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A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America

Updated: Apr 25

Have you ever wondered how Japanese food became more available and accepted in the United States over time? Or what historical factors shaped Japanese cuisine, including its adoption of meat and European influences? Or who helped spread and evolve Japanese cuisine outside of Japan?

Then prepare to go on a culinary journey through history with Journalist and Writer Gil Asakawa to explore your favorite Japanese foods, home-cooked, packaged, or served in restaurants, and how they came to delight the American palate!

Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!: A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America looks at how Japanese food has evolved in America from an exotic and mysterious—even “gross”—cuisine to the peak of culinary popularity, with sushi sold in supermarkets across the country and ramen available in hipster restaurants everywhere.

Gil Asakawa was born in Japan and raised in the U.S. and has eaten his way through this amazing food revolution. He has worked in the media as a writer, editor, music critic and online expert for 40 years and is the author of Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa . . . and Their Friends. He is a nationally-known speaker and commentator on Japanese American and Asian American identity and issues.

He writes a blog,, about pop culture and politics from an Asian American perspective. He also tweets, spends too much time on Facebook, and is a member of every social site and service he hears about.

Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!: A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America by Gil Asakawa is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!: A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America by Gil Asakawa below.



I’m a foodie. I’m one of those annoying people who wait to eat at restaurants (and at home) just so I can take a nicely composed photo of the meal and post it with the hashtags #twEATs and #foodporn on social media. I like all kinds of food, from all over the world. I seek out new culinary experiences. My dining mantra is “if someone somewhere in the world eats something, I’m willing to try it . . . at least once.”

But of all cuisines, Japanese food is my comfort food and ultimate palate pleaser. Japanese food, or nihonshoku, is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart . . . and my stomach.
Of course, being born in Japan, I grew up eating Japanese food. My mom used to cook a lot of traditional Japanese dishes, but she made American food too: spaghetti and meat sauce, turkey on Thanksgiving, frozen TV dinners, and chicken pot pie or chicken a la king.

She always—always—had rice, gohan, at the table, whether the dinner was Japanese or not. And even if we had roast beef or spaghetti, she would often cook herself some salmon, which sometimes made for a clash of aromas in the kitchen. She’d shrug and have her sake (salmon, not rice wine, often pronounced “sha-keh”) and gohan while my dad and brothers and I had beef, spaghetti, or whatever. In other words, I had a thoroughly bicultural upbringing.

As a kid, I paid close attention to my mom in the kitchen.

I noticed the subtleties of how she prepared meals and the -rapid-fire chop-chop-chop of her slicing vegetables like green onions, carrots, or cucumbers—always at an angle—with her sharp hocho knife on the battered wood cutting board. I paid attention to the kinds of ingredients and spices, and the amounts she used (good thing, since she never wrote down proper recipes and couldn’t tell you how much of each ingredient to use). I know about her vague recipes because when I went off to college, I was the son who asked her for them, most memorably her teriyaki sauce. “Heh? Just shoyu, sake, mirin, and shugah,” she said bluntly (soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar).

I substituted beer for sake and mirin—hey, it was college!—and it worked OK, even if my mom wouldn’t approve. I cooked a lot of teriyaki in college, and my roommate, who is Italian, made a lot of spaghetti sauce from scratch. We made a good team, and I learned about cooking from him, too. In college, I paid homage to my heritage—and my nascent foodie obsessions—when I hosted a weekly country rock show on the campus radio station, WPIR. For two hours on Monday nights, I mustered my coolest laid-back, low-voiced FM DJ voice and announced myself as . . . “Gil Asakawa, the Teriyaki Cosmic Cowboy.” I cringe now when I think about it, but I thought it was pretty hip in the 1970s!


My wife, Erin Yoshimura, is a yonsei—fourth-generation Japanese American—who is more connected to her Japanese roots than most sansei, or third-generation JAs. She can read hiragana and katakana characters, which is something I can’t do. Like me, she’s a foodie who loves authentic Japanese cuisine. She cooks wonderful Japanese food, including JA dishes. Her parents cook lots of Japanese dishes too. Our family dinners and holiday get-togethers are a typical Japanese American mashup of cross-cultural deliciousness.

