The “Nutrition Song”: Imperial Japan’s Recipe for National Nutrition

Nathan Hopson

This is the first in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.

In May 1922, Japan’s preeminent nutritionist, Saiki Tadasu, released a recording of his “Nutrition Song,” performed by opera star Hanafusa Shizuko. Saiki, a medical doctor who had received a PhD from Yale in 1907 before returning to Japan to crusade for national nutritional improvement, was the founding director of the Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). In this position, Saiki was the most prominent of a generation of nutritional reformers who advocated a new national diet based on modern, rational nutrition science. The IGIN, the world’s first government-sponsored dedicated nutrition lab, was established in 1920 under the powerful home ministry to address a constellation of “food problems” increasingly unavoidable after the nationwide paroxysm of Rice Riots in 1918. It was a recognition at the highest levels that for Japan to fulfill its dream of being one of the Great Powers, from the ideological project of hygienic modernity to the realities of scarcity and waste, food would play a central role.

Under Saiki, the IGIN evangelized for a distinctly Japanese “national nutrition,” based on the objective and quantifiable universalities of state-of-the-art nutrition science—especially the American “New Nutrition” to which he had been exposed while in the US—but simultaneously sensitive to Japan’s particular circumstances. The Institute primarily targeted the new urban middle-class “professional housewife” class and children more broadly: the former with a media blitz that included articles in women’s magazines, a daily radio broadcast of approved recipes (a topic for a future post), and numerous workshops, both on-site and around Japan; and the latter through a school lunch program that gained traction in the 1920s. This combination, promising to help both women and children, promised the greatest long-term improvement in the national diet: children would learn to eat properly, and their mothers to cook properly. In all of its proselytizing, the Institute appealed to the upwardly mobile self-interest of its audiences, reminding them that with its scientific and rational “economical nutrition” plans, they could do more with less.

The “Nutrition Song” was a didactic nine-verse summary of Saiki’s master plan for proper (rational and economical) national nutrition, based on the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods to reduce waste and cost while simultaneously increasing efficiency. The first two stanzas of the Nutrition Song deal, respectively, with personal and social nutrition. The third verse explains macronutrients. The fourth lists daily dietary requirements and promotes Saiki’s “each meal perfect” meal planning system, based on the New Nutrition’s Taylorist doctrine of nutritional quantifiability and the substitutability of equivalent foods. Verses five, six, and seven are, respectively, anti-gourmand, pro-substitution (“economical nutrition”), and white rice-skeptical (another topic for another day…). The final two verses remind listeners to eat rationally rather than emotionally. Saiki’s lyrics are, in short, imperial Japan’s recipe for national nutrition.<

Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.
Figure 1 The “Nutrition Song.” Lyrics by Saiki Tadasu, 1922. Author’s collection.

Wake in the morning with the strength to crush an ogre
Refreshed by peaceful dreams
With a strong mind to overcome heat and cold
Impervious to disease
These are the gifts of nutrition


Even foreigners will be jealous of our children and grandchildren
Great and strong, humbly thank the gods
For pure water and endless food
Giving life and saving the world
These are the rewards of nutrition

Protein in milk, meat, eggs, shellfish, and beans builds the body
Potatoes, grains, and sugars are called carbohydrates
Like fats they burn easily, giving strength and heat
What’s left settles, enriching the body

An average working person requires
80g of protein and 2400 calories, the rest from fats and carbohydrates
Ensure that each meal
Is rich in nutrition

“Good” foods are not necessarily rare delicacies
Affordable wholesome foods abound
Meats are good, fish excellent
Dried or salted, cod, sardines, herring, and fresh bream

Tofu, natto, miso, and soy flour; beans can substitute for meat
Supplement taste and nutrition with meat scraps and dried whole sardines
Prepare food cleverly so as not to waste
And learn proper storage so as not to waste heaven’s bounty

Consider the immense virtues in each little grain
Use rice properly: mill appropriately and don’t wash
When rice is scarce, eat barley, buckwheat, millets, and potatoes
Eating them all together for red blood and strong bones

Eat a balanced diet, different for young and old
Eat bones, skin, and flesh for minerals and vitamins
Do not gratify your appetites; daily routine is most important
Chew well and don’t be picky
That’s the secret to a long, healthy life

In frozen winter the body loses heat
So eat plenty of fatty foods
In sweltering summer, eat fruits and vegetables and drink water
For unchanging health in changing seasons

In my next post, I’ll examine the IGIN’s official cookbook, a year’s worth of IGIN-endorsed recipes interspersed with helpful columns about food- and nutrition-related topics. It’s the practical application of the principles laid out in the “Nutrition Song.” This post is based on my forthcoming article, “Nutrition as National Defense: Japan’s Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition, 1920-1940.” Journal of Japanese Studies 45, no. 1 (2019).

Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.

