Did the concept of sustainable living emerge because of the challenges now facing our planet, or has it been around for centuries? Clearly, we are not the first ones in history to feel uneasy about our health and the environment, though the situation may be more desperate than ever.

“Sustainability is embedded in Japanese culture,” as we wrote in our article. It seems that contemporary society has forgotten to listen to the wise words of our ancestors. The idea isn’t completely new, nor is it particularly difficult to understand. Slowing down to listen to age-old wisdom is one way to better understand our current crisis.

The way of consuming food in Shokuyojo is inspirational to those of us who seek a sustainable lifestyle. Zenbird visited a Shokuyojo mini-seminar — or “chewing workshop” — at frø in Bakuro-cho, Tokyo to learn this wisdom and to experience how we can put it into practice for everyday life.

Instructor’s Profile: Masayuki Tsujino

Trains dietetic therapists and Shokuyojo coordinators as an authorized lecturer for the Japan Dietetic Therapy Organization. Also operates SoRa acupuncture and dietetic therapy clinic and the forest therapy program at Hoshinoya Karuizawa Resort. The author of two books, “Balancing Body and Mind: Shokuyojo” and “I Lost This Much by Eating Rice.” A nationally qualified acupuncturist, shiatsu therapist and osteopath.

What is Shokuyojo?

Shokuyojo is a holistic diet practice based on the Japanese traditional wisdom that has been passed down since the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) when it was first advocated by a surgeon, Sagen Ishizuka. A complete medical book called “Ishinho,” written by Yasuyori Tanba which was published in 984 CE — the oldest Japanese medical book that exists — mentions ideas related to Shokuyojo as well. Although the core of Japanese medicine has traditionally been based upon Oriental medicine’s correlation between food and well-being, this notion has fallen into decay as a result of Japan’s modernization and westernization. However, Shokuyojo has been attracting attention from younger generations for its holistic ethos, characterized by understanding that what and how we eat can maintain our health.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Letting go of the extraneous for health

The instructor, Masayuki Tsujino, claims that people are in a constant state of information overload regarding health and diet today. They also overcompensate for their health: taking various supplements, speculatively consulting doctors to see if they find anything wrong and trying to sterilize all the bacteria in life are a few examples. He argues we are at the point where we should let go of overprotective rituals and, instead, retreat to a more simple and modest life in order to regain well-being and a healthy environment. Tsujino’s mission is to guide people to choose the right things for the body and a more balanced life overall.

The advantages of eating rice

Rice used to be considered a soul food to the Japanese. Parents used to say “Seven gods live in each grain of rice,” so their children would finish a bowl of rice at each meal, not leaving one grain. The Japanese kept telling children sayings like these for many generations; there are many such idioms derived from Japanese folk wisdom.

Tsujino encourages Japanese people to eat genmai, unpolished brown rice. This is because genmai is one of the most nutritious among all kinds of rice. He also recommends a particular way to eat it — chewing at least 100 times a bite. Chewing, especially rice or starchy food, has many scientific advantages to our health. As many may already know, plenty of chewing improves the digestion process. Additionally, chewing more means eating slower, while giving the brain the chance to receive the signals of satiety, promoting a sense of fullness, which prevents overeating.

The instructor, Tsujino, encourages people to chew their food more. (Image: Aya Mishina)

Japan is known as a rice-eating country where rice is the staple food and (used to be) part of every meal. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, however, the rice consumption in Japan has been decreasing steadily since 1962. The amount has dropped approximately to half of what was consumed back then. The current amount includes food loss, so we must be eating much less than half.

Are we eating less food in general? No. We are consuming more other food, including foods from foreign cultures.

The power of our choices

Tsujino notes, “choosing shokuyojo naturally leads your life to sustainable living.” For instance, eating more local-grown rice helps rice farmers. Domestic fair trade will become possible, making farmers’ lives more comfortable and farming more rewarding.

“We are always faced with options. Everything we do is a choice. We can choose to eat packaged snacks with artificial flavors or locally grown fruits and vegetables. If Japanese people choose to eat rice, we are then supporting the farmers over corporations, which leads to saving the rice fields,” Tsujino explains. He says this can be done worldwide: eating local staple foods in any other countries would help the country become sustainable and keep the environment healthy. Apparently, our bodies are made to eat locally-grown foods. Shokuyojo supports the Buddhist concept, Shindofuji, which means that body and soil (the environment) cannot be separated. It developed into the traditional idea that eating seasonal food produced locally brings health to the body.

Challenging ourselves to chew 100 times per bite as the right thing

(Image: Aya Mishina)

The workshop focused on chewing 100 times a bite. The participants began by making one rice ball for another person in the group. We asked each other how they want their rice ball such as the size or how salty they like it to be. Making it with bare hands let us feel the heat and stickiness of the freshly cooked rice and smell the rice in the rising steam, which awakened our senses.

We also thought about the person we were making it for. We appreciated the rice, the farmer and the peaceful moment. When we finished making the rice ball, we sat down, remaining very still and quiet. The only thing to say was “Itadakimasu (Thank you for the food),” putting both palms together in front of us. In Japanese culture, children are raised hearing parents and grandparents telling them to “sit up straight, eat quietly and chew a lot.” It may have seemed that they were being overly strict about table manners, but each command had a good rationale, and these practices have been passed down for many generations. Now, we are at risk of losing this culture. Our busy lifestyle is putting us in difficult situations where we can not continue to practice doing the “right things.”

Rice balls made with freshly cooked genmai. (Image: Aya Mishina)

It was not easy to chew 100 times a bite, our jaws got tired and our posture rapidly deteriorated, letting us realize we have been swallowing food too quickly and slouching on a regular basis. By the 100th bite though, the brown rice tasted sweeter than it did at first and the mouth was full of saliva. We could then finally swallow the first bite. (In fact, it took about 20 minutes to eat the whole thing!) Because the process took much longer than it normally would, and every bite was satisfying, after eating one palm-size rice ball, we were not hungry anymore. We were delighted and grateful when a cup of miso soup was served on top of that. That was our lunch. Eating moderately does not leave us hungry; it actually leaves us feeling satisfied. A similar concept has been passed down from our ancestors, as well, through the saying, “Eat until your stomach is 80% full.” This made complete sense once I experienced the right way to eat according to Shokuyojo practice.

Miso soup: another soul food to the Japanese. (Image: Aya Mishina)

A man’s dream to preserve the traditional Japanese culture

Tsujino says that food culture is too precious to lose. “I am saddened by the fact Japanese people have been neglecting rice, resulting in less rice fields and farmers.” His ambition is to preserve the culture, therefore, having all of us at the workshop sit down and eat rice balls was all he needed to do to convey his dreams. He does not want us to teach our children, but rather, show them by making rice balls together and eating them the way our ancestors ate theirs. When our children are on their own and potentially feeling unwell or otherwise unbalanced, they hopefully will have the wisdom and skills, not to mention enough rice, to make their own rice balls. In the meantime, passing along the knowledge that has been inherited may be essential to ensure a healthy existence for future generations.

(Image: Aya Mishina)

[Reference] The Japan Dietetic Therapy Organization