Online Exhibition: Japanese Food Culture: History and Mystery: Food and Dining Culture in the Edo Period Japan


This exhibit features the Japanese food and food habits during the Edo period (1600-1868).  

The establishment of Tokugawa Government by Tokugawa Ieyasu put an end to “Sengoku (Warring States) Period.” By subjugating about 260 territorial lords (daimyō), the Tokugawa Government brought peace and stability over the country for about 260 years. When Ieyasu was relocated to Edo in 1590, Edo was an underdeveloped fishing village. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Edo became a de facto capital of Japan and developed rapidly. The construction of large-scale building of samurai residential quarters created diverse opportunities for employment, luring carpenters, merchants, entertainers, artisans, etc. By the end of the 18th century, Edo developed to be the greatest of the castle towns with nearly 1 million in population.  

During the Edo period, Japan had prospered both economically and culturally. The advancement of civilization, such as housing, clothing, education, etc. improved the quality of life among commoners. Commoners became able to enjoy food, and many well-known traditional Japanese food were either invented or became popular during this time. One of such examples was nigirizushi, the most well-known type of sushi. Originally, “sushi” was fermented fish with rice, invented in ancient China, for preservation. Nigiruzushi uses fresh fish or shellfish from Edo Bay, often raw, served on vinegared rice. Nigirizushi was fast food and sold from stalls.  

It is not so difficult to trace what people ate in the Edo period. Official documents recorded the foods served for special occasions. Diaries written by samurai tell us what they ate during their night shift. Owing to the development of printing technology and publication/distribution network, many recipe books were published, and literature works described what people enjoyed eating at festivals. Nishiki-e is another great resource to understand the food and food culture during the Edo period. Nishiki-e, multi-colored woodblock prints and a type of ukiyoe, is a highly regarded Japanese art today. But, they were mass-producible commodities during the Edo period. The cost of one nishiki-e sheet was approximately the same as one bowl of soba noodles. The variety of nishiki-e, such as portraits of the beauties and kabuki actors as well as famous landscapes, also illustrate the everyday life of people in Edo, and a few of them depict their food culture.

Iki o shokusu: Edo no soba bunka, 2018

This book focuses on soba, buckwheat noodles. Soba noodles are one of the most famous Japanese foods, like sushi and tempura. Although the record on soba dates back to the 7th century, it was during the 17th century when soba noodles became a popular fast food. This book discusses how soba noodles became a "stylish" food in Edo (Tokyo). The featured cover features an ukiyoe print by Utagawa Kunisada. This scene features a man sitting and eating soba noodles, a scene that is based on a kabuki play. Behind him is a portable soba noodles food cart and the owner. The sign board on the cart shows 「二八 (ni-hachi), which means 2 and 8. This is because soba noodles contain 20 percent wheat and 80 percent buckwheat. Also, it is said that soba noodles were called "ni-hachi soba" because one bowl of soba noodles costs 16 (2x8) mon.

Komonjo ni miru Aizu-han no shokubunka, 2014

Based on the primary sources recorded in the Edo period, this book focuses on the food culture in the Aizu Domain, the current Fukushima area. The featured cover illustration shows the reproduction of the meal served for the Korean mission to Japan, dispatched by Joseon, the Korean dynastic kingdom. The meal is served on a small tray with stand, which shows the formality of the meal.

Edo no shokubunka: washoku no hatten to sono haikei, 2014

This book examines food culture during the Edo period in Japan, which founded the food habit of the Japanese people today. The discussion includes such popular foods as sushi, tempura, soba, and grilled eel. Also, this book discusses the development of restaurant industry and other related businesses, such as production and distribution. The featured cover is a portion of the print created by Utagawa Toyokuni. A fish seller is filleting a fish. He puts the cutting board on a large bucket where he keeps fish. There is one more bucket. These buckets are connected by the rope and poll. He carries these buckets and sell fish, and upon request, he cleans the fish.

Nishikie ga kataru Edo no shoku, 2009

This book introduces the food culture and the lifestyle of the commoners in Edo through ukiyoe prints by Kunisada, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi as well as letters and diaries. The featured cover illustration, created by Utagawa Hiroshige, depicts people who gathered in Takawa for a moon viewing festival. There are a variety of street stalls serving food in the picture. The vendor at the center displays a signboard which reads "sushi." Behind the cart, a man is making sushi.

Edo no ryōri to shokuseikatsu: Nihon bijuaru seikatsushi, 2004

This book introduces the development of cooking during the Edo period, which formed the foundation of Japanese cooking today. The featured pages show the reproduction of the box dinner served at the night shift, based on a diary written by a samurai Asahi Bunzaemon. According to his diary written in 1696, he was in charge of bringing box dinner for the night. As shown in the picture, he brought a variety of food. He also carried sake. Apparently they were allowed to drink during the night shift, and he recorded that some of his colleagues got drunk.