by Kaki Okumura: It’s not the ingredients necessarily, but the principles which form the foundation…
Japanese food is harmony food
“Japanese food” in Japanese is read as washoku (和食), with wa (和) meaning harmony, and shoku (食) meaning food. In fact, the kanji 「和」 is often interchangeably used to mean “harmony” or “Japanese”.
The kanji character for Japanese was actually first「倭」, read phonetically as “wa”, but this kanji was assigned by the Chinese and didn’t have much significance. Upon learning this, Japanese Empress Genmei assigned the kanji for harmony, or 「和」to replace the existing character during the Nara period (710 to 794 AD) to represent Japan.
It is thought that she was inspired by The Seventeen-Article Constitution, a decree centered on moral principles and virtues, written by politician Prince Shotoku and adopted by her predecessor, the first decree which is 「以和為貴」or to hold harmony in precious regard.
以和為貴: to hold harmony in precious regard
The ideas which make Japanese food the healthiest way to eat
This idea of harmony is what the foundation of Japanese food is built upon. And it is the exact harmony which lends itself to making Japanese food one of the healthiest ways to eat.
1. Ichiju-sansai: Balance of food types
The traditional Japanese meal is composed with the idea of ichiju-sansai, or ‘one soup, three sides’ in mind. Most commonly this means a bowl of miso soup, two vegetable side dishes, and one fish dish, to go with a plain bowl of rice.
But the idea is that meals should be composed of not just “healthy foods”, but with a variety of them. A diet of just spinach is no longer healthy, it is only when we balance it with different ingredients, cooking methods, and combine it with other vegetables and whole proteins is when we can define it as healthy.
2. Harahachi-bunme: Moderate portions
The complement to ‘one soup, three sides’ is the idea of harahachi-bunme, or ‘8/10ths your stomach’. For proper balance is not just of the foods we consume, but to enjoy it in moderation.
8/10ths full is when we meet satiation and satisfaction, without feeling overstuffed. It’s why many people who follow this principle can regularly eat sweets, fried foods, and other foods traditionally labelled “bad”, because it is enjoyed in a balance on a larger scale.
This is not to say that eating chips or ice cream until you feel 8/10ths full is the answer, as these modern foods were scientifically manufactured in a setting that prioritizes an optimal chemical balance of flavor and addiction, and hence makes 8/10ths very difficult for our bodies to comprehend. It’s to pair it with whole foods, which allows this principle to meet effectiveness.
3. Balanced presentation
Finally, putting it all together is the value in presentation. While not every meal is meant to be embellished with beautiful ornaments or intricately cut shapes, the standard Japanese meal is presented to be organized, thoughtful, and cared for.
In a homemade meal, the fish may be plated to be centered, and the side dishes may be put onto delicate small colored plates to surround the meal. In a bento box, the rice may be neatly balled up into a round triangular shape, and the little side dishes compartmentalized. It’s a bit of an extra effort, but the care in presentation nudges us to be mindful of our food and to take time enjoying it.
You may be surprised by how such a small shift can make a simple vegetable dish seem much more appealing and taste more appetizing.
Why Japanese food is the healthiest way to eat for a happy life
What makes a meal Japanese to me is not soy sauce, sake, sushi rice, or any other Asian ingredient, but it’s really a meal which encapsulates this idea of harmony. Harmony in color, plating, ingredients, and food types, but also the amount we enjoy and the environment we eat in.
So when I say Japanese food is the healthiest way to eat for a happy life, I’m not exactly referring to eating more sushi, ramen, or miso soup, although these are all amazing dishes in their own right.
What I am actually referring to is “harmony food” or the idea that the healthiest way of eating is one that has balance ingrained in its philosophy — balanced for our health, but also conducive to joy.