Making Mr. Song’s Cheeses

By Miranda Brown

The subject of this post may strike readers as odd. The combination of “Chinese” and “cheese” brings little to mind: neither memorable textures, nor fragrant flavors. Nothing, not even a single name like Parmesan or cheddar. The reason for the dearth of associations is obvious enough. Cheese is largely absent from the Chinese diet, nowadays found only in the periphery of the Chinese world, in places like Yunnan and Mongolia, where it is regarded as ethnic food for Tibetans and other minorities.

Yet things were different several hundred years ago. Chinese gastronomes once waxed poetic about the taste and texture of cheese, professing their preference for it over elaborate delicacies. One poet, living in the thirteenth century, extolled the flavor of cheese, saying, “No need for fancy morsels when there is cheese!”[1] Another, living a century later, asserted the superiority of dairy to bean curd. “While this old fellow is content with his tofu,” he wrote, “The delight gotten from cheese is double.”[2]  These early foodies related recipes for manufacturing fresh, non-melting cheeses like paneer and the secrets for creating stretched curds like mozzarella.

Over the last several years, I have experimented with recipes for Chinese cheese, attempting to recapture the flavors and textures of centuries past. One recipe, for stretched-curd “milk threads,” proved tricky. Preserved in a 16thc-cookbook, Song’s Instructions for Preserving Life (Songshi yangsheng bu 宋氏養生部), the recipe can be summarized like this:

  1. Heat cow’s milk until hot.
  2. Pour in a souring agent (akin to diluted vinegar), dripping it into the milk gradually.
  3. Once a curd forms, collect it with a cotton wrap and shape into a disc.
  4. Take the curd and place inside of a pot of scalding water.
  5. In a separate vessel of scalding water, press it into the shape of a thin sheet of coarse silk.
  6. Place the curd onto a stick, rolling and pulling.
  7. Put the curd inside the scalding water in the pot, rolling and pulling three to five more times while in the water.
  8. Roll out the resulting thread, placing it on a rack to dry in the sun (oil can be added to make the product smoother).[3]

This recipe assumes a working knowledge of the cheesemaking process. Hence, the omission of precise measurements. Readers must know beforehand the quantities of milk or souring agent, and the temperature of the milk or scalding water. Needless to say, this presents a challenge to a modern cook who is unfamiliar with cheesemaking.

My first attempts to produce the cheese failed, even with un-homogenized milk. The resulting curds, small and grainy, refused to stretch after being immersed in hot water. I sought help from Youtube, watching videos of Indian housewives making kalari, a non-rennet string cheese that was similar to Song’s stretched curd in terms of ingredients (cow’s milk, vinegar, hot water). I noticed that when coagulating the milk, the home cooks would test the temperature of the milk with their fingers, stopping the heating process once they could no longer keep their fingers in the liquid, rather than waiting for the milk to come to a soft boil as one would when making ricotta or paneer. This made me think that control of temperature was key to success, something hinted by Song’s own directions: heat the milk until hot, not boiling. Still, my subsequent efforts to make the cheese failed despite the care taken during the initial curdling process. I wondered if the pasteurization process, which requires that the milk be heated to at least 165° Fahrenheit, had something to do with my lack of success.

My breakthrough came during a trip to California, where I was able to purchase raw or unpasteurized milk. I heated a quart of the raw milk gently until hot (110° F), then poured in a little diluted vinegar and shut off the heat, all the while continuously stirring the milk. Within minutes, the milk transformed into one large curd.

Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar . Image courtesy of the author.

I removed the curd and heated a pot of water to simmering, and immersed the curd into the scalding water for a few moments, removing it from the pot and kneading, repeating the process three times. Voilà, an elastic curd that stretched easily.

Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.

Looking back at the experience with Chinese cheesemaking, I can say that the success of my experiment depended on a variety of factors: knowledge of arcane texts, watching other cheesemakers at work, and many failed experiments in the kitchen.

Miranda Brown teaches the history of Chinese science and food in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Fascinated with recipes of all kinds, she is the author of the Art of Medicine in Early China (2015) and with Yang Yong, “The Wuwei Medical Manuscripts” (2017). She is currently writing a book about the premodern history of dairy in China.


[1] Zhu Xi  朱熹, Zhuzi wenji 朱子文集 (Taipei: Defu wenjiao jijinhui, 2000), 3/110.

[2] Yang, Lian 楊鐮 (chief editor), Quan Yuan shi 全元詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 109.

[3] For a translation of the whole recipe, see Miranda Brown, “Mr. Song’s Cheeses, South China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Forthcoming). 

Charmed: into the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Kristof Smeyers

Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the "Spellbound" exhibition.  Photo by permission of the author.
Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the “Spellbound” exhibition. Photo by permission of the author.

