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.

Food Will Win the War: A K-12 Educators’ Workshop on Teaching World War I, 1914-1919

By Dana Schaffer

Each year the American Historical Association hosts a workshop for K-12 educators at our annual meeting. When my colleagues and I began planning for this year’s workshop, we knew that the 100th anniversary of World War I would make a timely subject for the attendees. But rather than focus on more traditional narratives of political and military history in the workshop, we decided instead to explore the history of World War I through the lens of food. This creative approach, we hoped, would help teachers to engage and inspire their students in innovative ways.

Our “Food Will Win the War” workshop was sponsored by the Advanced Placement Program of the College Board and co-organized by the AHA, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and National History Day. For the event we assembled a team of scholars, master teachers, and public historians to address the historical context of the period, demonstrate pedagogical techniques, and share resources available for classroom use.

AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #12 Helen Veit and Julia Irwin discuss the politics of sacrifice during World War I. Credit: Marc Monaghan
AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #12
Helen Veit and Julia Irwin discuss the politics of sacrifice during World War I. Credit: Marc Monaghan

For the first segment of the workshop, historians Helen Veit (Michigan State University) and Julia Irwin (University of Southern Florida) discussed some of the key issues of World War I such as the American home front, the importance of food and food conservation to the war effort, and the place of humanitarianism and hunger relief in US relations with Europe. Veit and Irwin had been involved with the development of the online exhibition War Fare: A Culinary Exploration of World War I at the National World War I Museum. As part of their presentation, they highlighted some short films they had made with American Food Roots, which were included as part of the exhibition.

AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #13 Wendy Eagan explains how educators can use this history of food to examine broad thematic concepts of World War I while fellow panelists Tim Bailey, Amanda Moniz, and Lynne O'Hara observe. Credit: Marc Monaghan
AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #13
Wendy Eagan explains how educators can use this history of food to examine broad thematic concepts of World War I while fellow panelists Tim Bailey, Amanda Moniz, and Lynne O’Hara observe.
Credit: Marc Monaghan

The second portion of the workshop included presentations about practical teaching ideas for the classroom. Wendy Eagan (Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, MD) explained how she incorporated images and materials from the War Fare exhibition into her own AP World History class, demonstrating that she covered a wide range of themes—from politics to gender—by talking to her students about the history of food during World War I. Tim Bailey (Gilder Lehrman Institute) highlighted a “Food Will Win the War” propaganda poster from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and walked attendees through a classroom exercise they could conduct with their own students. Historian and former pastry chef Amanda Moniz (National History Center at the American Historical Association) displayed several recipes from a World War I-era cookbook and explained how students could make these recipes in the classroom. For many students, Moniz noted, cooking can inspire an interest in history in ways that that traditional texts might not.

For the final segment of the workshop Lynne O’Hara (National History Day) shared the National History Day’s World War I resource booklet, which includes dozens of primary sources and lesson modules, which can be edited and adapted to meet the needs of students in any classroom. O’Hara highlighted the lesson plan on food and scarcity during World War I.

Attendees of workshop departed with facsimiles of the “Food Will Win the War” poster, copies of the National History Day resource book, and other materials to use in with their students. A complete recording of the event, including the American Food Roots film segments, can be viewed on the American Historical Association’s YouTube channel.

Food Will Win the War Poster Image A US Food Administration poster from World War I. Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Collection #GLC09522
Food Will Win the War Poster Image
A US Food Administration poster from World War I.
Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Collection #GLC09522