The first time I got to attend her extended family’s Oshogatsu—New Year’s—I was astounded at the osechi ryori spread that covered multiple tables in multiple rooms. Erin swears that’s why I proposed to her—for the food. My mom would cook for a couple of days before the New Year and my folks would invite some friends over—the meal almost always had my mom making different kinds of sushi while my dad grilled steaks. But Erin’s family celebration took many days of planning and cooking, and everyone contributed in a potluck spirit. There would be traditional New Year’s dishes like kuromame, sweet black beans (eaten only in odd numbers for good luck), and there would be JA favorites like Spam musubi. Each New Year’s Day morning we would eat my mother-in-law’s savory ozoni soup, with pieces of soft mochi floating in it. Over the years I added my own contribution to the big family feast, a Yoshimura family recipe for kakimochi, buttery soy-sauce-and-sugar-coated crackers sprinkled with sesame seeds, which are made from, of all things, Tostitos tortilla chips.

Japanese cuisine is such a deeply rooted part of my being that I can’t imagine living without it. I shudder to think what life would be like if Japanese food was entirely foreign and exotic here in the United States, the way it must have been in the early days of Japanese food in America.


I guess I’d have to satisfy my cravings by dreaming about the food of my childhood. Luckily, I’ve always had a great memory for food, and not just Japanese.

I have vivid, though somewhat mysterious, memories of a restaurant somewhere in Tokyo where my family would go for special meals of fancy sushi and other traditional Japanese fare. I must have been four or five years old, and I recall that my dad would drive us across town, then we’d have to walk some distance. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but I have indelible images in my mind of the dark entrance hall into the dining room, which was lined with glass cases of samurai and ninja armor, masks, and weapons. I dreamed at that young age, like an American kid dreaming of owning a BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”), of being able to throw shuriken (ninja stars) with deadly accuracy.

I also have vivid memories of seeing men on bicycles precariously holding stacks—tall stacks—of lacquer boxes filled with soba noodles or bowls of ramen in one hand while they wove their way through crazy traffic and crowded alleyways, delivering food to hungry businessmen in Tokyo.

And I remember a favorite American food, freshly grilled hamburgers, from a food truck–like counter outside of an elementary school that my older brother and I attended in Iwakuni, on a Marine Corps base. That’s when I first saw those plastic squeeze bottles with the conical tops, filled with ketchup and mustard. I loved those burgers. I think they were five or ten cents each.

Once we moved to America in the mid-1960s, I embraced all manner of American food, including, of course, fast food. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Pizza Hut hadn’t yet landed across the Pacific in Japan, so this was a whole new faux-food world for me. I embraced them all—my family would drive to a nearby town to have dinner out at the McDonald’s there. We thought it was special. When a Jack in the Box opened a short walk from our suburban northern-Virginia home, I was in heaven. I still yearn sometimes—just once in a while—for a Jack in the Box taco, which was my first, albeit inauthentic, taste of Mexican food.


But Japanese food has always been my home base, my culinary nest—even when it was an unknown, a weird and exotic and sometimes just gross, cuisine in America.

When my family first moved to the States, Japanese food wasn’t very available. My parents quickly sought out the lone Japanese grocery store in Washington, DC, where we would drive every weekend from northern Virginia to stock up on supplies for my mom to cook with (and snacks for me and my brothers to wolf down). On special occasions, we would go out to a couple of Japanese restaurants—more on that in a later chapter. Mostly, though, my mom cooked American food with ingredients from the local Safeway.

