Cheese and milk are both popularly enjoyed in Japan and have a household ubiquity similar to the U.S. While the introduction of cheese goes back centuries to varieties of Mongolian style cheese brought over from China and Korea, its` introduction to mainstream Japanese dining came about during the Meiji Era of late 19th century. This was the most significant time in Japanese history- from political, cultural, and every other aspect- including cuisine.
In 1868, by means of a near non-violent revolution, Japan went from being a closed highly regulated feudal society run by a military regime, to an open, representative government and very active member of international community. During this era, nearly all arms of public service were created and private commerce was encouraged. The education system, military, local and national political infrastructural were completely reformed and reestablished. This was done after thoroughly researching foreign countries and inviting foreign specialists to Japan. Japan's reputation as a country that excels at importing and assimilating foreign elements into their own society was made during this period. They set about at this selecting the best suited military, educational, and political structures for their country to enter the world stage. And they set up, on cultural and academic levels, to seek civilization and enlightenment- which was popularized with the compound "bunmeikaika" (文明開化).
So what does this have to do with milk and cheese in Japan? One of the efforts put forth by the new Meiji government was to develop a national nutrition strategy that could be implemented for school lunches and recommended to families. It was apparent to Japanese leaders from early dealings with European powers that their physical and robust bodies were a result of their diets of dairy and meat. In Japan, raising and serving meat had been banned for centuries by Buddhist edict. It was not a total ban as elicit meat restaurants and stores existed. Meat was said to have stamina providing medicinal qualities. It was actually called "kusurigui" (薬食い), which means "medicinal food"...Back to the main story....One of the first things the Meiji government did was lift the ban on meat. The Meiji leaders felt that it was important to develop a military on par with European powers and to foster the development of physically stronger and healthier national populace. This aspect of diet was addressed quickly when the lift on the ban was sort of surreptitiously made by announcing that the emperor himself enjoyed eating meat.
Anyway, in line with the encouragement of meat consumption, the Meiji government also established several national dairies to produce milk and cheese. Again to encourage the masses of the sanctity of this new diet, it was announced that the emperor enjoyed drinking milk twice a day. Significantly, milk and cheese and meat were the culinary and nutritional element of bunmeikaika- the civilization and enlightenment of the new Japan on a culinary level. So it was that the Japanese government itself introduced dairy into the Japanese diet. These dairies were established in Hokkaido in the 8th year Meiji year which is about 1876. Private companies were eventually established and some of them are still around today including Yukijiroshi and Meiji. They made processed cheeses. Ice cream was popular as well.
After WWII, in an effort to introduce protein into Japanese diets, the U.S. occupational authority added milk (condensed and powdered at first) to school lunches. Eventually fresh pasteurized milk became popular in homes and Japan went through the `50s and `60s with milkmen the same as the U.S. In late '60s and `70s blue cheese and Camembert became popular (anyone who's been to inexpensive izakaya in Japan will see ubiquitous Camembert on the menu). Today every supermarket has a cheese section and it's rare to meet someone who doesn't like cheese. My in-laws who are in their early 70's and late 60's, both enjoy cheese.
Cheese and milk do not lend themselves well to Japanese cuisine, so they are often eaten as we do in the U.S. As snacks, on crackers or bread, melted down with pasta, and of course pizza. White cream stew is also a popular home comfort food. I`m forgetting many other popular preparations....And I`m deliberately forgetting cheese as a ramen topping, although it does have its` admirers here. Recently though, I've seen cheese popping up at specialty sake izakaya. I went to a great one in the Kanda neighborhood of Tokyo a couple of years ago that pairs sake with fresh made cream cheeses (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/538916). Foreign cheeses continue to get popular here as well. I was mildy surprised to read on the Yukijiroshi company website that Japan is the 6th largest cheese importer in the world. The imported cheese are still prohibitively expensive, but the kind of craftsman approach to cheese is also going on in Japan. These days I recently saw tv a commercial for a craft cheese maker showing them traveling to Italy to present their cheese. Cheese in Japan. It's everywhere here.
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