Meals on Wheels: The “Kitchen Cars” and American Recipes for the Postwar Japanese Diet

By Nathan Hopson

From 1956 to 1960, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) sponsored a fleet of food demonstration buses in Japan (“kitchen cars”) to improve national nutrition and fuel the nation’s economic recovery with more “modern” and “rational” cooking methods and, most importantly, ingredients (i.e. American agricultural surpluses: wheat, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent meat, dairy, etc.) The concept was first floated to the US by Dr. Ōiso Toshio, chief of the health ministry’s nutrition section, 1953-1963. Along with the school lunch program instituted under the US occupation, the kitchen cars became one of the most important tools for marketing American farm products in Japan. The school lunch program, centered on bread and (reconstituted skim) milk until the 1970s, taught young Japanese new tastes. The kitchen cars taught their mothers to reproduce those flavors at home.

The initial fleet of a dozen buses, operated by the Japan Nutrition Association (a semiprivate organ of the health ministry), reached over two million people in towns, villages, and apartment blocks across Japan. The nutritionists staffing the buses put their professional imprimatur on the many novel foods they demonstrated, and distributed samples, nutritional pamphlets, and the day’s recipes to their audiences of mostly housewives. The kitchen cars were wildly popular. When US funding expired, local Japanese governments built their own to meet public demand; the number exceeded 100 by the end of the 1960s. Though it is difficult (impossible?) to quantify, the kitchen cars contributed in subtle but profound ways to transforming the postwar Japanese diet.

Despite their popularity at the time, today the kitchen cars are mostly forgotten. When they are remembered, it is mostly for destroying “traditional” Japanese dietary patterns and contributing to the “Westernization” of the diet during the period of high economic growth. This backlash stems in part from the fact that American financing was hidden not just from the public, but also from all those who staffed or assisted with the kitchen cars. Still, in the short run, these buses were a win-win for the US and Japan. America’s Cold War “Food for Peace” campaign put agricultural surplus to work supporting a critical ally, and Japan received enormous amounts of free or cheap food and generous development loans.

Figure 1: Kitchen car demonstration in rural Aomori, year unknown (probably 1950s). Courtesy of the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

The photo above shows a typical scene from a day in the life of the kitchen car. The audience crowds around the back of bus, which opens up like a thrust stage for the nutritionists to perform upon. The gathered women listen intently, some taking notes. The kitchen installed in the rear of the bus is the state-of-the-art chrome and gadgetry emblematic of the new postwar “bright life” of happy consumerism. The nutritionists in their white lab coats bring the authority of science. The foods they are preparing may not seem like the stuff of American farm surplus propaganda, but as Ōiso himself observed, “Propaganda is truly effective when people don’t notice it.”[1] To wit, the noodles are most likely soba: buckwheat mixed with (American) wheat. Even subtler is the use of sautéing, undoubtedly in (American) corn or soy oil. This kind of gradualist approach, expressed in slogans such as “Flour-based food once a day,” helps explain both why nobody suspected American involvement and why the kitchen cars were so popular and effective.

Few detailed records of 1950s’ kitchen car menus remain, but those that do are consistent with accounts from the 1960s. A list of favorites from mid-decade Okayama prefecture includes milk donuts, udon stew, sautéed amaranth leaves with liver, fried meat and vegetables with ketchup, vegetable cream soup, fried soybean fritters, chicken and peanuts in tomato sauce, bok choy with peanuts and mushrooms, and cheese sponge cake. Roughly simultaneously, the prefecture’s public health center sponsored competitions for original, tasty, nutritious, economical foods (about ¥20 each) using ingredients like soy, skim milk, and flour. Winners included vegetable omelets, fried tofu-wrapped sardines, fried sardine balls, and mysterious entries such as “nutritional bread” and “nutritional fried dumplings.”

These lists lend credence to the remarks of Richard Baum, Ōiso’s initial American collaborator. In a 1978 documentary, Baum expressed immense satisfaction at the kitchen cars’ success. As he explained, “the housewives would come out and gather around and learn how to make different wheat foods. And then they would get to sample the wheat foods. And they found these very delicious and so they would say ‘Oishii desu. Mō sukoshi’ [This is delicious. A little more, please].”[2]


[1] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Amerika komugi senryaku: Nihon shinkō (Ie no Hikari Kyōkai, 1979), 106.

[2] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Shokutaku no kage no seijōki: kome to mugi no sengoshi (NHK, 1978).


This post is part four in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here. This entry is based on his article “Ingrained Habits: The ‘Kitchen Cars’ and the Transformation of Postwar Japanese Diet and Identity.” Food, Culture & Society, November 2020.

Pulverized Food to Pulverize the Enemy!

