The Japanese population is one of the healthiest in the world due to their diet of fresh ingredients and cooking methods. In fact, recent figures suggest that people born in Japan now are expected to reach the age of 73 without a significant illness or condition and may live well into their 80s. Studies have linked the exceptional health of Japan’s citizens to their diet and food culture. So, if you are moving to Japan, here’s some insight into their diet and cuisine that might just help you live a little longer!
Types of food and drink
Japanese cuisine consists of small, fresh dishes made from staples like seafood, vegetables, seaweed, rice and noodles. These ingredients are often served raw, as this maintains the nutrients in the food. Indeed, Japan’s national dish, sushi, is extremely popular and is commonly made using raw vegetables, and sashimi contains raw fish.
Another must-try for expats is ramen, which is a meat-based or fish soup with wheat noodles, soy sauce and miso, as well as spring onions, pork, dried seaweed or menma. Japan has a range of traditional alcoholic drinks such as sake and shochu, as well as non-alcoholic options such as amazake or aojiru, which is made from kale or barley grass. Both are very healthy and high in antioxidants.
Japanese eating customs and habits
Japan’s main religions are Shinto and Buddhism, and the country’s eating customs reflect this. Meals are generally eaten at low dining tables, while sat on cushions. Traditionally, men have their legs crossed, while women tuck their legs to one side; for more formal meals, men and women both kneel.
Food is eaten with chopsticks, which encourages people to chew properly and therefore aids digestion. It is considered bad luck to leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of food, as this signifies death; it is also rude to talk, point, pass food or decide what to eat while holding your chopsticks. However, Japanese hosts are usually gracious and will often be proud to teach you about their customs and habits.
It is considered bad luck to leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of food
Food and drink events and festivals
There are several different festivals where expats can sample authentic local cuisine in Japan. The Mount Fuji Gourmet Festival, for example, offers a variety of traditional foods and teas for expats to try; or there’s the Igafudo Food Market, where expats can enjoy local sweets, drinks and delicacies. Many expats attend these events to learn more about the culture of Japanese cuisine and to try new foods as part of a healthy diet.
Cooking styles and ingredients
As a lot of Japanese food is served raw, expats may find that the textures are different from what they are used to. For example, sashimi has a delicate, creamy texture that is quite unlike cooked meat or fish.
Expats may also be unfamiliar with some of the fresh ingredients used in Japanese cooking, such as seaweed (which is full of iron, protein, fiber, calcium and other nutrients), tofu and soy sauce. In fact, Japanese food has an “umami” taste (a savory taste that is often described as brothy or meaty). This taste is only found in a few dishes in other cuisines, which is what makes Japanese cuisine so distinctive.
One of the most famous Japanese dishes expats may already be familiar with is of course tempura. It usually consists of vegetables and seafood that is battered and deep fried, and served over rice or noodles. But what makes tempura different from other fried dishes is its distinctive batter. It uses no bread crumbs and less grease than other frying methods. The batter is basically made from beaten egg, flour and cold water. Sometimes starch, oil or spices may be added.
As Japanese food is light and low in calories, a typical meal consists of multiple dishes e.g. a bowl of rice, some miso soup, a couple of vegetable side dishes, and a bit of meat, fish or tofu – rather than a starter and main. This is a healthy way of eating, as it encourages you to graze and ensures a balance of nutrients in every meal.
Japanese portion sizes are usually smaller than those in countries like the UK or US, so some expats may either find that they need to get used to eating less, or that they need to order more as they are still hungry.
Common issues expats face with food and drink
Although hygiene standards are usually high, Japan’s sometimes hot and humid climate means that food poisoning can be a risk if food has been left standing in the heat.
Food and drink for expats with health conditions
Expats with dairy intolerances may find the Japanese diet ideal, as soy is often used in place of milk or cheese. By eating plenty of soy products, expats with dairy intolerances might find that they are eating a healthier diet than usual.
Japan is also known for its herbal remedies and alternative medicines, and some foods are thought to offer effective treatment for health conditions. For example, green tea is supposed to have cancer-fighting properties and protect against allergies; buckwheat is believed to lower blood pressure; and tofu is meant to have anti-aging qualities that keep the brain healthy.
The Japanese diet has been heralded as one of the healthiest in the world, so it should be easy for expats to maintain a balanced diet while living and working in Japan. The main considerations are to ensure that they eat in clean and hygienic places – as they would anywhere else in the world – because the combination of warm climate and raw ingredients can increase the risk of food poising.
However, the Japanese diet has so many health benefits due to its fresh ingredients and healthy methods of food preparation that many expats eat more healthily than they would be able to at home.