Entering the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, you are confronted with a ladder leaning against a wall like a menacing question mark. There is no avoiding this ladder. Do you walk under it or do you go round? Even before you are inside the Ashmolean’s exhibition space, ‘Spellbound’ asks big questions about magic, ritual, and witchcraft. The ladder is a clever prelude: it shows how magical thinking is not part of a past inhabited by our ‘superstitious’ predecessors, but smugly points out that we live in a magical world today (and will still do so tomorrow). The ladder sets the tone: visitors are encouraged to engage with their own magical thinking. By the time you have made your decision, you know not to approach the magical objects in the exhibition as unenlightened remnants of delusions and misconceptions. They are, instead, intrinsic parts of people’s ‘inner lives’—not incidentally, research from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900 lies at the foundation of the exhibition.

‘Spellbound’ stretches out across three thematic exhibition spaces divided between learned magic, witchcraft, and folk magic, though they are best experienced in dialogue with each other: retracing one’s steps between rooms can help make sense of some of the more enigmatic objects, and help one draw emotional or sensory connections of one’s own. Together, the spaces immerse the visitor in more than eight centuries of magical thinking and feeling, simultaneously encouraging us to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings. The thematic set up invites us to draw connections across ages and cultures without, importantly, trying to convince us of a ‘universalist’ interpretation of magic.

Its innovative approach—across themes and ages—raises questions of its own. How do you create an exhibition that aims to capture interiority and emotions, in particular when those emotions and their related practices are related to subjects as wilfully elusive as the magical and supernatural? The invisible is a tricky thing to display in a glass case of a museum. Thankfully for the curators (and for us), magic has been captured in a wide variety of writings and objects—sometimes literally—for example, the small flask which famously contains a witch came with a warning from the woman who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the early twentieth century: ‘…if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.’ In fact, several objects in ‘Spellbound’ hail from the cabinets of Pitt Rivers and are re-imagined in what at first glance seems like a more sterile and modern museum environment. The supernatural and the magical, so this exhibition convincingly shows in the form of hundreds of things, were profoundly material categories.

A second question that arises when looking at the many, very different objects is: How do you recreate a museum context in which a worn shoe or a feather can be ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ by visitors as magical and emotional, ideally without having to read essay-length labels that explain its significance for the person who made it, kept it, or used it? Labels are used sparingly, and to effect. The meaning and emotional significance attributed to everyday objects instead becomes apparent when you take the time to look. Objects of magic show signs of emotional practices throughout the ages: pages of grimoires were read until they fell apart, things were carved, bound, charmed, pierced, tied, burnt, scratched, bottled.  

In other instances, the fact that they were kept is revealing in itself: the worn leather of a shoe found concealed under floorboards by homeowners, for example, attests to a patina of emotional and magical meaning that remains vivid despite—or because—of its mystifying character. The accompanying catalogue poignantly quotes Sara Ahmed’s The cultural politics of emotions on how emotions ‘stick’ to objects, whether we recognise them as magically material like the steel of a horse shoe and the obsidian of John Dee’s black mirror—or not. It is to the curators’ credit that visitors are compelled to figure out precisely how a shoe or corset were magical. That materiality becomes particularly powerful when the exhibition lets different kinds of objects communicate with one another, as in the case of the Boy with Coral painting and the piece of red coral depicting St Michael defeating the devil. Several modern art installations beautifully enrich the visitor’s sense of wonder as they wander between objects.

St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.
St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.

‘Spellbound’ makes clear how structures of magical thinking remain vibrant and flexible; they are not, nor were they ever paradigmatic, rigid belief systems. Rather, they constitute of pragmatic, idiosyncratic amalgams of beliefs, practices, and objects that made sense to individuals and shaped communities. They are profoundly human. This popular and charming exhibition will do much to rid us of the persistent dismissal of magical thinking as ‘superstition’ and to begin to take people’s experiences—past and present—seriously. Touch wood.

Kristof Smeyers (Twitter: @kristof_smeyers) works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. His research attempts to untangle the grey areas between science and religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by focusing on supernatural religious phenomena in Britain and Ireland. 

Happy 2019 From the Recipes Project

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "New Years greetings." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New Years greetings.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Dear readers, supporters, and contributors:

Thank you for all of your interest, your engagement, and your brilliant ideas over the past year. We had a busy but very fulfilling 2018 at the Recipes Project. In addition to a wealth of posts from contributors around the world, we featured pieces on new collections of recipe-related materials in our First Monday Library Chats; cross-posts with blogs like Res Obscura, History of Knowledge and Cooking the Archives; conference round-ups, author interviews, and book and exhibition reviews. We hosted several special series: on the senses, on hot and cold, and on teaching. Perhaps most exciting of all, we welcomed a new editor — Dr. Jess Clark — and then decided to expand the Recipes Project even further by opening a call for three additional editors as well as a larger social media team. We’ll be introducing our new editors and social media colleagues to all of you in the new year, and we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting new perspectives, topics, and activities they bring to our Recipes Project community.

We wish you all a very happy new year!
Jessica Clark
Amanda Herbert
Elaine Leong
Lisa Smith
Laurence Totelin