Got Milk? Overcoming Lactose Intolerance to Grow a Tall and Strong Japan

Yukijirushi butter ad_Asahai Graf Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_November 1964
An ad for butter and cheese by the dairy company, Yuki Jirushi. From the November 1964 Asahi Graf, Tokyo Olympics Special Edition

A derogatory term in Japan for foreigners at the turn of the 20th century was “batta-kusai” (バタ臭い), literally “stinks of butter”.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in Japan, when the Portuguese and Dutch established relations and trade with the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Japanese were exposed to non-Japanese who had meat and milk in their diets. The Japanese, due to the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism, were forbidden from eating meat, and thus by extension, dairy products. On top of that, Japanese were generally lactose intolerant.

Because of the fundamental differences in diet, the Japanese thought, quite simply, that Westerners, with the residue of beef, milk and cheese in their systems, reeked.

Milking at a small farm in Japan 1933_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Milking at a small farm in Japan in 1933_Mainichi Photo Gallery

But when Emperor Meiji came to power in the late 19th Century, the emperor and his government embarked the country on a massive modernization campaign to make not only the Japanese military, science and industry equal to the levels of excellence in the Western industrialized world, but also the size and strength of Japanese people.

According to this article, the Meiji Government not only lifted the ban on meat and dairy-products consumption, they put the word out, quietly, that the Meiji Emperor also enjoyed meat, cheese and milk.

Jersey cows arrive to Japan from New Zealand 1953_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Jersey Cows arrive from New Zealand to a farm in Japan in 1953, from the Mainichi Photo Gallery

Clearly, the Meiji Government was also picking up advanced marketing techniques, such as celebrity endorsements to sell products. But when the 1960s rolled around, using data to back your claims was all the rage. The advertisement at the top of the page was published in November, 1964 in Asahi Graf’s Tokyo Olympics Special Issue. The headline text states, “These Children Will be the Strength of Japan in the Future”. The company making this statement is “Yuki-Jirushi”, one of the dairy products companies (along with Meiji) established by the Emperor Meiji.

The statistics shared in the ad show how, from 1955 to 1962, the height of the average 5-year old went from 104 to 106.1 cm tall while the average individual daily consumption of dairy products (I suppose they mean butter and cheese) went from 0.8 grams to 5.4 grams.

Distirbution of Milk Containers 1955_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Distribution of milk containers in Japan in 1955, from the Mainichi Photo Gallery

A few years later, an AP article from May, 1969 cited a government survey indicating the trend was continuing. “A ministry survey showed the average height of 11-year-old boys has increased by 4.6 inches over the past 68 years. Girls of the same age had an increase of 5.4 inches. During the 1900-1968 period, the 11-year-old boys gained 13.6 pounds and the girls 18.9 pounds in weight, the survey said.”

The article went on to explain that the Allied Occupation under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) may have also been an influence. “The tendency for younger Japanese to prefer no-rice diets could be attributed partly to a school lunch system adopted in 1947. The school lunches are served at primary schools throughout this country. They began with powdered milk, flour and canned foods released by the allied occupation forces by the allied occupation forces to save the hungry children in defeated Japan from malnutrition. The school lunch menu still is based on bread and milk – and no rice.”

Today, the per capita consumption of milk and milk products pales in comparison to the nations of the West. But that’s OK. There’s plenty of good eats in Japan.

Children Gather for Free Milk 1952_Mainichi Photo Gallery
Children crowd to get free milk in Japan in 1952, from the Mainichi Photo Gallery