So it’s amazing to see the cultural evolution—nay, revolution—that now has Japanese restaurants in every city and sushi in supermarkets across the US. Not just Asian or Japanese groceries, but giant American retail chains. I’ve heard six-year-old kids boast of how their family eats sushi a couple of times a week. Mind you, the sushi may not be the greatest, and the restaurants serving Japanese food may not exactly be paragons of authenticity. But they’re symbols of how Japanese food has become accepted in America, and of how it’s now considered mainstream.

1. Appetizer
An Introduction to the Japanese Pantry

Japan is a country surrounded by water—it’s a large archipelago, with the main islands running from Hokkaido in the north down to Kyushu in the southwest and then on to the small island chain of Okinawa, which had been the Ryukyu Kingdom, influenced by Chinese culture, before it became part of Japan.

Because Japan is an island nation, of course seafood plays a huge part in Japan’s food culture.

Many traditional dishes are simmered in dashi, a broth mainly flavored with a combination of seaweed and katsuobushi, shaved dried bonito, or dried sardines. This basic dashi is also used as the soup base for udon, hotpot, and more.

But Japan is also an agrarian country, with centuries of expertise in growing fruits, vegetables, and grains throughout the seasons and in all the different climates that the country encompasses, from the chilly winters of Hokkaido to the Hawaii-like tropical warmth of Okinawa. It comes as no surprise that rice was the main staple of the Japanese diet for centuries, along with vegetables and fish.

Wheat and especially buckwheat were also cultivated in Japan, along with barley and, of course, soy.

We all know about the samurai warriors (and the ninja and kimono-clad geisha that make up our collective image of old Japan). But the country and its culture are so much more than the images that come casually to mind, and so intertwined with influences from both Asia and the West, that, even in its culinary culture, Japan has absorbed much from outside its borders. To understand Japanese cuisine, it helps to look back at the history of food in Japan.

A brief history of beef in Japan

Historically, Japanese didn’t eat much meat because of the predominance of Buddhism. Cows and cattle were considered draft animals, used for plowing the fields. Chicken and pork were served in some dishes, thanks in part to the influence of Chinese culture. The religious ban on meat wasn’t absolute; people (most likely samurai, who needed strength to fight) were fed meat if they were sick, and meat was allowed to be cooked for certain rituals and celebrations. During the Edo period of isolation from the world, the eating of game animals, including boar and duck, was allowed. But no one asked, “where’s the beef?”

So, what changed and made Japanese a carnivore’s dream cuisine?

Foreigners came to Japan and influenced its food culture. Although Japan was officially closed off to the world during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, Portuguese sailors first arrived in 1543 and established trade in Nagasaki in Kyushu, including selling Western guns to samurai clans. They also brought goods from China. Along with the traders, Portuguese Jesuit priests brought Christianity to southern Japan. But trade with Portugal diminished with the arrival of traders from another European country.

A Dutch ship landed in Kyushu in 1600, and in 1609 the Netherlands was granted trade status by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had ruled Japan as a united country. He was interested in trade with the Dutch, but also liked that they were not so focused on missionary work to convert Japanese to Christianity. They were allowed to trade during Japan’s closed-off years, at the single port of Nagasaki. For more than two hundred years, only occasional shipwrecked Europeans washed ashore anywhere else.

But on July 8, 1853, Japan’s society, culture, . . . and cuisine changed. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, an American naval officer sent by President Millard Fillmore to open Japan to trade with the United States, by force if necessary, arrived in Edo (the name for Tokyo until the Meiji Restoration in 1868) Bay and convinced the Japanese to begin the process of opening itself for business.

Along with the subsequent ascension of the Meiji Emperor came the country’s embrace of all things European and American. Foreign experts were invited to help train Japanese professionals and establish modern industry, architecture, and food. As French cuisine was considered the pinnacle of sophistication, some of the most luxurious restaurants that served the incoming foreigners—a foreign settlement was established in Tsukiji, a Tokyo district that in a few decades would become known as the world’s largest fish market—served French dishes. The head chef at the first ­Western-style hotel in Japan was a Frenchman, and he went on to run the kitchen at the Yokohama Grand Hotel before becoming the owner of a hotel in Kobe.

