As a Japanese living in London, I am always struck by the big cultural difference in attitudes towards the eating of meat between the UK and Japan. What do I mean by that? One example - vegetarianism and veganism are significant movements in the UK and the proportion of the UK population choosing to eat a non-meat diet is growing year-on-year. On the other hand, for many English people, eating well means eating meat - Sunday lunch just wouldn't be Sunday lunch without a big cut of roast beef or a whole roast chicken taking pride of place on the dinner table. But in Japan, the vegetarian and vegan movements are nowhere near as high profile as they are in the UK even though meat consumption is far lower in Japan and nobody, as far as I know, serves up roast beef or a roast chicken as a dinner or lunch centerpiece. So what is going on?
I think this difference has its roots in history and in the place that meat has traditionally occupied in European and Japanese food culture. Unlike in the West, the mass consumption of meat in Japan is a relatively new phenomena - regular meat eating has really only become widespread in Japan since the early twentieth century. In fact, (and you might be surprised to learn this) the eating of livestock was the subject of an Imperial ban in Japan that lasted for more than six centuries. At one point, even the eating of fish was banned. It wasn't until the late nineteenth century when the Emperor Meiji, at the age of twenty, celebrated the New Year with a publicised display of meat eating, that the public perception of meat consumption began to change.
But deeply embedded habits and beliefs rarely change overnight. Even today, the Japanese are not huge consumers of meat. The way animal products are consumed is also quite different. Traditionally, those involved in the slaughter and butchery of animals in Japan were considered unclean and a separate caste - they were called burakumin. These people and their families were discriminated against and even today, to a lesser degree, they still are. I think this deep aversion to the butchery of meat has affected the way in which the Japanese consume it. Most meat in Japanese dishes is served sliced, diced , chopped or minced. There is no Japanese dish that serves up an uncut joint of meat and the idea of presenting a joint of beef or roast bird to the dining table is, as I said before, completely alien. After many centuries of being told that meat is forbidden and unclean, the Japanese want to eat meat in the most sanitised way possible - they don't want to be involved in the "butchery" of the animal flesh they consume in any shape or form.
I don't know if anyone has ever done a survey about Japan's favourite meat dishes but I would hazard a guess that tonkatsu - deep fried breaded pork cutlets - sits at the top of the tree. Perhaps the second spot would be occupied by yakitori and the third, maybe, sukiyaki. What I find interesting about tonkatsu (and its less popular cousins, beef katsu and chicken katsu) is that this dish is one of only a few popular Japanese meat dishes which feature a whole piece of meat, rather than meat that has been sliced, diced or minced. (Although many restaurants serve it to their diner already sliced rather than as a whole cutlet). But even when unsliced, a tonkatsu cutlet is still concealed beneath that crust of deep fried panko breadcrumbs. Is part of the popularity of katsu dishes due to the coating of panko that hides the uncut meat beneath?
Given the country's history, you might find it strange that in Japan where meat consumption is relatively low - (Japan's neighbours, China and South Korea have considerably higher per capita consumption of meat despite having lower incomes than the Japanese) - that the vegetarian and
vegan movements are so low key. I have heard many stories of tourists travelling to Japan who are surprised by the fact that they cannot find a vegetarian or vegan restaurant or even a vegetarian menu however much they look. Given that 80% of the population of Japan say they are Buddhist when asked for a religious affiliation, doesn't it seem surprising that vegetarianism and veganism aren't more widespread? Maybe so, but almost all of the Japanese who claim to be Buddhist also eat meat.* I think the answer to this conundrum lies in the fact that meat is not central to Japanese food culture. With the eating of fish and vegetable protein such as tofu so much greater than in the West, meat has never assumed the importance in Japanese food culture that it has in the West. So, unlike in the West where vegetarianism and veganism requires a greater commitment because of the deeply rooted "meat culture", in Japan people don't feel the need to strongly reject meat because they don't have such a deep attachment to it.
There's no denying that meat has made its way into mainstream Japanese food culture but it is still by no means central to it. The Japanese per person still consume only 1/3 of the meat consumed by the average American. What's the result? Healthwise, the biggest benefit of the Japanese approach to meat is that while over 1 in 4 people in the UK are classed as obese in 2021 (and a whopping 1 in 3 in the US), less than 5 per cent of the population of Japan (1 in 20) is considered obese using the same measure. The corollary to lower meat consumption in Japan is a far higher consumption of vegetables.
Most Japanese family dinners include one if not two vegetable side dishes along with rice, fish, tofu or meat, so the UK government 5-a-day target is probably consistently met by a considerable proportion of the Japanese population on an everyday basis. So what's the takeaway to all this? Vegetarianism and veganism may never take great hold in Japan because the Japanese don't consider meat to be the foundation of their food culture. But the benefits of eating in a "Japanese way" are clear - less meat and more vegetables makes for a healthier and environmentally more friendly food culture.
Wouldn't you agree? I'd love to know what you think about it!
*For clarity not all branches of the Buddhist faith forbid the consumption of meat.
For readers who expect my posts to be devoted to cooking and food, I don't want you to be disappointed! I mentioned tonkatsu above and the fact that it is an unusual dish in Japan because it is often served as a whole cutlet rather than being sliced or diced.
Tonkatsu is probably the most popular way to eat pork in Japan. You'll find it served in specialist restaurant and takeaways. Supermarkets will always have some take home tonkatsu on display. Tonkatsu isn't difficult to prepare if you want to make it yourself. All you need are some pork cutlets - I use thin cut pork loin steaks - and some panko breadcrumbs. (Thin cuts are better because they require less cooking and therefore you can get a beautiful golden coloured panko crust when you deep fry.) Tonkatsu are only lightly seasoned during preparation - the Japanese season on the plate using a combination of tonkatsu sauce, ketchup and/or mustard. Tonkatsu are usually served in Japan beside a big heap of shredded cabbage. In the UK, I've always found cabbage a little tougher than the Japanese varieties, so I serve tonkatsu here with shredded lettuce as a substitute. Pair with a bowl of rice and possibly some miso soup for a sustaining main meal of the day.
You can find my tonkatsu recipe here. If you want to watch the Youtube tutorial, it's ready to watch below.
Happy cooking! Kurumi XXXX.