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Though premodern Japanese are often said to have eaten a strictly pescetarian diet, in fact poultry and red meat had their place in premodern cuisine.

Meat-eating was certainly not unknown in the Yayoi period, and archaeological evidence suggests that while dog was likely not eaten in the Jômon period, it was in the Yayoi period.[1]

Though the avoidance of meat is often said to be a Buddhist practice, in connection with particular Buddhist beliefs about respecting life and not killing other beings, even Shinran (1173-1262), founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, is said to have eaten meat after abandoning monastic practice and returning to lay life.[2]

In the Edo period, foreigners (esp. Chinese, Koreans, and Ryukyuans) were strongly associated with meat-eating, and were occasionally depicted eating meat, or alongside animals, with an implication of this being a dirty or even repugnant (or simply foreign) practice. To be sure, meat occupied a more central role in Chinese, Korean, Ryukyuan, and Ainu diets than in that of the Japanese; pigs were raised chiefly only in Nagasaki and Kagoshima, and the consumption of beef was all but unknown.[3]

Nevertheless, historian Herbert Plutschow cites numerous exceptions to a supposed Japanese pescetarianism, including the consumption in various parts of the archipelago of fowl and of game animals such as bear, boar, and deer, and the consumption of meat for medical purposes.[3] At some point it became traditional - and remains so today - to refer to various meats by the names of flowers or leaves, as a sort of half-joking open secret, as if one were not serving or eating meat; venison (deer) is known as momiji (maple leaves), boar as botan (peony flowers), and horse meat as sakura (cherry blossoms). Whale meat was also consumed in some areas.[4] Though records of meat-eating in Edo prior to the 1730s are quite rare, mentions of meat-eating begin to appear in documents from the late 18th century, and all the more so in the 1830s-1840s.[5]

The fact that nobles such as Konoe Motohiro (1648-1722) is identified as shying away from meat-eating on particular dates due to spiritual taboos and ideas about purity suggests that on other days, meat-eating may have been relatively normal.[6] Similarly, pilgrims to sites such as Ise Shrine often refrained from meat-eating while on pilgrimage, an indication again that outside of particular religious occasions or contexts, meat-eating was relatively typical. The town of Furuichi, a neighborhood near Ise Shrine where pilgrims could enjoy alcohol, women, and other pleasures after abstaining during their pilgrimage, also boasted shops serving meat.


  1. Tatsuo Kobayashi, “Nurturing the Jomon,” in Jomon Reflections (Oxford: Oxbow, 2004), 87.
  2. Tsunoda Ryûsaku, ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition, 1st Edition, vol. 1, Columbia University Press (1968), 203.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Herbert Plutschow, A Reader in Edo Period Travel, Kent: Global Oriental (2006), 47.
  4. Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press (1995), 180-184.
  5. Takatsu Takashi 高津孝. Nihon kinsei seikatsu ehiki: Ryûkyûjin gyôretsu to Edo hen 日本近世生活絵引:琉球人行列と江戸編、Research Center for Nonwritten Cultural Materials, Institute for the Study of Japanese Folk Culture, Kanagawa University 神奈川大学日本常民文化研究所非文字資料研究センター (2020), 84.
  6. Cecilia Segawa Seigle, "Shinanomiya Tsuneko: Portrait of a Court Lady," in Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources, Inc. (2002), 7.