A new healthy cuisine

On November 21, 1932, the autumn breeze was pleasant at Hibiya Park. Riding on the radio waves of the Tokyo Central Broadcasting Bureau (東京中央放送局), some news was spreading within the Japanese empire. Hundreds of eminent Japanese leaders—from Prime Minister Saito, Foreign Minister Uchita, and the Mayor of Tokyo, to representatives from Manchukuo and executives of Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Okura Companies—gathered at Tokyo Municipal Office Building (東京市政会館) to celebrate the opening of the Manchuria and Mongolia Resources Museum (満蒙資源館). After a tour, the crowd enjoyed a feast featuring Manchurian Bread (満州パン) (Manmō shiryō-kan kaikan-shiki, 138-40): bread made from Manchurian grains and in a chocolate color, it was to become the symbol of healthy and fashionable dining in the expanded empire.

After the Manchurian Incident on September 18, 1931, Japan quickly took control of Manchuria. Six months after the full invasion of the Imperial Japanese Army, a puppet state, Manchukuo (満洲国), was established in March 1932. In mainland Japan, the new territory and anticipated lifeline of the empire eased many people’s anxieties about Japan’s potential food shortage—long portrayed as a place with boundless fertile soil, Manchuria had never been more appealing. Some leading financial figures estimated Manchuria alone could supply mainland Japan with wheat and beans, which together amounted to 75% of Japanese food importation. With new technologies, cultivation of paddy fields would also make Manchuria a helpful supplier of rice (Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 1932; Takagi, 77, 90-100).

With such high hopes for Manchuria, food experts in Japan began to investigate Manchurian foods as well as how to utilize them. In October 1930, research by nutrition scientist Shidō Teiichiro (紫藤貞一郎) offered strong support for endorsing Manchurian food as a healthy option for Japanese dining tables. Shidō initiated a thorough nutritional study of staples eaten by local Chinese commoners in Manchuria. After briefly introducing the recipes of 21 kinds of Chinese staple foods—ranging from regular steamed bread to corn bread, from dumplings to sorghum porridge—he measured their nutritional composition. In a straightforward comparison of their nutritional composition to that of white rice, Shidō concluded as follows:

  1. For the same quantity, Chinese staple foods have more nutrients, especially protein, than white rice; and they are more balanced in terms of nutritional composition.
  2. For the same quantity, Chinese staple foods also supply more calories.
  3. In the ingredients which Chinese staple foods are made from, such as flour, corn and sorghum, there are vitamins that Japanese white rice lacks.
  4. Chinese staple foods are more portable and easier to preserve.
  5. In terms of nutritional economy, they are very much cheaper (Shidō, 68).

Shidō recommended more consumption of Manchurian cuisines as such and, if necessary, a reformation of Japanese people’s dietary preferences and habits with the adoption of the unfamiliar foods (68).

Passion for discovering and developing new nutritious Manchurian cuisines grew in mainland Japan, particularly in the Imperial Japanese Army. In December 1931, nutrition scientists and military officers gathered at the Imperial Japanese Army Main Rations Depot (陸軍糧秣総廠) to brainstorm new Manchurian food recipes. Together they discussed improved methods for milling Manchurian sorghum and tried out new Manchurian sorghum bread, sorghum donuts, soybean bread, and sorghum-soybean bread. Many participants believed these new Manchurian cuisines were potentially able to amply and healthily feed the military and, when necessary, the whole Japanese population (Manmō ryōmatsu riyō kenkyū zadan-kai, 34-7, 40).

On June 10, 1933, another food tasting took place at the Imperial Japanese Army Main Rations Depot. Having invited multiple prominent artists like Iwata Sentarō (岩田専太郎) and Onodera Shūfū (小野寺秋風), officers at Ration Depot presented an updated menu of Manchurian food: sorghum okoshi (a crispy, chewy sweet made from Manchurian sorghum), Genghis Khan Pot (Mutton and vegetable dish cooked on slotted dome cast iron grill), sorghum udon, Manchurian bread, sorghum mixed rice (Yasen-shoku to geijutsu aji zakaidan, 56). These new dishes were developed to be food for soldiers; the artists suggested adding some more appetizing colors (like green) to the brown Manchurian foods. In the same year, technicians of the Food Friend Society (糧友会) tested Manchurian flour for baking bread (Manshu-san komugiko pan yaki-shitsu shiken hōkoku, 22-6).

In 1935, the Army Main Rations Depot published a detailed plan for utilizing Manchurian food products both in peacetime and at war. According to the plan, soldiers in the mainland were to become frequent consumers of Manchurian foods. They ate tofu and natto made from refined Manchurian soybeans (改良大豆), porridge mixed with corn and rice, and sweets and noodles made from sorghum. To familiarize domestic logistics officers with Manchurian cuisine, the Army Main Rations Depot presented recipes and recommended side dishes of twenty Manchurian-style staples (Manmō-san ryōmatsu no riyō-hō, 2-5).

