Japan is a country full of contradictions. Despite being a country that puts a heavy emphasis on tradition, Japan is distinctly westernized. Especially in the big cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, centuries old history is juxtaposed amongst western-derived capitalism. It’s common to walk on the streets of Asakusa, Tokyo to see hundred year old eateries right by a McDonald’s. This sort of contradicting nature is heavily prevalent in the culinary culture as well. Specifically in Japanese cuisine, 洋食 (youshoku) refers to the wide array of distinctly western-influenced Japanese cuisine.
There is an impressive variety in 洋食 (youshoku) cuisine. Some of the more popular ones include pork katsu (from the French cotelette), Japanese curry (from the British-Indian curries), korokke (from the French croquette), and the Spaghetti Neapolitan, a very basic spaghetti dish with a mysterious name. The history of 洋食 (youshoku) closely intertwines with the history of modern Japan, and provides an explanation for the contradiction that Japan today is. The evolution of Japanese culinary culture (in our examination) starts in the Meiji era, and ends with Spaghetti Neapolitan.
Most of the 洋食 (youshoku) culture in Japan originated from the Meiji era between 1868 and 1912. Prior to the Meiji era, Japan was still relatively fragmented and prevalent regionalism and class divide between the rich and the poor resulted in a highly non-uniform food culture . Regardless, Japanese cuisine mostly consisted of what still fits in the modern category of 和食 (washoku); traditional Japanese cuisine consisting mostly of seasonal vegetables and fish, scarce (or sometimes devoid) of meat, fats, and dairy.
The Meiji era came quickly after the end of 鎖国 (closed country) in 1853 during the 江戸幕府 (Edo Bakufu) era, where the Perry expedition forced Japan to open its border for the first time to the United States of America and the west. This triggered the 幕末 (end of Bakufu era), beginning the collapse of the feudalistic Shogunate government and the rise of the the Meiji government. The Meiji government knew one thing for sure; the western powers and their desire to colonise Asia was a threat to Japan, and Japan had to unify and make themselves distinct from the other Asian countries to protect themselves. Nearby countries such as Hong Kong were already colonised by the British.
The solution they came up with was simple; they would westernise as best they could such that the western powers will treat them as equals. This meant that they had to adopt a more western government, wear western clothing, and perhaps most importantly, eat western food. This started a tradition of the government officials and societal elites to adopt western (and specifically, French) cuisine .
The adoption of western cuisine by the societal elites trickled down to the middle class as well. The Meiji emperor consuming beef and pork in public meant that the de-facto ban on consuming beef and pork was lifted in Japan; this subsequently lead to the opening of 556 butchers in Tokyo . This led to the development a new generation of 和食 (washoku) which were still mostly Japanese-style, but with more western-influenced ingredients. This included Sukiyaki and Shabushabu, which were a form of Japanese hotpot that used beef and pork. Slowly, western-influenced cooking techniques and dishes diffused into the general populace as well throughout the Meiji era.
The next ‘revolution’ in the adoption of western food culture came during the 1900s, during World War II and then during the American occupation in Japan by the GHQ. During the war, military ration increasingly consisted of 洋食 (youshoku) such as curry and cream stews, because of ease of preparation, rich protein content, and high calories. The shortage of rice also forced regular families to adopt potatoes and wheat into their household meals. This started to create a sense of Japanese nationalism and pride surrounding 洋食 (youshoku) because of their associations with the military, despite their western origins .
The occupation by the GHQ created another wave of adoption of western food culture. The stationing of American soldiers in Japan meant that local businesses had to meet a new type of demand, and the military ration that the American military brought served as inspiration for many local chefs. Shigetada Irie, a head chef at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama (which was occupied by American soldiers at the time) was one of such chefs. He saw American soldiers eating spaghetti with ketchup and black pepper, and wanted to provide the soldiers with something a bit more sophisticated. As such, he developed the Spaghetti Neapolitan — a simple spaghetti dish made with ketchup, black peppers, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and bacon . Something that made this dish distinctly not Italian was that the spaghetti was stir fried, an unconventional practice in authentic Italian spaghetti dishes.
The precise origin of the name Neapolitan remains to this day a mystery, but there is a dish found in French chef Auguste Escoffier’s recipe book called Garniture à la Napolitaine — another simple spaghetti dish, but consisting of Parmesan cheese, tomato puree, and butter . This dish could be a possible origin of the Spaghetti Neapolitan. Still, the dish is very distinct from Escoffier’s recipe in that the recipe uses ketchup, a condiment nowhere to be found in traditional Italian cooking. The Neapolitan was a creation resulting from a Japanese chef drawing inspiration from an American soldier who put ketchup, a distinctly American condiment on an Italian dish, with a French name. It was one form of cultural exchange from the west to east.
We see that there are essentially two different ways in which western cuisine was adopted in to Japanese food culture. The first was with the Meiji government that imported western food culture for purely political reasons. The second wave that came with the GHQ occupation was more of a form of immigration, where the culture travelled across the sea with the American soldiers and mixed with the locals.
Today, the Spaghetti Neapolitan still remains to be a culinary classic in Japan, albeit as one of the more ‘traditional’ and old-fashioned youshoku. They are often served in homes as an easy-to-make, nourishing meal, and other times at old-fashioned ロメスパ (rome-spa) restaurants, which takes its name from “romen” (street) and spaghetti. For the older generation, this dish is a reminder of the old Showa-era times, and for others, its a reminder of home.
For me, the Spaghetti Neapolitan holds a slightly different meaning. I was born and raised in rural Oregon as a 2nd generation Japanese American immigrant. My parents would often cook Spaghetti Neapolitan at home not just because it was good, but because the ingredients were notoriously easy to find even in Oregon. The nearest Japanese supermarket to us was a whole two and a half hour drive away, and this meant that we didn’t always have the luxury preparing and eating 和食 (washoku) . To me, the Spaghetti Neapolitan was not a food that was brought over from the west to east, but rather a food that my parents brought from the east to west. This duality seems contradicting, but it makes sense if you consider the journey of the Spaghetti Neapolitan; a dish that probably has its true origins somewhere in Italy or France, was brought over to Japan by American soldiers as an idea, and then brought back to America by Japanese immigrants after going through decades of changes and improvements. The Spaghetti Neapolitan is far from authentic, but still holds a special place in me as a dish that resonates with my own cultural duality that constantly wavers between Japan and America.
Costco Polish Sausage
Some amount of bacon
Ketchup, 4 tablespoons
Milk, 3 tablespoons
Chicken stock, 2 teaspoons
Soy Sauce, 1 teaspoon
Butter, a chunk
- Stir-fry onions, pepper, sausage, and bacon
- Cook the spaghetti al dente
- Add sauce to stir fry
- Add spaghetti, season with salt and pepper as necessary
 Cwiertka, Katarzyna. “A Note on the Making of Culinary Tradition — an Example of Modern Japan.” Appetite, vol. 30, no. 2, 1998, doi:10.1006/appe.1997.0133.
 Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. “Popularizing a Military Diet in Wartime and Postwar Japan.” Asian Anthropology, vol. 1, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–30., doi:10.1080/1683478x.2002.10552519.
 Cwiertka, Katarzyna Joanna. Modern Japanese Cuisine : Food, Power and National Identity. Reaktion Books, 2014.
 Ao, Nisai. “スパゲッティ・ナポリタンの起源.” 日本の西洋料理, seiyouryouri.yokohama/alacart/napoli.html.
 Conklin, David P., “The traditional and the modern : the history of Japanese food culture in Oregon and how it did and did not integrate with American food culture” (2009). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3786.