Why No One Ate Meat in Japan for 12 Centuries

Around the world, eating meat has become an ingrained part of food culture for many people.

Westernization has prompted many countries in Asia to adopt more meat-heavy diets. In Japan, a nation that has historically relied on seafood and rice, more and more meat-based dishes are being served than ever before. Chicken consumption, in particular, is on the rise, according to Global Meat News. 

But it hasn’t always been this way. Once upon a time eating meat — especially beef — would have landed you in some serious hot water in Japan.

According to Atlas Obscura, for 1,200 years prior to 1872, the consumption of meat was considered a real taboo (unless you were a member of the upper classes, who maybe ate meat for “medicinal purposes”). If a regular Japanese person was seen to be eating the flesh of an animal, they would face serious punishment.

The publication notes that some shrines would demand a person fast for 100 days as penance for eating beef; if they ate pork or venison, a governmental decree required they repent for 60 days.

Meat has become a huge part of the food industry in modern-day Japan

This all ended when Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emporer, ate beef in 1872. His actions prompted a group of Buddhist monks to break into the Imperial Palace and protest. By choosing to eat beef, the Emperor effectively ended a 1,200-year-strong ban on eating meat. And by doing so, he was “destroying the soul of the Japanese people,” believed the monks.

Buddhist teachings to respect life, combined with the fact that Japan is a nation made up of islands, with easy access to seafood and no need to eat land animals, contributed to the ancient meat ban.

According to Atlas Obscura, consuming meat during this time was considered unnecessary, as well as “corrupt and unclean.”

But the Meiji government — who wanted to start a process of westernization in Japan — turned all of this around. Not all citizens were agreeable at first, but nowadays “meat is as much a part of Japanese cuisine as sushi,” notes Atlas Obscura.

There are some Japanese citizens who want to take Japan back to its meat-free roots; threats of dangerous levels of climate change are on the horizon if we don’t reduce animal agriculture around the world, and new studies warn of major health risks associated with heavy consumption of animal-based foods.

Although meat consumption isn’t going anywhere for the time being in Japan, its vegan population is steadily growing. According to Munchies, 4.7 percent of the Japanese population is vegan, and plant-based options are beginning to appear again on dinner tables and restaurant menus across the country.

Japan’s vegan movement is still young, but is brimming with potential, notes the publication. It says, “Japan’s vegan and animal advocacy communities appear to be where those in the US were 20 years ago — full of grassroots energy and excitement.”