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.


[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.