In January 1872 it was publicly announced that Emperor Meiji partook of beef and mutton on a regular basis, breaking a centuries-old official ban on meat eating. This announcement placed the emperor at the center of the newly emerging meat-eating fashion.
The issue of meat eating is one of the most contentious aspects in Japanese food history. The standard explanation declares that the Japanese stopped eating meat in the seventh century because of a religious taboo that sprang from the Buddhist precept against the taking of life. The consumption of animal flesh remained very low and limited to game (especially venison and wild boar) until the Meiji period, when it was encouraged by the new government in order to bolster the physique of the Japanese population.
In essence, this account is by no means incorrect. Nevertheless, it needs to be nuanced at least in three respects: the motivation behind the introduction of the official ban was only loosely connected to Buddhism; the taboo did not become widespread before the sixteenth century; and the consumption of game remained common, though sporadic, until the Meiji period.
The first decree prohibiting meat eating in Japan was issued in AD 675. Its main provision was to ban certain types of hunting and fishing traps that were designed to catch indiscriminately, and to prohibit the eating of beef, horse, dog, monkey and chicken from late spring until early autumn. The main purpose of the ban was to prohibit the eating of beef and horse meat and protect the livestock population, as well as to prevent drought, insect damage and famine. Moreover, it was limited to the spring and summer months which constitute the paddy farming season. The additional provisions against indiscriminate trapping of animals and fish may be interpreted as reflecting the Buddhist principle of preventing needless bloodshed.
Buddhism has gradually become associated with the prohibition of meat eating, despite the fact that it did not initially constitute the major motive behind it. At first, the execution of the law did not seem to meet with adequate understanding, since the authorities issued similar edicts in subsequent centuries. The strength of the taboo was bolstered when meat eating began to be considered defilement also according to Shinto, deriving from the impurity of slaughtering.
Some scholars argue that the spread of the meat eating taboo in Japan went hand in hand with the spread of the concept of uchi (inside, private domain), which represented a moral attachment to, and responsibility for, the members of one’s household, including the animals. This attitude was reflected in the custom of exchanging chickens between households before their slaughter in order to avoid killing those that were raised within one’s own uchi.
The concept of meat as medicine was long-standing in Japan. Eighth-century aristocrats generally followed Buddhist teachings, refraining from the consumption of meat, but several times a year they engaged in the so-called yakuro (‘medicinal hunting’), a ceremonial hunt concluding with the consumption of the caught game. This practice was supposed to strengthen their bodies, which were deprived of meat on a daily basis. The nourishing properties of beef began to be emphasized as a result of encounters with Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although generally the beef-eating habit was perceived as barbarous, the physical strength of Westerners was admired and associated with their diet. From the late eighteenth century onwards, under the influence of Dutch Learning (rangaku) – the study of Western science based on publications in Dutch – occasional consumption of meat was considered beneficial for one’s health. Generally referred to as kusurigui (‘medicinal eating’), eating meat was practised, especially in winter, either in private homes or at specialist establishments known under the name momonjiya (‘beast restaurant’).
To sum up, at the point when it was officially proclaimed that beef and mutton had just entered the emperor’s daily diet, the position of meat eating in Japan was very ambiguous. On the one hand, it was considered defiling by most Japanese, and those who engaged in it undertook measures to disengage this act from the regular daily practice. In the countryside, neither the central hearth of the house nor the regular pans were used when meat was cooked for private consumption. In and around cities, ‘beast restaurants’ were usually located in specially marked areas where ‘marginalized people engaged in their stigmatized occupations’. On the other hand, meat was considered beneficial for one’s health and its taste was occasionally enjoyed.
The announcement that the emperor had embarked on meat eating in 1872 put an end to this ambiguity. Although resistance towards meat remained pronounced until the end of the nineteenth century, and its consumption remained relatively low in Japan for another hundred years, the year 1872 considerably elevated the status of meat in Japanese eyes and provided an important stimulus to its spread.