By the 1870s, Japan’s Ministry of Education was explaining how to cook and serve Western-style food, which was called yoshoku, as opposed to traditional Japanese cuisine, called washoku. One flier printed by the government had an illustration of Western-style plate and cutlery, including a fork. The government thought that allowing a more Western diet would help the health of Japanese . . . and make them bigger.

As a sure sign of changing times, in 1872 the emperor hosted a New Year’s celebration that included food influenced by European cuisine, including meat and eggs. The rush to westernize was on!

Soy beans, tofu, and soy sauce

The history of soy beans goes back even farther in Japan. Soy beans—in the form of salted, boiled-in-the shell edamame—have become familiar appetizers in the US, even outside of Japanese restaurants. Soy milk and tofu can be found in American supermarkets from coast to coast. Miso as a cooking ingredient, and in the ever-popular miso soup, is also a common item in grocery stores and restaurants.

Tofu, the ultimate product of soy beans, is popular as a side dish or main entree—it’s a healthy, protein-packed meat alternative. The plastic cartons of the white bricks are easy to find in non-Asian grocery stores these days, and even in a membership warehouse chain like Costco. The rise of tofu, in part a parallel to the rise of Japanese food, is the result of America’s passion for healthy lifestyles.

Like a lot of things that we consider Japanese, tofu originated in China and was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks in the eighth century. Tofu is a basic food that is complicated to make. First, soy beans have to be boiled and processed before nigari (a mineral mix extracted from seawater) is added as a coagulant; then the clumpy curds are pressed in a wooden block, removing much of the liquid. It’s hard to imagine how someone figured out the steps it takes to make tofu from soy beans.

When the Buddhist monks introduced tofu to Japan, they called it “Chinese curds.” Eventually, the Chinese word, which is today doufu, was borrowed into Japanese and then into English as “tofu.” This linguistic process happened a lot—see the section on ramen later in this book. Tofu caught on, especially because it’s healthy and full of nutrients, which allowed it to replace meat in diets.

Like rice, tofu was initially considered a luxury item and eaten by the elites in the shogunate of the Edo period. Farmers were allowed to make and eat tofu only on special holidays. By the middle of the Tokugawa Shogunate, though, tofu was allowed to be eaten by everyone regardless of status. Matthew C. Perry took soy beans home after he opened Japan to trade with America, and today, the descendants of those beans are part of the annual US crop that’s exported to Japan. According to the Japan Tofu Association, the country consumes 4.9 million tons of tofu every year, but only grows a small fraction of its own soy beans. Japan imports ninety percent of its soy from the US!


My mom used to make her own tofu at home. When our family moved to the States in the mid-sixties, products like tofu weren’t available in a typical suburban grocery store or supermarket chain. We drove from northern Virginia into Washington, DC, every weekend so she could stock up on Japanese goods, but she didn’t like the quality of the packaged tofu that was available there. So she made a wooden box with holes drilled in the sides to allow water to seep out, and a top that could be weighed down with a rock. She soaked the soy beans overnight, mixed the beans in a blender, boiled the slurry, and pressed the mixture into the boxes with the nigari coagulant. Voila—tofu!

But wait, there’s more. Soy is an amazing food because all of it is usable. For instance, when the beans are boiled and before the nigari is added, a filmy skin forms on top of the liquid. That can be skimmed off and dried into yuba, tofu skin, which is used in many dishes, including deep-fried and wrinkly, tan aburaage sacks, used to top off bowls of udon or filled with seasoned rice for inari sushi. My mom always used another byproduct of her tofu making, okara, the dregs of the beans after boiling. My mom would collect it when she made tofu and pan-fry it with finely chopped vegetables, shrimp, scallops, aburaage, soy sauce, sugar, and sake to make unohana, a tasty and healthy side dish. We later found out tofu manufacturers threw out or gave their okara to be used in animal feed, and got bags for free from a company called Denver Tofu before it went out of business. And of course, the beans can be mashed and fermented to make soy sauce and miso paste.

