The date was October 28, 1935.

The night could have been peaceful and relaxing for 26-year-old Fukuda Katsu living in Tokyo if her husband did not complain about dinner. After quibbling about her cooking of rice, he rebuked Katsu for lack of knowledge:

“You are too indifferent about calories.”

His words were like a slap in the face. Katsu felt deeply insulted for being called an incompetent wife. On that night, she swallowed some Calmotin pills (the brand name of bromisoval in Japan) and tried to end her life. On the second day, Asahi Newspaper (Asahi Shinbun), one of the largest newspapers in modern Japan, publicized this dramatic family episode in Ikebukuro of Tokyo and denounced the husband’s fault-finding (Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, 11). Luckily, Katsu was saved. But perhaps not her marriage.

When reading about Katsu’s unfortunate experience, I am as sympathetic towards her as astounded by the reason for her suicide attempt. From the few sentences of the news, I saw an established equation in Katsu’s eyes: monitoring calorie intake was correlated with housewifely responsibility. What lay behind this thought was an embrace of the “calorie” as a key measurement for both quantity and quality of nurture in Japanese homes. How many calories should a family eat? How can everyday cooking provide these calories in the most economical way? While pursuing answers to these questions, many Japanese housewives, like Katsu, intertwined their daily lives closely with close attention to calories.

Calorie counting as a nutritional practice first appeared in Japanese pediatric textbooks in the 1900s. In a translated book published in 1906, pediatrician Sawaki Koreshige introduced ten rules of infant nutrition, one of which set “the calorie needs per kilogram of weight as 100” (Sawaki, 13). However, calories were not a widely known unit of food measurement for most people in Japan until a decade later, when Dr. Nukada Yutaka published his Cheap Way of Life (Anka seikatsu ho). A keen physician and medical scientist himself, Nukada dedicated himself to researching dietary regimens and popularizing nutrition knowledge for public health. In Cheap Way of Life, he detailed the definition of one calorie and its calculative relationships with three main nutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat). After introducing the results of dietary studies in both Japan and Europe, he suggested that the daily standard intake of Japanese people should be 2445 calories, with 2250 calories absorbed (Nukada, 102). Nukada went on to introduce methods to put a figure on the “nutritional value” (yōka) of each kind of food. For the same price (one sen), those providing more calories were better. At last, to relieve his readers of endless computation, he listed the “nutritional value” of most common food on the market and offered sample menus for family feeding (Nukada, 325-343).

By publishing this book, Nukada aimed to familiarize housewives with basic nutrition knowledge and skills for more efficient nurturing of Japanese families. To a great extent, he succeeded. Enjoying a high female readership from Japan’s burgeoning middle class, Cheap Way of Life was a bestseller and the introductory book for novices in home economics and nutrition in the early 20th century (Fujii, 48). After this success, writing on how to calculate calories and listing recommended amounts became must-haves for home cooking and dietary regimen books.  One representative work was educator Ozaki Yoshitarō’s Easy and Economical Nutrition for Japanese People (Tegaru de keizai na kokumin no eiyō) in 1925. In straightforward illustrations, Ozaki labeled each family member with the number of calories he or she needed every day (see picture 1). He also introduced recipes to make calorie-dense staple food at home. A bowl of mixed rice (with ingredients like sweet potatoes and beans) could provide 20 to 30 more calories than the same amount of white rice (see picture 2). Thus, cooking mixed rice was the “improved method” to nurture the family more efficiently.

(picture 1: calorie intake requirement for each family member)

(picture 2: improved method to cook rice for more calories)

In 1926, the word “calorie” became renowned nationwide in Japan. That September, the Japanese government started its first large-scale nutrition survey as part of the nationwide household budget survey. In a year, 23400 people recorded their everyday meals and reported them to the cabinet (Statistics Bureau of Cabinet, introduction). By this point, the calorie had become a new attribute of not only food but of human beings. From infants to the elderly, peasants to salarymen, people had a quantitative calorie requirement to complete if they desired health and longevity. These numbers tasked Japanese women to manage family dietary life in a rational and scientific manner.

As part of the gendered discipline of home economics, nutritional knowledge of calories both empowered and confined women in Japan (Murata, 134-135). Although recognized as the authority on healthcare and nutrition at home, they were also tied to the scientific rules of cooking by numbers, which often belittled their practical knowledge at home kitchens. Perhaps they were luckier than Katsu to have respectful husbands. However, in the marriage to calories, they might have been equally voiceless.



Featured image: Prices of foods providing same amount of calories with a bowl of rice. Nukada Yutaka, Anka seikatsu ho, Tokyo: Seikyōsha, 1920.

Pictures 1 and 2: Ozaki Yoshitarō, Tegaru de keizai na kokumin no eiyō, Tokyo: Sanyūdō shoten, 1925.



1. “Otto no nankuse,” Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, morning edition, October 29, 1935, pp. 11.

2. Sawaki, Koreshige. Saikin jika chiryō shūhō. Tohōdō, 1906.

3. Nukada, Yutaka. Anka seikatsu ho. Seikyōsha, 1915.

4. Fujii, Toru. “Forgotten Controversy between Hajime Kawakami and Yutaka Nukada.” Bukkyo University Sociology Department Bulletin Paper, no. 74, March 2022, pp. 45-64.

5. Ozaki, Yoshitarō. Tegaru de keizai na kokumin no eiyō). Sanyūdō shoten, 1925.

6. Statistics Bureau of Cabinet. Kakei chōsa hōkoku: eiyō ni kansuru tōkei hyō. Statistics Bureau of Cabinet, 1931.

7. Murata, Yasuko. “Nutritional Knowledge and Gender: the Birth of Nutritional Sciences and the Creation of the Nurturing Mother.” Kyoto Journal of Sociology, no. 8, December 2000, pp. 123-145.

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