The Japanese Way of Nutrition


I had the privilege of interviewing Yoko O’Brien, my Japanese teacher from Sunshine Japanese in Cairns. I used this opportunity to learn more about the Japanese culture and beliefs around food, nutrition and health. Even though I gained an insight into one Japanese born individual living in Australia, I can appreciate the variances in views surrounding this topic. Without further ado, let’s learn something!

NB: Yoko-san’s answers are in the normal text below. Mine appear in the bold and quotation marks.

Ohayo gozaimasu (Good morning) Yoko-san,

Kyo (Today), domo arigato goziamasu (thank you very much) for answering my questions. Not sure how to say this sentence fully in Japanese yet! 

I am excited to hear what you have to say about all things nutrition and health.

1.       In the Japanese culture, what is important about the way food is prepared, cooked and eaten?

I don’t have a thorough knowledge of food and nutrition so I would like to introduce some of my personal opinions.

As for the way of preparing, cooking and eating food, I think Japanese unconsciously believe many things should be considered.

Firstly, hot dishes should be served when it is hot; therefore the timing of cooking should be scheduled, even at home. For example, cook the cold dish first and the hot one just before eating. It might be normal in any culture though.

Secondly, a lot of Japanese cooking needs preparation, such as marinated with sake, miso, and so on. It helps with developing the flavours into a deeper and richer taste, which means simply more delicious.

Finally, one of Japanese meal styles is called “one soup and three dishes”. The three consist of, for example, sashimi,  cooked vegetable, and grilled fish followed by rice. I think eating many types of food each time is very important for our health as well as the order of eating those. An appropriate order can help us to digest food well.

This is what I have noticed. Japanese food is prepared with a lot of respect, thought and care to help with maximising flavour and enjoyment. 

Eating a variety of food is essential for good health. There are times when the order of eating is important to help with the digestion of food. For example, it is not ideal to drink milk with your steak, as the calcium from the milk competes for absorption with the iron that is present in the steak.

2.       Having grown up in Japan, what is your understanding of the Japanese society’s messages about what is good nutrition? What public health messages or campaigns were promoted if any?

A variety of food is essential for our health. Instead of what we eat, the most important thing is the balance of nutrition or the portion of each food we should eat every day. For example, even though we should eat veggies, if we eat only veggies, we won’t get enough nutrition. “Too much” is equal to “too little”.

I feel famous actors/actresses have the power to promote public health messages. Even though they are successful, happy, and rich, their health is on top of anything else. When celebrities talk about their experience fearing for their health on TV, audiences usually take it seriously and listen to them carefully.

There are many TV shows in Japan that focus on food and nutrition; therefore, it can help to improve people’s health issues.

Love your statement Yoko-san about eating too much of a ‘good’ thing is not so ‘good’. So true, it all comes down to balance! 

I also agree that actors/actresses do have a lot of power in most areas of life. It is such a shame that most of these celebrities do not use their ‘super power’ for the greater good. Instead they’d rather talk about themselves and what they do, as if it is the blue print for solving all issues. Imagine if celebrities teamed up with reputable sources to help promote key messages. I think society would benefit greatly!

3.       Having lived in Australia for 10 years, what is your understanding of what constitutes good nutrition and health in Australia?

It might not be common; however, there are many people who are interested in healthy diet around me here. I feel thinking about good nutrition is nothing special, and all mothers did and told kids all the time when I was a child.

The interesting thing for me is that Australian and Japanese interests are quite different. Japanese focus more on ordinary food. It may be old-fashioned. They try to get back to the original Japanese diet, which is believed to be better for nutrition. On the other hand, Australians seek new styles of food and diets to improve their health. This is how I feel from people around me.

I love the no nonsense approach the Japanese people exhibit. Yes there is a lot of hype around food and nutrition in Australia, and in the western world. There is always some ‘new’ and ‘sexy’ way to try and lose weight/change your body…..whilst secretly making us feel crap about ourselves.

We eat to meet a basic need for survival, not something that we should try for a month or so and then forget about until the next ‘big’ thing arises.

I feel that people try and make themselves look good or superior by showing they are up with the latest food/nutrition fad or trend by exerting control over their food and eating choices. These people have missed the point about nutrition and health. Like you said, nutrition is nothing special….but essential for health.

4.       Do you think the value of food and nutrition has changed over time in the Japanese culture?

Umm…Simply, I think so. Japanese eat much more Western food than before. Some western foods are changed into Japanese style; however, I believe they are still western and the value for Japanese has also changed as Japanese lifestyle has changed. I am not sure about there being a change in nutrition; however, I have heard that veggies grown back in the old days had higher nutrient content compared to now because of the soil.

This is interesting about fast food becoming popular and more prevalent, even with the strong Japanese food and nutrition values (of respect, thought and care that stood out to me from your answer in question one).

5.       What have you found is the big difference between the Australian and Japanese cultures regarding how food is viewed? Are there any similarities?

When I came to Australia, I volunteered at a local school to assist Japanese teachers. I was surprised at the morning tea and lunch breaks. In Japan, all students including even Year 1 were not allowed to eat anything until lunchtime. There was only one chance for children and teachers to eat at school. Kids had afternoon tea after they get home from school. Therefore, Japanese got used to having sweets once or twice a day, maybe after dinner.
What I wanted to say here, is I feel Australian kids get hungry earlier than Japanese kids. I think from these circumstance Japanese people have to think more carefully about what and how much food to eat in order to stay energetic and comfortable until the next meal. On the other hand, Australians prioritise their appetite and respond when they are hungry. If they don’t want to eat, they won’t eat because the next chance comes up again soon. Because of this, Japanese people prioritise eating times and the amounts of foods differently to Australians.
As for the similarities, both have more variety of foods than the old days. Recently, both Australian and Japanese people have been eating not only their own traditional foods but also international cuisines. The foreign cuisine styles created are often quite different from the original.
I was not aware of the one opportunity to eat in Japanese schools. This is quite a different concept to what Australian children are used to.
Eating on demand is something that is prioritised from birth now a days, which helps to promote intuitive eating. Intuitive eating helps us to nourish ourselves in the most appropriate ways. The knowledge of what to eat should be paired with and influenced by appetite – Eating what the body feels like at the time of eating, with what food is available and the circumstances around the next opportunity to eat. If we do this, like you said, we will be able to stay energetic and comfortable.
This increase in the variety of food can only be a good thing. The boom in international cuisine is great for our senses and enjoyment. I do see your point that these recreated international cuisines are often not true to traditional forms.
Once again, Yoko-san, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy day to answer my questions! I really enjoyed chatting with you as always 😉

5 thoughts on “The Japanese Way of Nutrition

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