Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

  • 3 min read

From around the middle of the 11th century BCE to 300 BCE, Japan was populated by a Neolithic civilization called the Jōmon culture. What the Jōmon people ate depended on where they lived and what seasonal foods they could get. Since the Jōmon people were not farmers, they ate the animals and plants that lived and grew in the ecosystem. Plant and animal remains from Jōmon sites show that the people were skilled at using different resources during different seasons of the year. Some historians believe that their diet corresponded with a seasonal calendar.

Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

The three main ecosystems in the Jōmon era were forest and freshwater lake environments (western and eastern inland areas of Japan); forest and river waterway environments (eastern and central Japan areas); and forest and coastal environments (Pacific coast and Pacific Shelf areas).

Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

From spring to summer, the coastal Jōmon people in Eastern Japan would be busy fishing the species that would come up in estuaries and the ocean. According to excavated shell middens along the eastern Pacific coastal regions, there is proof that the Jōmon people mostly caught snapper, black snapper, and sea bass. In the summer, fish that were caught in the open ocean were mackerels, tuna, and bonitos. These fish are commonly found in the Tohoku region, whereas in places like Hokkaido, sea mammal hunting (whales and dolphins) was carried out in the summer.

Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

There was also evidence of shellfishing in the middens found along the coastal regions. Clams, short-necked clams, and granular arks were the preference of the Jōmon people. Shellfishing was mostly carried out in the summer and a little into autumn. There would be no shellfishing in the winter.

Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

In eastern Japan and northern coastal areas facing the Pacific Ocean, people lived along the estuaries, inlets, or bays. Not only were they able to obtain food from the seas, but also from the forests. In the spring and especially autumn, gathering and collecting food from the forests, such as edible plants, bamboo shoots, and other leaf buds was an important strategy for survival for Jōmon people living everywhere.

Nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns were also a huge part of the Jōmon diet. Many Japanese archaeologists believe the Jōmon people tended or cared for these types of nut trees and other plants near their settlements since these were found in Jōmon settlements everywhere. Underground storage pits showed there was an abundance of nuts, acorns, various berries, and fruits as well.

For Jōmon people living in the west and eastern interior, in areas between freshwater rivers or streams, marshes or lakes, the collecting of edible plants and hunting of land animals was vital for their survival since they could not depend on seafood as another source of food.

Jōmon Culture: The Diet of an Ancient Civilization in Japan

In the winter, hunting was carried out intensively. There was still hunting in the other seasons but during the winter, animals like wild boar and deer were caught the most. The reason being is that these two land animals form large herds in the winter. Evidence has shown that the Jōmon people preferred to hunt wild boar over deer.


About the author:

Samantha KwokSamantha Kwok

Samantha is currently a 5th-year JET in Okinawa, originally from Hawaii. She has been somewhat connected to Japanese culture her whole life despite being Chinese American. She's had the privilege of traveling to Japan and experiencing Japanese culture at a young age. She loves food and is always looking to try new places. When she is not working or out eating, she is an avid baker at home and has been known to feed her colleagues an excessive amount of baked goods. 

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