Although Japanese restaurants throughout the US by the 1960s used tofu and served miso soup, they were often careful to use terms that didn’t seem too mysterious to Americans, like calling tofu “bean curd” in a New York Times article as late as 1974, or they simply used a Japanese word on the assumption that their diners were Japanese or sophisticated enough to understand that “Akadashi” was a type of miso soup (from a 1953 menu for Imperial Gardens restaurant in Los Angeles).


The most familiar of all Japanese food exports for over a hundred years, even before Japanese food became popular in the United States, has been soy sauce, or shoyu in Japanese. It’s a condiment that I bet most, if not all, Americans have had at one time or other. Its salty, pleasing umami flavor profile makes food taste better, whether it’s added to meat or fish or sweetened as teriyaki sauce.

The plot of its origins is similar to other imports. Zen Buddhist monks brought back a version of what would become soy sauce from China, a salty fermented soy bean paste. It was a cross between today’s soy sauce and miso paste, and the Japanese called it hishio. During the fermenting of hishio in the thirteenth century, a man teaching the process to villagers in Yuasa saw a deep-brown liquid seeping out of the barrel and tasted it. Soy sauce!

During the Edo period’s years of isolation, when trade with the Dutch and Chinese from the port of Nagasaki was the only export and import option available, locally brewed soy sauce from Kyushu and western Honshu made its way to China, southeast Asia, and to parts of Europe. So when Commodore Perry’s navy ships took soy beans back to America, its immediate purpose was to make soy sauce. Tofu came much later.

The best-known brand of soy sauce today is Kikkoman, although in the US, especially before World War II, soy sauce was considered only a Chinese ingredient. Kikkoman has its roots in Noda, a town in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo, which became the hub for soy-sauce brewing in the Kanto region during the late Edo period and into the twentieth century. In 1917 three families that manufactured soy sauce in Noda formed an association, then merged into one company, the Noda Shoyu Corporation, selling Kikkoman soy sauce. By the post–World War II years, Kikkoman was sold in the distinctive, curvy tabletop bottle with the bright-red plastic pouring top. In more recent years, the company added a lower-sodium version with a green top. Kikkoman saw the potential of the American market and opened a sales office in San Francisco in 1957 and a plant in Wisconsin to produce soy sauce in 1973.

Because of the company’s very early entry into the American market (the only competition in the US at the time was La Choy, a company selling canned Chinese foods), Kikkoman was savvy with its marketing efforts. They advertised in mainstream American magazines with images of white families at a backyard grill, urging readers to try Kikkoman soy sauce to enhance the flavor of meats and seafood. They often offered recipes to introduce their products, including a premixed teriyaki sauce (anathema to a cook in Japan). One ad for Kikkoman soy sauce in a Nisei Favorites cookbook from the early sixties proclaims, “Kikkoman adds the ‘flavor-touch’ that means so much in everyday foods such as hamburger, chicken, steaks and chops, fish, etc. as well as for barbecuing and oriental dishes.” Note that “oriental” mentioned at the end is the only reference to Asian, much less Japanese, cuisine.

Kikkoman’s marketing efforts—and the quality of its US-brewed shoyu—helped push the brand past its established competitors, La Choy and Chun King, by the 1970s.

Today, gluten-free soy sauce is available in the form of tamari, which doesn’t use any wheat. Typical soy sauces are brewed with both soy beans and wheat, which means people who are gluten intolerant or have Celiac disease, need to avoid it. Tamari is ironically full-circle for soy sauce, because it’s most like the original soy sauce captured from that barrel of hishio in the thirteenth century. Kikkoman today sells tamari along with a line of soups and sauces to complement its main soy sauce.

In Japanese households, it’s rude to pour plain soy sauce over rice, but I did it all the time to add that umami kick to plain rice, risking a yell and a swat from my mom.