By Nathan Hopson

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

Nukapan. Let me introduce our teatime specialty, rice bran fried in a pan. Mix wheat flour and rice bran, add a little water, and fry in a pan. Add no eggs or sugar. Fry for two minutes. It looks just like good custard. But it tastes bitter, smells like horse dung, and makes you cry when you eat it.[1]

Nukapan is an exemplary Japanese wartime culinary abomination, so much so that it features in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, where the taste is upgraded from horse dung to “old, dried leather.”[2] However, it is not nukapan’s dubious gustatory merits that make it representative of the joys of cooking during the Pacific War. Instead, it is the use of flour and attention to waste reduction that make this a consummate early 1940s delight. Nukapan was both a direct response to food and nutrition shortages caused by catastrophic war planning failures and a manifestation of principles derived from a longer history of national nutritional activism in modern Japan.

Even before Japan plunged into the Pacific War, warning signs indicated the fragility of the Japanese food supply. True, despite constant Malthusian anxieties, Japan proper had achieved high levels of food self-sufficiency in the 1930s, but only by relying on its colonies, suzerains, and neighbors to make up the deficit. Japan’s wartime plan, such as it was, followed the Roman dictum, bellum se ipsum alet. Japan’s war planners believed they could fully integrate the resources―food, oil, etc.—of Southeast Asia into the metropole’s economy. “That strategy,” wrote Daniel Yergin, depended “on the integrity of Japan’s own shipping system.”[3] It failed. American forces decimated supply convoys, incapacitating Japanese shipping. Rice imports fell to ten-percent of prewar levels even before B-29 superfortresses destroyed over 130,000 tons of staples stored in Japan proper. No wonder, then, that the American Hunger Blockade was, according to postwar testimonies by Japanese leaders, “the Allies’ most effective tactic in ending the war.”[4]

Despite “adversity that stood a half-century of better living on its head,” the principles espoused for an ideal wartime diet remained relatively consistent.[5] By spring 1942, the daily menus that had been a fixture of Japan’s newspapers for two decades began the transformation from a combination of sensible middle-class fare with occasional aspirational “bougie foods” à la Japonaise to a grim set of “recipes for disaster” with dour headlines such as, “Meeting minimal nutrition needs with ingredients on hand.”[6] Though the punditocracy expressed confidence to the bitter end that “creative solutions for full use and consumption of foods to eliminate waste and maximize nutrition will appear,” they did not.[7] Instead, Japan doubled down on rationalization (viz., waste reduction and labor and resource optimization) and the substitution of nutritionally equivalent foods. The latter had been promoted by the Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition during the interwar years. Substitution’s primary wartime aim was to reduce rice consumption by supplementing or replacing it with other grains, potatoes, etc. Substitution was not limited to staples, however. No, substitution was comprehensive alchemy. Bread and noodles substituted for rice; beans, fish, insects, and wild birds for meat. Used tea leaves morphed into vegetables while potatoes evolved from vegetables to staples. Daikon and squash leaves―uneaten in better times―doubled as leafy vegetables and waste reduction. Porridges, soups, and other catch-alls dominated the menu, soaking up otherwise discarded ingredients and allowing creative caloric and nutritional supplementation. Potatoes were the most ubiquitous and despised of late wartime substitutes, but the keystone of substitution was “flour.”

Figure 1. Wartime postcard promoting rice conservation (setsumai). Author’s collection.

Perhaps the representative “flour-based food” (funshoku) was kōa pan (“Rising Asia Bread”). In fact, from acorns to kelp to rice hay, anything and everything that could be was powdered or pulverized and eaten, and animal feed and fertilizers such as soymeal and fishmeal found their way onto the menu, too. Comparatively, then, kōa pan might have been relatively harmless. A 1940 women’s magazine recipe called for flour, soymeal, baking powder, salt, powdered seaweed, fishmeal, substitute vegetables, and even sugar―which soon became unavailable. The accompanying illustration included butter; surely nobody was fooled.[8]

Figure 2. Kōa pan illustration (1940), reproduced in Saitō Minako’s Senka no reshipi (Iwanami Shoten, 2015:41).

These flour-based foods were controversial. Some praised their portability and long shelf life, others the ease of mass production and nutritional supplementation by eclectic mixing. Dissenters pointed out that many were, well, gross, and matched poorly with soy sauce, miso, and other traditional seasonings and condiments.[9] Digestive complaints abounded. Nevertheless, “flours” of all sorts gradually came to dominate wartime discourse―if not dinner―pushing out traditional “granular foods” (ryūshoku) such as rice.


In my next post, I will examine the surprising continuities of “flour-based food” in the early postwar years, and how American agricultural surplus helped complete a dietary transformation already underway during wartime.

