Why do the Japanese eat meat?

…if they are supposed to be Buddhists?

This isn’t unique to Japan of course – try getting truly vegetarian food in Thailand!

One possibly relevant factor in Japan is in the animist collection of beliefs that is Shinto, plants are also gods and so it is just as bad to eat a banana as it is to eat a cow. For that reason, you traditionally thank/ apologise to all food for giving up its life for your nutrition with an “Itadakimasu” and a praying gesture. Another is that extremism in diet is just as frowned upon as extremism in religion (the reason why 99% of Japanese will respond to “Are you religious?” as if it’s an accusation), so cutting down on meat is sensible and cutting it out is just kind of weird.

The other possible reason is simply that Buddhist orders in Japan have always told their public what they want to be told, so that the priests can fill the coffers which they will pass onto their sons (marriage and children being another thing that isn’t traditionally associated with Buddhism!) Again, Thailand jumps instantly to mind as proof that money grubbing Buddhist priests aren’t soley a Japanese thing, though…

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3 Comments

  1. Andy K said,

    March 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Check out some modern Japanese history: The answer is there.

    The truth is that they used to not eat meat, not until the black ships. Then only some animals (chickens, cows etc) were eaten but not beef and the like except only in situations involving medicine.

    Then after WW2, the cultural floodgates opened further, and beef was “in”. The older generation had issues with this as Buddhists, usually not partaking, or only on rare conditions.

    This book of essays has a vignette about the author’s grandmother’s reaction to when their family first ate meat (sometime in the 50s). She ties down the butsuzan so that the Buddha wouldn’t see them committing a sin, etc:

    IOW, the answers are there, in history: No need to speculate.

  2. alexcase said,

    March 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    What you say is mainly true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, Buddhists shouldn’t eat seafood either, and in fact disuading people from eating meat was bakufu government policy more than a religious thing, as it would have increased the amount of grain needed to feed the animals and so made the price of grain go up and made famines worse. Also, people did occassionally eat game. Obviously the big change did come about when the Meiji government made it policy to encourage meat eating, but the attitude that made that possible is older and more fundamental, I believe. Having marked several hundred Eiken essays where 80% of students used the argument that vegetables are living just the same as animals, something I can imagine only a minority of British people would write, also makes me think that there is some deeper cultural difference there.

    Also, what is history but speculation????

  3. crella said,

    March 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    In some villages they traditionally ate whale. In Japanese Buddhism fish and birds were allowed. Wild boar and deer were called ‘yama kujira’ (mountain whale) to get around the problem, and this allegedly is why rabbits are counted with the counter for birds (wa).


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