The Japanese Table / ’64 Games turning point for Westernization of diets

Yomiuri Shimbun photos

From left, Takeo Koizumi, Eiko Egami and Tozaburo Sato

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. For this installment, we will explore the relationship between the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Japanese food.

The Yomiuri Shimbun asked five prominent figures to discuss their memories of food and the Tokyo Olympics. Comments from two of them were published last week. The following are comments from the remaining three.

Takeo Koizumi, 75


To me, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is linked to my memories about food.

I came from Fukushima Prefecture to enter a university in Tokyo. I lodged at a house, and there was no TV in my room.

It was at a restaurant near the university that I watched many competitions at the Games. I remember how delicious the meal set with sanma saury was, which I ate while cheering for the athletes. The fatty, sleek saury made a sizzling noise on my plate.

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  • Courtesy of Imperial Hotel

    Nobuo Murakami, second from left, talks with foreign reporters at the Athletes Village during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Kenichiro Tanaka

The ham and egg meal set appeared very Western at the time. As I ate it, I momentarily felt as if I had become a Westerner. I was a little surprised to see Japanese athletes eating bread, not rice. I still had that sort of sentiment toward food.

At the house where I lodged, I enjoyed listening to the radio broadcasts of the competitions while having a cup of coffee. I learned that the Japanese women’s volleyball team won the gold medal on the radio as well. I guess there were many people like me, as instant coffee became widely available around that time.

It was a time when whale meat was still an important source of protein for Japanese people. Soon beef and dairy products began spreading all over the country. The Olympics was an important occasion for Japanese people to start feeling familiar with foreign countries. I think the Games overlapped, timing-wise, with the turning point in which Japanese people’s diet became more Westernized.

I hope the next Games will be a good opportunity for non-Japanese to learn more about Japan’s food culture.

Eiko Egami, 82

Cooking expert

The Olympics were held around when I returned to Japan with my mother-in-law (Tomi Egami, the founder of the Ecole de Cuisine Egami cooking school) from a trip to Europe, the Middle East, and other places where we promoted Japanese cuisine and learned about local dishes. Back in Japan, many people wanted to learn about exotic foreign foods. Under the supervision of my mother-in-law, I taught them how to cook foreign dishes.

During the Olympics, I visited the National Stadium with my family and cheered on athletes in the athletics events. I remember clapping so much whenever a Japanese athlete appeared that my hands hurt.

In those days, there was a mounting desire among Japanese people to use the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity go out into the world. Women in particular generally love delicious foods and beautiful things, but they had to distance themselves from those things during World War II. Like dry sand absorbed water, they soaked in foreign cuisine after the war.

There was also demand for party food. The good thing about home cooking is its flexibility. You can make everyday meals a bit more attractive when you have guests, or you can adjust them to suit the tastes and physical conditions of those who will eat your dishes. Maybe the Tokyo Games provided us with an opportunity to widen our repertoire of home cuisine.

Tozaburo Sato, 83

Writer, farmer in Yamagata Prefecture

At the time, I worked in silk culture and dairy farming, and grew hops and other farm products. I only watched the Games a few times on TV.

During the sports extravaganza, I wrote an article for a newspaper titled “Farming households and the Olympics.” The Games created expectations that many people who eat meat, eggs and vegetables would visit Japan. Farmers put serious effort into raising beef cattle and pigs.

However, the farmers seemed to get caught up in the fad and prices fell. Some farmers even went bust. With this in mind, I calmly observed the Olympic fever as a member of a farming household in the countryside.

From around that time, young people began leaving villages, triggering the start of depopulation in rural areas. Big cities thrived, while farmers exhausted themselves in the backcountry. The Games seemed to be a symbol of that phenomenon. Today, agricultural skills have not been handed down to generations of children and grandchildren in farming households.

I hear that the upcoming Tokyo Games will be used to raise the profile of Japanese food culture. Even if the export of a few high-quality farm products increases, it seems to me that the everyday diets of Japanese people will be increasingly dependent on imported foods. There is no way I can believe that the Games will help improve the nation’s agriculture and dietary life.

Chefs face challenges at dining halls

During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, chefs at dining halls in the Athletes Village supported the diets of about 7,000 athletes, coaches and officials from over 90 countries and territories.

The chefs were required to prepare dishes and use skills on a scale they had never experienced before. Responding to a call for cooperation from the Japan Hotel Association, about 300 chefs gathered from across the country. Nobuo Murakami (1921-2005), the grand chef of the Imperial Hotel’s annex building at the time, served as one of the top chefs for the village.

There were three dining halls in the Athletes Village: one for female athletes and two, named Sakura and Fuji, for male athletes. Sakura Dining Hall was in charge of providing meals to athletes mainly from European countries, while Fuji catered to athletes mainly from Asia and the Middle East.

Many of the dishes the restaurants served were unknown to most Japanese at that time. Murakami made inquiries to embassies from other countries while also asking the wives of ambassadors to Japan to show him how to cook.

“[Murakami] told me it was hard for him to encourage leading chefs from around the country to work together,” said Kenichiro Tanaka, 67, the current grand chef of the hotel who honed his skills under Murakami.

For chefs of the day, the recipes and cooking tips were jealously guarded expertise, but clinging to this attitude would have made it impossible to cook for such a large number of people. The chefs also had to learn how to cook foreign dishes they were not familiar with. Murakami compiled all the recipes for the dining halls and decided to let his fellow chefs share the methods.

“He also provided them with the Imperial Hotel’s recipes for banquet menus,” Tanaka said.

To efficiently prepare a vast amount of food, Murakami gave up the conventional approach of preparing dishes one by one and instead introduced a “supply center” system, under which a large amount of ingredients were prepared in advance. He also successfully used frozen food products, even though they were considered at the time to be something that did not taste good.

After the Games, the chefs returned to their respective workplaces with new ideas and techniques they had acquired through working at the Athletes Village. They thus became able to handle large banquets at their local hotels.

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