A brief period of vigorous international exchange with the West took place during the early Edo period (1603 to 1867), until Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu grew wary of the growing influence of Christianity on Japanese society, and stamped his policy of national seclusion on the nation.
Chinese businessmen had been trading with Japan for centuries, and the Portuguese had come bearing their kasutera sponge cake, tempura (probably), firearms, and legendary Basque Jesuit Francisco Xavier, but now Japan was closed. Sayonara, rest of the world.
Limited trade was allowed through Nagasaki, where the Portuguese brought tempura (most probably) and techniques for frying game, until 1639. After this time only the bachelors of the Dutch East India company were allowed to do business in the port enclave of Dejima off Nagasaki that was to be the sole opening to the west for about 200 years.
The new peace saw unrivaled Japanese prosperity, and the rise of a huge merchant class in the fast growing cities. Kaiseki-ryori, a more relaxed variant on the cha-kaiseki tea ceremony became all the rage. Citizens flocked to the country’s new capital, Edo (later to be called Tokyo), which, by the end of the 18th century, boasted a population of nearly a million people.
A massive food industry sprang up to feed the newcomers and their august patrons, the residents of Edo-jo castle, with tempura and sushi leading the wave of culinary fashion. Many of modern-day Tokyo’s finest restaurants have roots dating back to the Edo era.
It was around this time that the city’s characteristic strong, salty shoyu soy sauce-laden dashi broth and its obsession with soba buckwheat noodles developed. Soba and sushi grew in popularity as a kind of proto ‘fast food’, inexpensive, tasty, quick to prepare and quick to eat. They fit perfectly the needs of the – largely male – populace. Fish and vegetables prevailed in the daily home diet. Unagi eel and dojo loach cuisine became a favorite.
Commoners would sometimes treat themselves to shirauo icefish, as pictured in this ukiyoe print of on-board icefish revelry on the Sumidagawa River. The great wandering Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho even penned it an ode (well, sort of):
Frail fish, shirauo
You will splinter into nothingness
If you run into a rock
Well, yes indeed. It probably works better in the original Japanese.
When Commodore Matthew Perry (in this picture, middle) aboard the side-wheel steam frigate Susquehanna led the ‘black ships of evil mien’ of the US East India Squadron into Edo Bay in 1853, Japanese global isolation was over. Within four years, Izu had a reverberatory steel furnace. Within six, Japan had British consul Rutherford Alcock and his gun-toting countryman Thomas Blake Glover, who was only too happy to ply the pro-imperial forces of Satsuma and Choshu with weaponry. Within a decade the nation had an Emperor back in power, and the Edo Period was, well, history.
For John’s more detailed accounts of Edo food culture, you might like:
A Brief History of Japanese Cuisine: Edo, An Introduction
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 1 (1603 to 1756): Soba From The Start
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 2 (1757 to 1836): Edo Goes Foodie
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 3 (1836 to today): Black Ships and Ramen