Clearing Up Common Misconceptions about Japanese Food: A Tadaima Japan Roundtable Discussion

Our readers often ask us to provide more personal and diverse perspectives and stories about traveling and living in Japan. One of the ways that we’ve decided to address this is to launch a new series of articles: roundtable discussions addressing common misconceptions about Japan.

Each roundtable will cover a different topic and capture a spontaneous, free-flowing conversation among Tadaima Japan authors and staff. For our inaugural article on Japanese food, I’m joined by fellow writers Amelie and David. Representing the U.S., France, and Belgium, we have a combined experience of nearly 30 years living and working in Japan, and look forward to sharing our perspectives with you through this new series of articles.

Is Japanese food really healthier than western food?

Anthony: The greatest misconception I hear about food is that all Japanese food is healthier than western food. As with a lot of misconceptions, there is some truth behind this—traditional Japanese food that you would have at home or an expensive restaurant is very healthy.

However, one point I’d like to make today is that Japanese fast food—tonkatsu [breaded, deep-fried pork], for example—is actually no healthier than similar food in other countries. When I’m on the go and looking for something to eat quickly, it’s really hard to find a quality salad or vegetarian options. Even though I’m not a vegetarian, sometimes I just want to eat a more balanced meal.

Amelie: I agree. I think one of the reasons behind this misconception is that Japanese people typically live very long, with many people living for more than 100 years. However, it seems like most of these people are living in Okinawa, and they have a completely different way of eating there. Everyone talks about the famous Okinawa Diet and thinks that this represents the typical diet for the whole country of Japan.

David: On the other hand, I feel that all Japanese food is very healthy.  This is one misconception that I might have fallen for. I just feel that if I choose to eat Japanese food—even if it’s curry, ramen, gyudon [beef bowl], or tonkatsu—it must be healthy because it’s Japanese.

Actually, I’m guilty of asking myself: What’s wrong with eating ramen every day? I find myself thinking that compared to eating western food every day, Japanese fast food is not so bad. But as I’m listening to you two, I’m having second thoughts and feeling kind of bad about my diet…

Amelie: If you just compare fast food, of course Japanese fast food is better. But if you’re thinking about your overall diet, Japanese food does include a lot of greasy food too.

David: Yeah, I know food like tonkatsu is deep fried, but I think to myself that it’s deep fried using Japanese cooking methods, so I can eat it every week. I just convinced myself that way.

Amelie: So did you two gain or lose weight after moving to Japan?

Anthony:  Good question. That brings me to the positive aspect of almost all Japanese food. Not only did I lose weight after moving to Japan in 2009, but I also lost weight as a tourist on the two 10-day vacations that I took before I lived here.

So even though I think Japanese fast food isn’t necessarily healthier than western fast food, one thing that can help you stay healthier and lose weight is the portion sizes of meals. Japanese portions are almost always going to be smaller than their western equivalents.

Amelie:  My weight remained the same until I got involved in sports. Then I started losing weight. But, that might be because in Europe, portion sizes are similar to what we have here in Japan.

David: I lost weight. I think the reason was due to eating rice. Bread, pasta, and potatoes disappeared as side dishes. Having rice seven days a week, month after month, seems to have had the biggest effect on my weight. Whenever I started adding potatoes or bread back into my diet, my weight went back up.

Anthony: But, rice, as you know, contains carbohydrates as well…

David: But if I eat a bowl of rice, I just don’t feel so full after I eat…

Does fish really dominate Japanese cuisine?

Anthony: So, what are some other misconceptions about Japanese food?

Amelie: The one that I hear most often is that Japanese people only eat fish, which kind of leads us back to the previous topic. Additionally, people often tell me that everyone here only eats raw fish. I can’t speak for the U.S., but in France, I think those misconceptions come from the fact that most Japanese restaurants serve sushi and sashimi, so people tend to believe that Japanese people only eat these two things.

Of course, we all know that Japanese cuisine is filled with variety. So, people are surprised when I tell them that many Japanese people actually don’t like raw fish. Many people would also be surprised to know how popular other kinds of meat are in Japan. It’s true that the traditional Japanese diet included a lot of fish, but things have changed a lot over time and Japanese people are enjoying all kinds of meat.

David: You kind of have to go out of your way to eat raw fish nowadays. If I want to eat sushi, I would have to go to a dedicated sushi shop or buy it at the supermarket. It’s a choice. It’s rarely the only option on the menu. I’m actually not a big fan of fish. I like raw fish, but apart from sushi and sashimi, I don’t really eat fish.

Anthony: I can relate to that. I’m not into fish, but I’ve grown to like sushi and sashimi. However, I still don’t enjoy cooked fish—grilled, boiled, or otherwise. When I first told my former co-workers in the U.S. that I was moving to Japan, they were so concerned about how I would survive as someone who doesn’t eat a lot of fish. But in reality, if you don’t eat fish, you have tons of options in Japan. Even people who stick to diehard western diets can easily vacation here without issue.

David: In Tokyo, we have almost the opposite problem. It’s such a large international city and has attracted so many American restaurant chains. There are so many temptations. So much food that I didn’t eat in Europe—tacos, pizza, and burgers—is so accessible here. In a way, it’s actually worse for me here [laughs].

How should you really eat sushi?

Anthony: Let’s discuss one more misconception. David, what comes to mind?

David: This is not a very big one, but one thing that I discovered in Japan is that you don’t have to eat sushi with chopsticks. Eating sushi with chopsticks is actually quite difficult. You have to grab the rice, turn the sushi upside down, and dash it with a little soy sauce. If you fail, the rice crumbles, the slice of fish falls off, and it just becomes a mess.

It’s debatable—and not something that all Japanese people do—but it’s okay to eat sushi with your hands. It used to be that way in the past. The first time you try it, touching the rice feels weird, but it’s an easier way to eat sushi.

Amelie: Before I became a vegetarian, I would always eat sushi with my hands. Most people I’ve seen so far eat it with their hands and not with chopsticks. This makes sense because sushi was originally sold by street vendors, and customers would grab it and eat it quickly.

David: That being said, I make a point of eating it with chopsticks just to show people I can use chopsticks [laughs].

Anthony: I guess I’m going to different restaurants than the two of you [laughs]. Most of the people I notice use chopsticks. However, I have also read that it’s perfectly fine to eat sushi with your hands.

The last word

Anthony: In summary, it’s important for everyone to explore what we discussed on their own. I’d like to emphasize the positive point that if you eat a lot of home-cooked, traditional meals you can enjoy some really healthy options. However, you can say that about the cuisines of many countries—not just Japan.

David: We covered a lot of topics, but obviously [long pause]… I  don’t eat ramen every day [laughter]. In all seriousness, I do care about my health. I’ve only thought about eating ramen every day. I haven’t actually done it.

Amelie: What David said reminds me of something. I had a couple of friends who came to Japan last year and they were surprised to see that noodles are so popular—seemingly just as popular as rice. So, David, you can have rice and ramen every day [laughter].

David: You mean my hypothetical daily ramen…

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.