The Taisho era, from 1912 to 1926, may be a relatively short era in Japanese history, but it is certainly not without great importance. During this short time, there was a great deal of political reform, people began moving in greater numbers to large cities, new businesses opened and launched iconic products, and the influence of western culture, and in particular western food culture, really began to grow.
While western food culture had already started to establish itself in the earlier Meiji era, it wasn't until the Taisho era that a full blown emergence of both restaurants and businesses began. Early examples of this came in the form of cafes. While cafes had already existed in the form of a Fruit Parlor, which was viewed as still a luxury good at the time, it was the opening of Parisian styled cafes that began to bring this experience to the masses. One of the more popular examples was the cafe opening by the Fujiya confectionery company, which brought together cafe culture and their signature sweets.
Besides cafes, businesses such as public cafeterias began to open, serving cheap and fast western food. This, along with businesses which targeted students such as “Milk Halls” so aptly named because of their sale of warm milk, moved deeper into the mainstream.
Western cooking, at the same time, became more accessible to the middle class as it grew in popularity. Staple dishes that are popular even today include omurice (omelet rice), korokke (croquettes), tonkatsu (pork cutlets), and kare rice (curry rice). These grew in popularity so much that by 1923, there were over 30,000 restaurants in Tokyo, at a time when the population was around 2 million people -
almost 1 restaurant per 66 people! It is no wonder that during this time many of these popular foods became so deeply loved by Japanese people. The proliferation of these restaurants provided one of the largest opportunities for Japanese people to experience western cuisine in affordable, convenient, and fast settings.
The Taisho era also saw an explosion of businesses opening and key products being released. Popular dairy brand Morinaga released their signature caramel candies, the soft drink Calpis debuted in 1919, and the famed confectionary Fujiya released their famous shortcake and even opened a cafe to show off their products. Even more critical, two absolutely iconic products launched late in the Taisho era: Kewpie mayonnaise was released in 1925, and Meiji released their Milk Chocolate bars in 1926.
While it is important to note that it wasn’t just food and restaurants that grew
exponentially in the Taisho era. Radio broadcasts, silent movies, paintings, art, and stationary all became mainstream in this era. While it is easy to look at any one of these in abstract, it is clear that Japanese people were embracing the West during the Taisho era, and the seeds planted during this time grew deep roots in Japanese society. Next time you are enjoying something from Japan, consider that the Taisho era may be to thank!
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!