The Manchurian-style staples included: sorghum rice (高粱飯), puffed sorghum rice (膨張高粱飯), treasure rice (寶米飯), sorghum dango soup (高粱團子汁), sorghum bread (高粱パン), pure sorghum rice (純高粱飯), sorghum porridge (高粱粥), millet rice (粟飯), millet ohagi (粟お萩), millet mochi (粟餅), millet strong rice (粟強飯, made from grinded millet and red beans), eight treasure rice (八寶飯), pure millet rice (純粟飯), soybean bread (大豆粉パン), soybean rice (大豆飯), pancake (餅子, made from soybean and corn powder), mung bean rice (緑豆飯), corn rice (包米飯), pancake soup (湯餅, made from flour, pork and green onion), and Chinese steam bread (支那饅頭) (Manmō shigen riyō shushoku chōri-hō, 43-52).

A taste of the empire

While nutrition scientists and the Army were busy developing new recipes of Manchurian foods to feed the population more affordably and more abundantly, common Japanese people were becoming more interested in the exotic tastes. Just like Ueno Zoo visitors who enjoyed viewing rare animals collected from different corners of the empire, mainland Japanese people, when trying Manchurian foods, consumed the empire as a way of life. Soon after Japanese agricultural migration to Manchuria began in 1932, Japanese people on the mainland were becoming curious about the continental lifestyle. In 1933, some traders showed interest in importing Manchurian buckwheat to make soba (Manshū to soba, 48-9). Mainland flour factories also began to advertise their products like sorghum powder, corn powder, and soybean powder for baking bread and sweets, along with instant Manchurian shiruko powder (即席満洲しる粉). Yet, what truly satisfied mainland Japanese eaters’ appetites for the exotic continent was Manchurian Bread—a multigrain bread that boomed in the mid-1930s.

On September 18, 1934, citizens in Hiroshima discovered new delicacies at local stores: they were Manchurian breads specially made to commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the Manchurian Incident. Working with the local Army Rations Depot, 30 bakeries baked more than 100,000 loaves of chocolate-color Manchurian bread from flour, rye, sorghum, black bean, corn, and peanut. With their strong fragrance, these breads were to symbolize Manchukuo and its agricultural abundance. 52, 678 loaves of Manchurian bread were sold at more than 600 stores in the city in a very short period of time. Schools, government institutes, and the military bases in Hiroshima also distributed about 49,928 loaves to students, administrative staff, soldiers and officers. In one day, Manchurian bread sales reached one third of the total population in Hiroshima. Some people sadly missed the chance to taste this grainy sweet, while young kids were fighting over it at home (Manshū jinhen kinenbi ni okeru gunto Hiroshima no manshū-pan sōdōin, 36-7, 39-40, 49).

In just a few months, the Manchurian bread fever spread to Tokyo. To celebrate the Emperor of Manchukuo’s  first visit to Japan on April 6, 1935, the Food Friend Society (糧友会) suggested a two-day Manchurian Bread Day event in Tokyo. The idea very quickly gained support from hundreds of local bakeries and ten department stores, as well as the Katakura Nutrition Institute and factories of flour and soybean products (Manshū pan dei jishitsu hōkoku, 138-9).

On April 15 and 16, 1935, people lined up in the rain at department stores and bakeries in pursuit of a fresh taste of Manchuria. In Fukagawa in East Tokyo, stores sold 500 to 1000 loaves, and most stores were sold out all they by noon. One department store sold 700 loaves in the morning and sent out additional requests for the afternoon. In two days, Tokyo citizens bought more than 60,000 loaves of Manchurian bread. And more bread was distributed in the military and at schools (Manshū pan dei jishitsu hōkoku, 141-2).


Picture 1: The era of Manchurian Bread

“We don’t have Manchurian Bread here…” “Oh, that is boring. Then we won’t buy anything here anymore.”

On the prewar mainland, Manchurian food promotion events like Manchurian Bread Day solidified in the minds of the Japanese that Manchuria was the land of the multigrain “coarse diet” (粗食). They failed, however, to encourage mainland Japanese people to consume Manchurian foods as daily meals and to thereby acknowledge the strategic importance and nutritional value of the new cuisine. As a traveler to Manchuria described before arriving there, he believed it was “tragic but brave” to visit “a land of sorghum porridge” (Manmō tabe aru ki, 171). For most mainland Japanese, Manchurian food represented a dietary style that they were willing to experience, but not necessarily adopt—at least not until the war broke out.

Patriotic nourishment

In July 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. As the war persisted, war efforts on the mainland home front began to transform people’s dietary life. Facing a shortage of food—particularly rice—people were encouraged to consume special wartime substitute staples instead. Among the recommended options, Manchurian food ranked high as a nutritious, economical, and patriotic choice.

In August 1938, the Tokyo city nutrition laboratory suggested some new ways of enjoying Manchurian soybeans, such as mixing them into rice or brewing coffee from black soybeans like the Germans (Asahi Shimbun, August 23, 1938). Manchurian grains like sorghum and corn were acknowledged as richer in vitamins and minerals, and therefore able to nurture tall, robust, and enduring Manchurians. Thus, the Japanese should also learn to consume mixed grains (Shiraga, 148-9, 151).

