Why the Japanese Preferred Wheat to Rice

The traditional Japanese ingredient has been overlooked, but citizens are turning back to rice today

While Americans can't get enough sushi and okayu (a rice porridge), a new look into Japanese food culture reveals that the Japanese can't get enough... wheat bread?

Sounds odd, but true: Slate investigated why the Japanese consumption of wheat products, like bread, pasta, and noodles, has risen tremendously in the past 40 years. Rice consumption, on the other hand, has declined about 50 percent. The reason, Slate says, is traced back to the start of World War II. Pre-WWII, rice was a staple in the Japanese diet; however, things changed once the Japanese began facing rice shortages during the war. The shortages only increased post-war, and American food aid was mostly wheat flour and lard. Eventually, the Japanese adapted to a Chinese-style diet filled with wheat products: gyoza, or dumplings, and chuka soba, a ramen-type wheat noodle in broth.

It was just the beginning of the wheat love affair. As the relationship between Japan and America developed, Americans began to introduce more wheat products into the Japanese diet. Slate reports, "Nutritionists told citizens that a rice-based diet was not only incomplete, but it actually caused brain damage — a thesis they were fed by American scientists." A new school lunch program, complete with American wheat products, only added fire to the fuel.

Now, the Japanese imports wheat by the tons. Japan, the largest Asian importer of wheat, bought nearly 134,000 tons of wheat from producers in America and Canada as recently as March 21. However, for the year ending on March 31, the country has only bought 4.52 million tons compared to last year's 5.16 million tons. (However, wheat imports for animal feed are up this year.) Perhaps Japan's newest initiative, the "war on bread," is finally working. Even Japanese Pizza Huts are using rice flour in their dough.