Jan 8, 2023

CULTUREIs Japanese Gratitude for Living Things Understood?

As someone born and raised in Japan, I have explained this concept many times to people across the globe, but nobody has understood it deeply. For this reason, I dare to continue challenging global readers to understand the Japanese philosophy behind thanksgiving for the food we receive.

Jan 8, 2023

A phrase all Japanese people say before they eat

Itadakimasu – this phrase is said nearly ubiquitously in Japan before a meal. It means, “I will now eat the food in front of me,” and literally, it means “I will receive.” This amounts to an acknowledgement that you will receive the souls of the animals and plants you eat into your body.

The phrase gochiso-sama – recited when a meal is finished – sounds like emphatic thanks for a wonderful meal, when translated directly. Yet the same phrase would be recited even for a simple or affordable meal. This is another expression of gratitude for all plants and animals. In Western culture, a prayer before a meal to give thanks to God is common cultural practice. Yet all Japanese, regardless of religion, offer these phrases of thanks and gratification before and after each meal – really just one word each – in a respectful manner.

Thanking the souls of animals at all meat production sites

Monuments in respect for the souls of animals are erected at Japanese livestock factories and other facilities. Once a year, production workers will gather and give thanks to all animals shipped as meat. Production farmers who raise their livestock with love, as well as individuals not directly involved with slaughter, all offer prayers of thanks. In fact, all people who consume living creatures as food, including many Japanese people in general, live their lives with this sense of gratitude. 

Japanese chefs have a sincere focus on gratitude

This philosophy of gratitude is very true for chefs, who express their appreciation for living creatures prepared as food. The greatest, most powerful example of this concept is not throwing food away. This is seen in a traditional Japanese sushi chef’s technique, which is refined to ensure that every part of the fish is used to amplify flavor and the diner’s experience.

The head of the fish, which would normally be discarded, is turned into soup stock, and the bones, by cooking them at high temperature on the grill, are transformed into a “chef’s snack.” These are just two simple ways that Japanese chefs offer thanks to all living creatures.

What is animal welfare?

Humans take the lives of living animals and plants. Some consider this a sin. Simple words of gratitude and respect may not atone for that sin. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that human beings have lived on this Earth while eating animals and plants as food since time immemorial. It’s not a bad thing to express a few simple words of respect and thanksgiving – not for posterity’s sake, but rooted in a deeper philosophy.

I believe it is important to offer thanksgiving for the lives of animals we have received, even if just once a year, regardless of religion. And the life we receive should be used to the fullest, without waste. Human ingenuity can always devise ways to make any part of an animal edible.

To this end, culinary professionals today continue to hone their skills and work hard to make sure that people can enjoy every part of the living creatures that are prepared for their nourishment. I believe that gratitude, which is neither a religion nor a regulation, is the true meaning of animal welfare.