Far Eastern Vegetarianism
by Misturu Kakimoto
A survey that I conducted of 80 Westerners, including Americans,
Englishmen and Canadians, revealed that approximately half of them
believed that vegetarianism originated in India. Some respondents
assumed that vegetarianism had its origin in China or Japan. It seems
to me that the reason Westerners associate vegetarianism with China or
Japan is Buddhism. It is no wonder, and in fact we could say that Japan
used to be a country where vegetarianism prevailed.
Gishi-wajin-denn, a history book on Japan written in China around the
third century BC, says, "there are no cattle, no horses, no tigers, no
leopards, no goats and no magpies in that land. The climate is mild and
people over there eat fresh vegetables both in summer and in winter."
It also says that "people catch fish and shellfish in the water."
Apparently, the Japanese ate fresh vegetables as well as rice and other
cereals as staple foods. They also took some fish and shellfish, but
hardly any flesh.
Shinto, the prevailing religion at the time, is essentially
pantheistic, based upon the worship of the forces of nature. In the
early days of Shinto, no animal food was offered in sacrifice because
of the injunction against shedding blood in the sacred area of the
Several hundred years later, Buddhism came to Japan and the
prohibition of hunting and fishing permeated the Japanese people. In
7th century Japan, the Empress Jito encouraged "hojo," or the releasing
of captive animals, and established wildlife preserves, where animals
could not be hunted. There are many similarities between the Hindu
literature and the Buddhist religions of the Far East. For example, the
word Cha'an of the Cha'an school of Chinese Buddhism is Chinese for the
Sanskrit word "dhyana", which means meditation, as does the word "zen"
in Japanese. In 676 AD, the then Japanese emperor Tenmu proclaimed an
ordinance prohibiting the eating of fish and shellfish as well as
animal flesh and fowl. Subsequently, in the year 737 of the Nara
period, the emperor Seimu approved the eating of fish and shellfish.
During the twelve hundred years from the Nara period to the Meiji
restoration in the second half of the 19th century, Japanese people
enjoyed vegetarian style meals. They usually ate rice as staple food
and beans and vegetables. It was only on special occasions or
celebrations that fish was served. Under these circumstances the
Japanese people developed a vegetarian cuisine, Shojin Ryori (ryori
means cooking or cuisine), which was native to Japan.
The word "shojin" is a Japanese translation of "vyria" in Sanskrit,
meaning "to have the goodness and keep away evils." Buddhist priests of
the Tendai-shu and Shingon-shu sects, whose founders studied in China
in the ninth century before they founded their respective sects, have
handed down vegetarian cooking practices from Chinese temples strictly
in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. In the 13th century,
Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen, formally established Shojin
Ryori or Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Dogen studied and learned the Zen
teachings abroad in China, during the Sung Dynasty. He fixed rules
aiming to establish (the) pure vegetarian life as a means of training
One of the other (influences) Zen exerted on (the) Japanese people
manifested itself in Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony. It is believed
that Esai, founder of the Rinzai-shu sect, introduced tea to Japan and
it is the custom for Zen followers to drink tea. The customs preserved
in the teaching of Zen lead to a systematic rule called Sado...a
Cha-shitsu or tea ceremony room is so constructed as to resemble the
Shojin, where the chief priest is at a Buddhist temple. Food serve at a
tea ceremony is called Kaiseki in Japanese, which literally means a
stone in the breast. Monks practicing asceticism used to press heated
stones to their bosom to suppress hunger. Then the word Kaiseki itself
came to mean a light meal served at Shojin and Kaiseki meals had great
influence on the Japanese...
As an example of a Buddhist vegetarian in the modern age, I can
mention Kenji Miyazawa, a Japanese writer and poet of the early 20th
century, who wrote a novel entitled "Vegetarian-Taisai", in which he
depicted a fictitious vegetarian congress...His works played an
important role in the advocacy of modern vegetarianism. Today, no
animal flesh is ever eaten in a Zen Buddhist monastery, and such
Buddhist denominations such as the Cao Dai sect (which originated in
South Vietnam), now boasts some two million followers, all of whom are
The Buddhist teachings are not the only source contributing to the
growth of vegetarianism in Japan. In the late 19th century, Dr. Gensai
Ishizuka published an academic book...in which he advocated vegetarian
cooking with an emphasis on brown rice and vegetables. His method is
called Seisyoku (Macrobiotics) and is based upon ancient Chinese
philosophy such as the principles of Yin and Yang and Taoism. Now some
people support his method...of preventive medicine. Japanese
macrobiotics suggest taking brown rice as half of the whole intake,
with vegetables, beans, seaweeds, and a small amount of fish.
The "Temple of the Butchered Cow" can be found in Shimoda, Japan. It
was erected shortly after Japan opened its doors to the West in the
1850s. It was erected in honor of the first cow slaughtered in Japan,
marking the first violation of the Buddhist tenet against the eating of
meat. In his 1923 book, The Natural Diet of Man, Dr. John Harvey
Kellogg writes: "According to Mori, the Japanese peasant of the
interior is almost an exclusive vegetarian. He eats fish once or twice
a month and meat once or twice a year." Dr. Kellogg writes that in
1899, the Emperor of Japan appointed a commission to determine whether
it was necessary to add meat to the nation's diet to improve the
people's strength and stature. The commission concluded that as far as
meat was concerned, "the Japanese had always managed to do without it,
and that their powers of endurance and their athletic prowess exceeded
that of any of the Caucasian races. Japan's diet stands on a foundation
According to Dr. Kellogg: "the rice diet of the Japanese is
supplemented by the free use of peanuts, soy beans and greens, which...
constitute a wholly sufficient bill of fare. Throughout the Island
Empire, rice is largely used, together with buckwheat, barley, wheat
and millet. Turnips and radishes, yams and sweet potatos are frequently
used, also cucumbers, pumpkins and squashes. The soy bean is held in
high esteem and used largely in the form of miso, a puree prepared from
the bean and fermented; also to-fu, a sort of cheese; and cho-yu, which
is prepared by mixing the pulverized beans with wheat flour, salt, and
water and fermenting from one and a half to five years.
"The Chinese peasant lives on essentially the same diet, as do also
the Siamese, the Koreans, and most other Oriental peoples.
Three-fourths of the world's population eat so little meat that it
cannot be regarded as anything more than an incidental factor in their
bill of fare. The countless millions of China," writes Dr. Kellogg,
"are for the most part flesh-abstainers. In fact, at east two-thirds of
the inhabitants of the world make so little use of flesh that it can
hardly be considered an essential part of their dietary..."
Japanese people started eating meat some 150 years ago and now suffer
the crippling diseases caused by the excess intake of fat in flesh and
the possible hazards from the use of agricultural chemicals and
additives. This is persuading them to seek natural and safe food and to
adopt once again the traditional Japanese cuisine.