Food and eating

As with other aspects of daily life, children’s experience of food and eating depended on where their family lived, their occupation, and their social and economic situation. Interviewees’ recollections about food also varied according to their age. Some had few childhood memories before the start of the Pacific War in 1941, which was generally remembered as the start of a strong consciousness of life at war.

When asked, many interviewees said that the staple food at home was mugimeshi, a mixture of rice and barley. The barley grains were larger than the rice grains, so filled out the dish. Farmers with both paddy and dry fields often grew both crops. However, there were also interviewees who remembered eating pure white rice. Meat and eggs were generally agreed to have been expensive luxuries to buy, and meat was not often eaten except in better-off families. Many farm families kept chickens for their eggs, and would kill a chicken to eat on special occasions. Some interviewees also remembered keeping rabbits, and a few recalled people eating dog or horse meat. Fish was more common, though the kinds of fish that interviewees mention are ones that today are regarded as relatively cheap, especially iwashi (sardine), saba (mackerel), nishin (herring), and sanma (Cololabis saira). In areas with a nearby lake or river, people would catch fish for themselves. Several interviewees in Aomori recalled that fish would be bought in bulk at the right season, then pickled and salted to eat through the rest of the year. Vegetables and miso soup were staples of the diet.

Rationing was introduced in 1941. During the Pacific War, the effects of food shortages were much more severe in the cities than in the countryside, where farmers grew much of their own food. Interviewees who grew up in cities recall frequent ‘shopping’ (kaidashi) trips to the rural outskirts in search of food. However, even relatively well-off farmers were able to eat less rice than before, as they were obliged to sell their rice to the government for distribution through the rationing system. In the last years of the war, interviewees’ recollections suggest that most if not all people were mixing their rice with sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and other vegetables, as well as making it into gruel (o-kayu) , all to make it go further. Some interviewees also remembered being scolded by teachers for bringing a lunchbox that was considered too luxurious for the wartime situation because it contained rice unmixed with barley or vegetables, or because it contained side dishes along with the rice. (Children either took a lunchbox to school or went home for lunch, if they lived close by; lunches provided at school were a postwar innovation.) Calorie consumption during the war dropped significantly more in Japan than in some other combatant nations, such as Britain, the United States, or even Germany. A number of interviewees remembered digging up the school sports field and growing vegetables there. Interview subjects who had been evacuated with their schools from Tokyo to the countryside recall that adjusting to meals based strictly on the official calorie counts of the rationing system was particularly painful, especially as mothers were not allowed to send food from home. As noted in the web page on the evacuation of city children, such evacuees often felt hungry, being dependent on rations and the goodwill of country people who were themselves hard pressed.

Some interviewees remembered helping their family to supplement their diet by catching fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and insects, especially locusts (inago), from rivers, paddies, and fields. Some also gathered wild mushrooms such as matsutake in the woods on the hills at the right season. These practices were not necessarily confined to wartime, although it is likely they were pursued more urgently when other food became in short supply.

Interviewees also remembered enjoying simple sweets and other snacks, bought at sweet shops (dagashiya) or local general stores, though they recalled that sweets became unobtainable in the last years of the war.

In the recollection of many interviewees, however, food shortages and daily life in general were at their most difficult immediately after the war, rather than during the war itself. At this time, some interviewees remembered growing vegetables along the roadside and in any vacant spot possible.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, ‘Food and Eating’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].