Need for Speed: Geography’s Effect on Food
By Richard (Rick) Lewis • December 6, 2017
A commentary on the way geography and topography impact Japan’s foodways…
Need for Speed
While much of the world sees Japan through neon-lit glasses, imagining a haven of modern innovation, sleek metal gadgetry, and tight living quarters, the country lives in a more nuanced reality. Towering condominium complexes and glass-clad monuments to capitalist industry dot many of Japan’s urban skylines; however, upon leaving the sprawling reaches of the cities, one finds a Japan much more in touch with its natural side. This rural-centric side appreciates nature, the seasons, and the living world with religious devotion, explaining the native faith, Shinto (a central tenet of which places god in every object, even trees and rocks). But the wild of Japan has also characterized its people and cities in unique ways, mainly encouraging an agricultural system based on limiting geography and efficiency.
As an archipelago situated along the Ring of Fire (an area tracing its borders along the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean, also home to many volcanoes and volcanic basins), Japan is home to mountains, quite a large number of them. In fact, over seventy percent of Japan’s surface area is mountainous, leaving fewer than thirty percent for people, farms, and major infrastructure. Thus, with a naturally-inhibiting geography, Japan, over the course of centuries, has developed systems of living and farming that maximize the efficiency and utility of what little land its actually has. Additionally, as a country with few natural resources, Japan has learned how to live with what nature dealt it, to the fullest extent. It can be argued that the land formation of Japan inherently places a stress for expediency, efficiency, and perfectionism on the Japanese people—qualities that are highlighted in Japanese cuisine, with its reliance on seasonality, nutrition, and beauty.
However, this food and its subsequent culture all come from the utilization of precious space. The megalopolises of Japan could, in a sense, be viewed as mountain towns. They are not not like the ski resort capitals of the American West, but more akin to large urban centers surrounded, for the most part, by limiting topography. Like the backs of great horned lizards (towering and unpleasant when disturbed), mountain ranges, like the Japanese Alps (home to the infamous Mount Fuji), cut through Japan, leaving little room for easily designed infrastructure, living spaces, and convenient, arable land. Additionally, Japan is home a population of over 125,000,000 million—all living in a country with a slightly smaller land area than the state of California (Ministry). When such a large number of people occupy a relatively small space, cooperation feels inherent: industries and transportation systems rely on both precision and speed; trains cannot be late and food cannot be inconveniently less than perfect.
Take Japan’s most revered crop, rice, for example. Rice, as a crop, demands an intense amount of labor and natural resources—namely water—to flourish. And because of the topography of many of Japan’s mountains, the tiered-system of other rice-producing nations simply cannot function. Thus, Japan devotes much of its valley land to rice plantations; they dot the rural landscape like large, green postage stamps. Because of the national spread of the rice crop, unique regional flavor profiles and usages have sprung up: the rice around the peninsula of Ishikawa holds the title for finest sake-producing flavor, while the rice hailing from the northern island of Hokkaido receives fame for its gentle sweetness and ease of pairing with lightly-flavored dishes (Aoki). In addition to rice, other staple vegetables and legumes are grown across the country. Eggplant, soybean, and carrot remain popular in every prefecture and show up in many national dishes, like tofu and curry.
Demand for these ingredients looms over Japanese farmers. Again, this Japan’s national population, clustered in tight, urban centers—Tokyo possessing the highest number of residents in the world at over 40,000,000—has forced it to devise a system of agriculture that meets the needs of every citizen in a pragmatic manner (Ministry). The agricultural system of Japan works in a similar manner to the best-run of soup kitchens (though with much more flair and tradition to time-honored cuisine). The comparison is in no way meant to be insulting; quite the opposite. Soup kitchens, or the ones that succeed, serve as the romantic ideal of efficiency when it comes to food. In a related manner, Japan’s farming economy runs off of the need to meet constant overwhelming demand—while also offering a product that its citizens can take pride in and see the years of special training many products require to produce.
To accomplish the creation of this seamless system, Japan has adopted a system of food supply that largely replaces the middle man. For example, in the smaller towns that shoot off large metropolitan centers like tendrils, community supported agriculture (CSA) has taken off; local farms supply many of the town’s residents and stores with seasonal harvests all year round (Lewis). Additionally, as the landmass of Japan is comparatively small to the United States, food has to travel less of a distance to reach its eventual consumer. Therefore, the culinary bodies of Japan, its sweeping valleys and costal hillsides, supply whatever city they are closest to; a fairly consistent climate across the country helps this system support similar agriculture across the archipelago—though the northern-most island of Hokkaido stays too cold to match the mainland’s produce. A different expectation of food origins exists in America.
While the United States runs harvests from one end of the country to the other (placing a discorporate pressure on California to act as a produce empire, even though it holds the technical classification of desert in many counties), Japan focuses on its population. And while the U.S. is busy shipping soy and wheat products abroad, Japan keeps the overwhelming majority of what it produces for itself; in fact, it needs to do so (United States). While the country may house a poor number of natural resources like oil and coal, Japan does possess a great deal of fertile soil and teeming ocean and sea beds. Thus, much of Japan’s energy becomes diverted to the utilization of these few resources; fishing functions as one of the larger economies in Japan, with large-scale rice production falling close behind (Lewis). These industries not only maximize geographic and topographic utility but they also manage to feed a very large and very hungry population.
Though, the beauty of Japan appears in the way in which it treats food and food production with reverence. Farmers serves as the somewhat spiritual backbone to many of Japan’s most famous and worshiped cuisines: Kyoto’s silken tofu, Tokyo’s sushi art, Kobe’s katsudon (fried pork cutlet over rice), and Osaka’s okonomiyaki (a savory, vegetable and octopus pancake), to name a few. Without effective and dedicated farmers, much of Japan’s food culture would wither and drop from the vine—and so would its people. These souls who produce what Japan eats have conquered mountains and farmed valleys for centuries, all in the vein of providing a healthy, local, and national cuisine to their neighbors.
The neighbor in Japan is always close-by. One only has to swing their arms a few inches to hit someone in Tokyo. And with population come hunger, and with hunger comes impatience. Japan’s trains serve as the perfect metaphor for Japanese food production; they always run on time (if they are a minute late the fare is free) and hold the global standard for cleanliness. Japan’s foodways run on a very similar set of expectations: the food must be to the consumer quickly and it must be perfect. Perhaps the U.S. will learn a thing or two and devote more time to developing region-supporting agricultural systems instead of playing god with landscapes that were not meant to grow what they do.
Aoki, Keiko, et al. “A Choice Experiment to Compare Preferences for Rice in Thailand and Japan: The Impact of Origin, Sustainability, and Taste.” Food Quality and Preference, vol. 56, 1 Mar. 2017, pp. 274–284.
Lewis, Rick, and Erika Urushiyama. “Gifts of Gifu.” 19 Sept. 2017.
Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Statistics Bureau. “Japan in Numbers.” Japan in Numbers, Government of Japan.
United States, Congress, Economic Research. “Country Shares of Japan’s Agricultural Imports.” Country Shares of Japan’s Agricultural Imports.