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Vegetarianism and Vegetarians in Japan

IVU News - Issue 3 - 1998

Osaka meeting
At Vegetarian Society Seminar in Osaka. This article by Dr Mitsuru Kakimoto (right)

A survey that I conducted of 80 westerners, including Americans, Englishmen and Canadians, revealed that approximately half of them believed that vegetarianism originated in India. Some respondents -- 8 per cent. in each case -- assumed that vegetarianism had its origin in Japan or China. It seems to me that the reason why westerners associate vegetarianism with Japan or China is Buddhism. It is no wonder, and in fact we could say that Japan used to be a country where vegetarianism prevailed.

Gishi-wajin-den, a history book on Japan written in China around the third century B.C., says "there are no cattle, no horses, no tigers, no leopards, no goats and no magpies in that land. The climate is mild and people over there eat fresh vegetables both in summer and in winter". It also says that "people catch fish and shellfish in the water". Apparently, ancient Japanese ate fresh vegetables as well as rice and other cereals as staple foods. They also took some fish and shellfish, but little flesh.

Several hundred years later, Buddhism came to Japan and the prohibition of hunting and fishing permeated the Japanese people. In 676 AD, the then Japanese emperor Tenmu proclaimed an ordinance prohibiting the eating of fish and shellfish as well as animal flesh and fowl. Subsequently, in the year 737 of the Nara period, the emperor Seimu approved the eating of fish and shellfish. During the twelve hundred years from the Nara period to the Meiji restoration in the latter half of the 19th century, Japanese people enjoyed vegetarian-style meals. They usually ate rice as staple food and beans and vegetables. It was only on special occasions or celebrations that fish was served. Under these circunstances the Japanese people developed a vegetarian cuisine, Shojin Ryori (ryori means cooking or cuisine), which was native to Japan.

kannon The word "shojin" is a Japanese translation of "vyria" in Sanskrit, meaning "to have the goodness and keep away evils". Buddhist priests of the Tendai-shu and Shingon-shu sects, whose founders studied in China in the ninth century before they founded their respective sects, have handed down vegetarian cooking practices from Chinese temples strictly in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. In the 13th century, Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen, formally established Shojin Ryori or Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Dogen studied and learned the Zen teachings abroad in China, during the Sung Dynasty. He fixed rules aiming to establish the dietary habits of a pure vegetarian life as a means of training the mind.

One of the other impacts Zen exerted on the dietary habits of Japanese people manifested itself in Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony. It is believed that Eisai, founder of the Rinzai-shu sect, introduced tea to Japan and it is the custom for Zen followers to drink tea. The customs preserved in the teaching of Zen lead to a systematic rule called Sado. Believe it or not, a Cha-shitsu or tea ceremony room is so constructed as to resemble the Shoin, where the chief priest is at a Buddhist temple. Food served at a tea ceremony is called Kaiseki in Japanese, which literally means a stone in the breast. Monks practicing asceticism used to press heated stones to their bosom to suppress hunger. Then the word Kaiseki itself came to mean a light meal served at Shojin and Kaiseki meals had great influence on the Japanese dietary culture.

As an example of a Buddhist vegetarian in the modern age, I can mention Kenji Miyazawa, a Japanese writer and poet of the early 20th century, who wrote a novel entitled "Vegetarian-Taisai", in which he depicted a fictitious vegetarian congress which reminded me of those that the IVU has held since its foundation. His works played an important role in the advocacy of modern vegetarianism.

The Buddhist teachings are not the only source contributing to the growth of vegetarianism in Japan. In the late 19th century, Doctor Gensai Ishizuka published an academic book on a dietary cure in which he advocated vegetarian cooking with an emphasis on brown rice and vegetables. His method is called Seisyoku (Macrobiotics) and is based upon ancient Chinese philosophy such as the principles of Ying and Yang and Taoism. Now some people support his method hoping for the benefit of preventive medicine. Japanese macrobiotics suggest taking brown rice as half of the whole intake, with vegetables, beans and seaweeds and a small amount of fish.

After world war II, Japan was greatly influenced by nutritional ideas introduced from the USA and in the 1980s, like the USA, we experienced a serious social problem in the high rate of geriatric diseases resulting from hyper-nutrition. Seventh Day Adventist vegetarian cuisine, which is supported by scientific evidence, then began to attract interest and Japanese people adopted the US-style Adventist cuisine and came up with a new Japanese-style lacto-ovo-vegetarian cuisine in which brown rice is taken in addition to corn flakes and milk.

Thus there are three main vegetarian influences in Japanese cuisine: Buddhist, Seisyoku (Macrobiotic) and Adventist.

Japanese people started to eat meat some 130 years ago and now suffer the crippling diseases caused by the excess intake of fat in flesh and the possible hazards from the use of agricultural chemicals and additives. This is persuading them to seek natural and safe food and to adopt once again the traditional Japanese cuisine. In 1993 the Japanese Vegetarian Society (NPO) was formed as a result of concern about animal rights, global environmental issues, third world hunger and human health. Vegetarian society members are eager to face these issues and are working hard both in Japan and globally.

--- Mitsuru Kakimoto President, Japanese Vegetarian Society
[Department of Environmental Science, Osaka Shin-Ai College, 2-7-30 Furuichi, Joto-ku, Osaka 536-8585, Japan
Tel. +81-6-939-7391 Fax +81-6-931-0373 E-mail: Webpage:]

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