“The essence of flavor”: MSG

There’s one more Japanese food staple worth mentioning, although it’s not as popular today as it was just a few decades ago: MSG, under its best-known brand name, Ajinomoto.
Although it’s associated with “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” the controversy over monosodium glutamate (MSG) is actually one that began in Japan and with Japanese food. MSG is a naturally occurring chemical in konbu, a kind of seaweed (it’s also naturally present in tomatoes and cheese) that’s used as a base ingredient in lots of soups and sauces because it imparts a savory flavor.

A Japanese biochemist, Kikunae Ikeda, identified glutamic acid in konbu in 1908 and in 1909 created a way to manufacture it as mono­sodium glutamate. He coined the term umami, which is now a commonly accepted fifth basic flavor profile in food science, in addition to salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.

I grew up with MSG under the brand name Ajinomoto (the literal translation is “flavor thing,” or more poetically, “essence of flavor”), the company that Ikeda formed to manufacture MSG for consumers. Ajinomoto was so commonly used by my mom that I once sprinkled it on breakfast cereal and promptly spit it out all over the table. MSG did not enhance the flavor of Cheerios.

As I grew up, the use of MSG in general as well as in my mom’s kitchen declined, though it was widely used in Asian cooking, including Japanese and Chinese restaurants. I never had it around in college.

I was unaware that criticism at the time was building up against MSG, thanks to a 1968 letter by a Chinese doctor who had emigrated to America several years earlier, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. He noted mysterious symptoms he felt after eating at Chinese restaurants in the US, which included palpitations, numbness, and weakness. The letter ran with the headline “Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome,” and the name—and the reputation—stuck.

In the healthy-food fad decades since, MSG took a bad rap. Many restaurants no longer use it to enhance the flavor of their dishes. In fact, restaurants proudly post signs proclaiming “No MSG!” But an increasing number of scientists and chefs have come out in recent years to defend MSG (not surprisingly, so has Ajinomoto’s public relations department) and insist that MSG is safe and that the general public’s call to ban the product is actually racist and anti-Asian. Celebrity chef David Chang has been one of the most vocal defenders of MSG in editorials, YouTube videos, and TED Talks. Even the US Food and Drug Administration has determined that MSG is safe, though it does note that some people can have reactions to it.

I’ve often thought in the past that after eating food with MSG, I feel a sort of a weird “high” and sometimes a spacey dizziness. But maybe that’s just the power of (negative) suggestion. After all, MSG is a naturally occurring chemical in lots of foods and is present in all sorts of packaged food that I eat. A lot. Like nacho cheese Doritos, just as a glaring example. I don’t feel a buzz after pigging out on chips.


It’s odd that Japanese restaurants were spared the direct controversy of MSG and the “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” but Japanese cookbooks seem to reflect the anti-MSG controversy. In a 1966 cookbook of Nisei Favorites by the Gardena Valley Baptist Church, for instance, many recipes list “Ajinomoto” by brand as an ingredient. By 1975, the Saint Louis Chapter Japanese American Citizens League’s Nisei Kitchen cookbook lists the ingredient by its controversial chemical name, MSG, but does include it in some recipes (in sushi rice, for instance). The Saint Louis JACL still reprints and sells this cookbook.

Whether people today avoid MSG or embrace it, umami, the original word coined by biochemist Kikunae Ikeda way back in 1908, is now commonplace with chefs, critics, and foodies everywhere.

Chinese food may have taken the blame for the MSG controversy because, by the 1960s, it was by far the best-known Asian food in the United States. Even recently, as former New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee stated in her excellent history of American Chinese food (as opposed to authentic Chinese food), Fortune Cookie Chronicles, there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s combined, making Chinese food as American as apple pie.


Tabemasho! Let’s Eat!: A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America by Gil Asakawa is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

Asakawa's previous book, Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa . . . and Their Friends, is a celebration of JA culture: facts, recipes, songs, words, and memories that every JA will want to share. Learn more about Being Japanese American here.



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