In the best of times, the Japanese have always had a variety of foodstuffs from which to choose, both from the land
and sea. Of course, one's diet depended to a great extent on social class. As those considered samurai could range in means
from very poor to very rich-and thus experienced diets that crossed classes-we'll examine some generalities.
Unsurprisingly, rice was a staple food, and was so important as to be considered a measure of wealth. Farming
in Japan has never been an especially easy affair, and the life of a farmer could be a difficult one indeed. Much of Japan
is mountainous, and yet even after the land was unified under the Tokugawa, each province needed to have some rice-growing
potential. A few areas were idea and by the 16th Century had come to the realm's 'breadbaskets' - especially Ise Province
and the Kanto Region. The Kanto in particular was well suited to agricultural development, with wide, flat stretches of land
for fields and rivers to provide irrigation. Other, more mountainous provinces, like nearby Kai, presented their lords and
farmers with many problems, and required a great deal more effort to optimize production. Rice fields were cut into the sides
of hills, and rivers arduously dammed and diverted. Yet the work was vital - famine was an ever-present danger, and one from
which few were immune.
The production of rice followed a set pattern every year, and
began with the preparation and seeding of a nursery bed. Here, the sprouting rice seeds could be more easily monitored while
the main fields were prepared for use. The fields were ploughed by either horse or oxen, enriched with manure, and provided
with water, with the implementation of the last task depending in large measure on where the field was. After about forty
days the seeds were transplanted in the fields (this was typically in June), quite often by the young women of the village-whose
own fertility, it was hoped, would rub off on the rice seeds. For the villagers, this was a most important event, often accompanied
to music and a festive spirit.
Aside from keeping weeds and insect pests in check
(the latter were one of a villager's worst nightmares), the rice fields would now require little attention until harvest-time
in October or early November. Harvest was another festive occasion for the farmers, and perhaps the most exciting time in
Needless to say, as has ever been the case, the fruits of the peasant's
labors were hardly for them alone. Every province throughout the period of the samurai saw to the collection of rice, although
the amount demanded as tax varied. Some idea, though, may be gleaned from the daimy˘ H˘j˘ Soun's control of Sagami. There,
he was looked upon favorably by the peasants for taking a mere forty percent of their crops each fall, as opposed to fifty
or even sixty percent. Even the generous forty percent tax rate left a village with a thin reserve in case of emergencies,
and so many maintained secret fields. Quite often, prior to the 16th Century, local samurai (jizamurai) or Jito might well
look the other way - this changed with the coming of the daimyo. Land surveys or growing efficiency were organized to ferret
out fields that had avoided taxation, and were quite unpopular as a result. Resourceful villagers also grew alternate crops-such
as beans or sweet potatoes-to augment their diets.
Ironically, many peasants, for
various reasons, ate millet as opposed to rice. Rice was an all-important commodity, and nowhere in Japanese culture was frugality
more rigidly practiced then among the farmers. Rice could be used in a number of ways, and included being boiled, cooked into
a paste, turned into sake, and mixed with vegetables. A popular roadside treat was the rice cake, which could be sweetened
with honey or pieces of fruit and was wrapped for sale in a large leaf.
ate husked rice, and the daily ration for a common foot soldier was thought to be about 900 grams (or five go). Nobles
preferred polished rice, which they often ate sweetened.
In addition to rice, the following foods were eaten when and where available… Potatoes
(there were reputedly 24 types), radishes (of which there were nine kinds), cucumbers (fourteen types), beans (which produced
the ubiquitous bean curd), chestnuts, persimmons (another popular road side treat), various nuts, tofu, yams (or tororo,
which was often made into a soup), sour plums (particularly popular with soldiers on campaign if they could be found), apricots,
peaches, apples, oranges, ect… The sea provided seven types of seaweed, abalone, carp, bonito, trout, tuna (hunted with
harpoons), octopus, jellyfish, clams, and, at least off Awa Province (Shikoku), whale. In a particular pinch, the Buddhist/Shinto
injunctions that tended to prohibit the eating of meat could be lifted, allowing the hungry to catch pheasants, wild geese,
quail, deer, and boar. Soldiers under siege, when hunger became as dangerous a foe as the enemy, often killed and ate their
horses. Nonetheless, the eating of red meat did not become common until the Meji Restoration - and then only amongst the upper
Fifty types of plant were available to facilitate cooking, such as daizu
(soya) and azuki sasage (red beans); flavorings included sake, shoyhu (soya sauce), imported pepper and rice vinegar,
as well as kelp (kombu). Vegetables were often prepared with a great deal of oil and this style of cooking was known
as shojin ryori and involved soya, sesame, and camellia. Salt, important for the preservation of fish and other foodstuffs,
was a vital commodity, and may have been a factor in the warlord Takeda Shingen's invasion of coastal Suruga Province in 1569.
A mention should be made of the meal traditionally served to a samurai before setting
out for war. This included dried chestnuts , kelp, and abalone, served on small lacquered plates - as well as sake. The sake
was served in three cups - as the number three was considered good luck.