This post is based on my “Women, Waste, and War: Food, Gender, and Rationalization in Wartime Japanese Discourse.” In Gender and Food in Contemporary East Asia, edited by Jooyeon Rhee, Chikako Nagayama, and Eric Li. Lexington Books, forthcoming.


References:

[1] Quoted in Thomas Havens, Valley of Darkness (Norton, 1978), 114.

[2] Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha (Vintage, 2011), 346.

[3] Daniel Yergin, The Prize (Free Press, 2014), 333.

[4] Sheldon Garon, “The Home Front and Food Insecurity in Wartime Japan: A Transnational Perspective,” in The Consumer on the Home Front: Second World War Civilian Consumption in Comparative Perspective, ed. Hartmut Berghoff, Jan Logemann, and Felix Romer (Oxford University Press, 2017), 51.

[5] Havens, Valley of Darkness, 123.

[6] “Asu no kondate,” Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 1942.

[7] Tsutsui Masayuki, “Kanso seikatsu no shihyō (12),” Yomiuri Shimbun, May 6, 1944.

[8] Saitō Minako, Senka no reshipi (Iwanami Shoten, 2015), 56.

[9] “Funshoku no senji futekikakusei,” Yomiuri Shimbun, September 4, 1944.

Revisiting Ida Milne’s “Nursing and Nutrition: Treating the Influenza in 1918-9”

Editor’s Note: As we find ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us continue to search for treatments, social distancing strategies, and ways to cope with our new normal. We also search for analogies. Have we ever been through anything like this before? If so, what did it look and feel like? We here at The Recipes Project are not the first to recall the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 as a precedent for our experience today. Nor is COVID-19 the first outbreak to pull our minds back to 1918. In hindsight, it feel almost nostalgic to think back to the 2018 season of “higher than normal influenza cases” that inspired Ida Milne’s piece “Nursing and Nutrition,” but her words and her perspective ring just as true of today’s challenges as those of 1918 or 2018. We hope this post from our archives can provide some perspective on our shared response to the challenges ahead. (Joshua Schlachet)

By Ida Milne (Originally published in June, 2018)

This season’s higher than normal influenza cases has inevitably drawn comparisons with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the worst in modern history.  It killed more than 40 million people, according  to the World Health Organisation.  It punctured medical doctors’ newfound confidence in the power of bacteriology to fight infectious disease. In Ireland, it killed at least 23,000 people (the number of certified deaths from influenza and excess pneumonia) and infected about 800,000 people, one fifth of the population. Entire communities fell silent as it passed through.

Monster representing the influenza virus. E. Noble, c. 1918. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Laboratories churned out vaccines, but the general consensus was these vaccines, made from bacteria suspected to cause influenza like illness such as Pfeiffer’s bacillus (haemophilus influenza), were ineffective.  Physicians threw everything in their medical bag at it, trying desperately, and in vain,  to find a cure for a disease they found baffling. Ultimately, doctors came to realise that the most effective treatment was good nursing – which included nutritious food – and strong liquor.

From a school journal The Clongownian, 1919. By kind permission of the editor, Declan O’Keeffe.

There was little consensus amongst the medical profession on what medicine worked best. Some suggested quinine and grains of aspirin to reduce fever and grains of opium for sleeplessness. Calomel (mercurous chloride)  was liberally prescribed, as doctors then were very keen on keeping the bowels open. Strychnine, which we tend to view now as the villain’s poison of choice in James Bond movies, was injected as a stimulant.

D.W. McNamara, a young house doctor in Dublin’s Mater Hospital during the crisis, later wrote that one of the popular treatments in the hospital was an injection of camphor in olive oil, which he described as ‘the very nadir of therapeutic bolony’. Instructed by his seniors to use it, he felt guilty that he had inflicted further pain and suffering on the very ill.  Some doctors, especially his older colleagues, favoured brandy or whiskey ‘in heroic doses’. Alcohol had, he considered, a good deal to recommend it, as it was ‘probably no less worthless than any of the other nostrums, and at least its customers had a merry spin to Paradise’.

