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.