In 1940, nutrition scientists created a new kind of wartime substitute staple called the “Manchurian ration” (満糧), and they organized a tasting session for it. The ration was made from seaweed paste, sorghum, soybean, corn, and potato powder. As scientist Suzuki Umetaro (鈴木梅太郎) described, people could cook tasty fried “rice” with this “Manchurian ration,” or simply mix it with water to make a nutritious beverage (Kome no daiyōhin toshite chūmoku subeki manryō wo taberu, 109). An updated version of multigrain Manchurian bread also appeared as “Asian prosperity and nation-building bread” (興亜建国パン). To assure a balanced diet for the population of wartime Japan, this new Manchurian bread recipe included seaweed powder and fish powder (Marumoto, 552).

Of all the Manchurian grains that fed the Japanese people on the home front, the vitamin-rich Manchurian buckwheat might have been the most popular among consumers in East Japan, especially in Tokyo (Asahi Shimbun, April 2, 1941). In January 1941, the first million kin (斤) of Manchurian buckwheat flour arrived at Tokyo and was distributed among soba restaurants in the city. The next year, buckwheat harvested by young Japanese immigrants in Manchuria was presented as an oblation at Meiji Shrine and then distributed among Tokyo citizens as new year dishes. The ceremony to welcome the arrival of Manchurian buckwheat was enormous. The ambassador of Manchukuo and officials from Japanese cabinet ministries greeted the buckwheat commission at Tokyo station as a crowd of around 1,300 people gathered at the Tokyo station plaza (Asahi Shimbun, December 29, 1942). The same ceremony and distribution continued in 1943 and 1944.

From June 1944, as raids targeting big cities began, food shortage in Japan became more urgent. In October, the city government of Tokyo decided to distribute rice mixed with milled Manchurian sorghum from November. It was planned that the mixed sorghum rice would feed Tokyo citizens for a week (Asahi Shimbun, October 31, 1944). No longer the “coarse diet” from an exotic and faraway continent, Manchurian food was eventually restyled as an accessible nourishment for mainland Japanese dining tables during wartime.



Featured image: Manchurian Bread Day in Shinjuku Mitsukoshi Department Store. Photo in Ryōyū, vol. 10, no. 5, May 1935.

In-text: The Era of Manchurian Bread. Illustration in Ryōyū, vol. 10, no. 5, May 1935, p. 72. 


Works cited:

“Haikyū kōryō no kongō-mai.” Asahi Shimbun, October 31, 1944.

“Jihen-ka no meshiagari mono daizu ryōri mittsu.” Asahi Shimbun, August 23, 1938.

“Josei no kenkyū ni hana saku.” Asahi Shimbun, April 2, 1941.

“Keizai fūsa kowaru ni tarazu, shokuryō hin hiryō tetsu mo jikkyū.” Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 1932.

“Kome no daiyōhin toshite chūmoku subeki manryō wo taberu.” Ryōyū, vol. 15, no. 2, February 1940, pp. 109-111.

“Manmō ryōmatsu riyō kenkyū zadan-kai.” Ryōyū, vol. 7, no. 1, January 1932, pp. 34-37, 40.

“Manmō-san ryōmatsu no riyō-hō.” Ryōyū, vol. 10, no. 2, February 1935, pp. 2-5.

“Manmō shiryō-kan kaikan-shiki.” Ryōyū, vol. 8, no. 1, October 1933, pp. 138-40.

“Manshū jinhen kinenbi ni okeru gunto Hiroshima no manshū-pan sōdōin.” Ryōyū, vol. 9, no. 12, Decem ber 1934, pp. 36-7, 39-40, 49.

“Manshū pan dei jishitsu hōkoku.” Ryōyū, vol. 10, no. 7, July 1935, pp. 138-9.

“Manshu-san komugiko pan yaki-shitsu shiken hōkoku.” Ryōyū, vol. 8, no. 12, December 1933, pp. 22-6.

“Manshū soba de toshikoshi.” Asahi Shimbun, December 29, 1942.

“Manmō tabe aru ki.” Ryōyū, vol. 9, no. 5, May 1934, pp. 171.

“Manshū to soba.” Ryōyū, vol. 8, no. 10, October 1933, pp. 48-9.

Marumoto, Shōzō. “Kōa pan no teishō to sono fukkyū tettei.” Nihon hyakkaten shōgyō kumiai chōsa ihō, no. 5, May 1940, pp. 545-55.

Shidō, Teiichirō. “Kasō chūgokujin shushokumotsu no eiyō kachi.” Manmō, vol. 11, no. 10, October 1930, pp. 55-68.

Shiraga, Hideko. Kokusaku ni ikiru haha ko. Tanba-ichichō, Tenrikyō dōyūsha, 1939.

Takagi, Tomosaburō. Keizai dankō kowaru ni tarazu: tōa monrō shugi he bakushin. Tokyo, Chikura shobō, 1932.

“Yasen-shoku to geijutsu aji zakaidan.” Ryōyū, vol. 8, no. 7, July 1933, pp. 56-7.

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