The demand for whiskey was so strong that some flu-stricken communities wrote to the Chief Secretary’s office to see what could be done to improve supplies. Non-prescription medicines were in high demand. As well as compounding regular medicines, pharmacists worked long hours to prepare huge quantities of tonics, cough medicines and poultices. The poultices were usually a mixture of boiling water and ground linseed, reputed to aid decongestion, enclosed in cloth and placed on the chest or throat.[1]

Journalists passed on tips on cures to their readership. The Irish Independent related that Major R. T. Herron, Medical Officer, Armagh Union infirmary, had suggested gargling with a solution of permanganate of potash as a useful preventive measure. Sir R. Winfrey, MP, a qualified chemist, recommended a prescription of thirty drops pure creosote, half-ounce rectified spirit, three-quarter ounce liquid extract of liquorice, two drachms salicylate of soda and twelve ounces of water, with the recommended adult dosage of two tablespoonfuls three times daily.[2]

While good nursing with bed rest, plenty of liquids and nourishing food offered a better chance of survival than medication, this was not always possible when every member of the family was sick. In some areas, the Women’s National Health Association, the St Vincent de Paul and neighbours set up community nursing schemes and community kitchens to cook and deliver nourishing soups and stews to those too weak to care for themselves. Local farmers often donated vegetables and meat.

Sinn Féin’s Dr Kathleen Lynn, who opened a hospital to treat influenza sufferers and vaccinate people, suggested that sufferers should be given milk, barley water and egg flip, while those in good health ought to fortify themselves with butter, eggs, fresh meat, vegetables and porridge.

Many newspapers reported that people were carrying handkerchiefs doused in eucalyptus oil in front of their mouths as a preventive measure. McNamara considered this practice about as effective against influenza as ‘a black beetle would be to halt a steamroller.’

Advertisement in Abel Heywood and Son’s Influenza: Its cause, cure and prevention, 1902. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Beef extracts Bovril and Oxo were in heavy demand, and production was sometimes halted when they ran out of bottles when sales went up. Beef extract or tea was understood to strengthen the body as a defence against infection. Goodbody’s Flour Mills in Clara, Co Offaly supplied Bovril to their 300-strong workforce  during the pandemic.

Manufacturers changed their regular advertising to offer their product as a useful treatment. Readers of the Enniscorthy Guardian were urged to ‘pour a little Cousin’s lemonade into a saucepan and warm it, to provide the perfect drink for influenza sufferers.’ A pharmacist in Gorey, Co Wexford, advertised his cod liver oil emulsion as offering  protection from influenza.  Purveyors of snake oils – the cure-all nostrums – swiftly added curing influenza to their list. Such claims preyed on the general fears created by an untreatable mass disease.

The use of whiskey as a treatment crops up frequently in written records and oral histories I captured from survivors or families of sufferers. Raphael Sieve, whose family lived in south Dublin at the time, told me that his father kept his teenage brother constantly mildly drunk with whiskey at the time, until he pulled through. When I presented this idea in a paper, a medical doctor suggested that there might be good science behind it.  He said that the reason that young healthy adults may have suffered more than normally in this flu was because of cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts. He thought that small regular doses of whiskey might help prevent this.

One survivor I interviewed, Tommy Christian, from Boston, Co Kildare, was administered gruel, a type of watery porridge, which he said ‘had an awful lot of responsibilities’, a hint perhaps that it was intended to open his bowels. His family put a poultice made of linseeds and hot water wrapped in cotton on his chest, another common treatment. Tommy had his first taste of whiskey, in a hot toddy – made from sugar, whiskey and hot water – as that five-year old flu sufferer, a taste he said he continued to enjoy for the rest of his life.  Despite being extremely ill in 1919, he lived to his 99th year. Proof that the old remedies can sometimes be best?

Ida Milne’s book on the influenza epidemic in Ireland can be ordered through Manchester University Press.

[1] Telephone communication with a family member of Phillip Brady, who worked as a pharmacist at Kelly’s Corner, Dublin, during the epidemic; further details with author.

[2] Irish Independent, 4 March 1919.

“Daily Recipes for Home Cooking” (1924)

By Nathan Hopson

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

Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.

The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.

In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.[1]

Figure 1 The IGIN’s first daily recipes published in a major newspaper. From Asahi Shinbun, May 29, 1922.

But even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.

When I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut: shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch, and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.

There are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi article and the Daily Recipes version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”

Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)

Ingredients Amount (g) Protein (g) Calories Price (sen)
Rice 1.9 (liters) 100.4 4814.4 54
Cabbage 75 2.2 35.2 2
Miso 112.5 13.8 177.9 3
Shellfish 75 13.6 57 10
Salted salmon 225 58.7 306 9
Daikon 150 1.1 27 2
Bamboo shoots 300 7.8 90 1
Sesame oil 56 0 506.3 4.5
Wheat flour 75 8.8 274.2 2
Beef 187.5 28.7 598.1 15
Carrot 56 0.7 21.9 2
Potato 112.5 1.7 96.8 2
Wakame 19 2.2 38.4 2
Suet 45 0.2 411.7 3.5
Total 240 7455 112
Total/person 80 2485 37.3

*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units
**Sen = ¥1/100

To return to my original question, as exemplified by this daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life of her family—and by extension, the nation.


[1] Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.

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.