted that the construction of a rice-centered food identity has entailed the emergence of a mirror image, so that the “discourse on the Japanese self vis-a-vis Westerners as the other took the form of rice versus meat” in the Meiji Period, although she has not elaborated on this opposition.
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