Under Food Nerds’ Watchful Gaze, Japan Attempts a Combat Rations Makeover
Japanese obsess over military food
Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force is about to ditch canned rations in favor of boil-in-the-bag packets similar to American ration packs. Japan’s canned Type I Combat Rations have fed the nation’s troops since the army’s founding in 1954. For the past 16 years, the military has also fielded the Type II Combat Rations, which will now totally supersede the popular canned variety.
The benefits from the changeover are so obvious that it makes you wonder why it has taken so long. Retort pouches are lighter and easier to pack than cans are, an essential requirement for any infantry force. Each pouch of food consists of a single meal, like the cans before them, but another major difference how they are cooked. Retort pouches can be cooked in the heating bag that accompanies them using only water and a chemical heating element.
Canned food, by contrast, requires separate cooking implements including a stove and pan, increasing the load on troops on the ground. The boil-in-the-bag rations can also be dropped from the air, unlike the cans which have proved more likely to burst open.
It might seem like a minor topic to cover, but the military’s food enjoys a significant following in Japan. Mirimeshi — “mil-food” — is an important topic in Japanese military magazines. Rations are just one subject. Mirimeshi fans also pay close attention to the recipes that are popular on bases and warships.
A brief history of mirimeshi
Food fascinates Japan. Japanese tourists relish local delicacies, Japanese T.V. shows frequently climax with a food tasting segment and there are whole magazines dedicated to finding the best ramen in various cities. This passion for food is also evident among Japan’s miliota, its “military geeks,” a fact the military has been keen to capitalize on.
Nutrition has been an important metric to the Self-Defense Forces since their inception. Japan has had a some harsh lessons to learn from in its history.
During the Warring States period spanning the late 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, generals would prepare their troops for battle by arranging meals of white rice. Refined rice was easier to digest and richer in energy-giving carbohydrates than the brown rice gruel the soldiers endured when not on campaign.
During this era, most people ate only two meals a day. Being easier to digest, however, white rice caused the men to become hungry more quickly, so they received an extra meal a day. Three meals a day has been the foundation of military nutrition ever since.
The appeal of regular garrison rations of white rice helped fill the ranks of the Imperial Army and Navy in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. White rice had become the food of the socially-mobile classes, but on deployment the lack of vegetables and meat led to sickness.
A lack of vitamin B1 caused sailors and soldiers to suffer from swollen and numb legs and increasing malaise — a condition called “beriberi.” In 1882, beriberi accounted for 16 percent of all disease and injury in the Imperial Navy. By 1885, rations of protein — in the form of barley mixed into the sailors’ white rice — practically eradicated the nutritional deficiency from the ranks.
Perhaps the most famous dish to come out of this new focus on nutrition was the Japanese navy’s kaigun curry. First mentioned in the 1908 Reference Guide to the Culinary Art of the Navy, kaigun curry consists of potato, carrots, onions and pork or beef cooked in a handmade roux of beef fat, flour and curry powder.
Today the dish is served every Friday on Maritime Self-Defense Force ships as a means of helping sailors keep track of the passage of each week.
The streets of Yokosuka are now home to 27 different shops selling their own version of the kaigun curry to tourists, making it perhaps the most famous milimeshi dish. The Maritime Self-Defense Force base there holds public curry contests between its individual ships during large exercises such as the triennial Fleet Review. The contest draws more than 10,000 visitors to the base.
Recipes such as these fill regular columns in the nation’s defense publications. Mamor, the semi-official establishment magazine catering to those who want to know more about life in the Self-Defense Forces, features one such column. Entitled “Troops’ Messroom,” it contains recipes such as army camp Betsukai’s pork escalopes or Maizuru naval base’s shrimp and potato chowder.
According to food historian Katarzyna Cwiertka and cultural historian Tomoko Aoyama, Japan’s modern preoccupation with food owes a great deal to the nation’s experience during World War II and the postwar recovery. Rationing and food shortages led to the “repression and oppression of appetite” on the home front, which inspired an overcompensating backlash during the nation’s economic rise in the 1980s.
Throughout World War II, the Japanese army needed regular food imports just to keep moving. By 1943, the American and British navies began to blockade Japan, cutting off soldiers in Southeast Asia and on islands across the Pacific from supplies from the home islands. Famine ensued.
At home, Japanese soldiers began receiving half-rations, its civilians received only half of that — when supplies could be distributed at all. But in the now-isolated garrisons in the Pacific, soldiers had to forage to survive — or in some cases, resort to cannibalism. 15,000 Japanese soldiers starved to death at Guadalcanal. 158,000 died of starvation and tropical diseases in New Guinea. 400,000 starved to death in The Philippines.
War is hard work and men cannot survive on morale alone.
It’s no surprise then that the military has indulged in the modern food boom and encouraged the promotion of Self-Defense Force recipes, souvenir foods and events as a means of strengthening civil-military relations.
From cans to retort pouches
Imperial Japanese soldiers ate canned field rations during World War II. Canned meat, vegetables, condiments and vitamin supplements made up half of the Japanese soldier’s one-day “special ration,” with the other half consisting of mochi. Mess officers supplied fresh cooked rice at meal times as part of the normal field rations because uncooked rice is far lighter than cooked rice in terms of volume.
Throughout much of war, however, the Japanese soldier’s diet was dry, tough and monotonous.
After the war, as the Japanese government established the Self-Defense Forces in the wake of the Korean emergency, weight became less of a problem. This new military would only be fighting on Japanese soil in defense of the nation and could leverage air, rail and road supply lines.
Only one ration from the wartime packs made it into the postwar military field ration pack — the hard kanpan biscuit cracker. The rest of the menu was to be new, tastier and in no small part inspired by the choices provided by the C- and K-rations of U.S. forces.
The first ration packs appeared in 1954, and were known as “unit rations.” These packs came with breakfast, lunch and dinner portions changed each year until they were replaced in 1965. Breakfast typically consisted of kanpan, marmalade and canned condensed milk.
Lunch included canned fried rice and powdered juice, while dinner featured canned chicken and rice with miso and steamed fish and vegetables. Unlike the C- and K-rations, however, the new Japanese military’s cans did not come with added accessories such as cigarettes or sweets.
After 1965, however, the packs changed from per-meal portions to a set of eight menu items which could form any meal. Menu one was the same as the previous breakfast ration plus canned wieners. The other seven packs each consisted of three cans — a 450-gram rice dish, a pickled item and a 200-gram meat dish. Each meal provides between 800 and 1,100 calories and boasts a three-year shelf-life. After being cooked, the can may be kept for three days.
The downsides, however, are plain to see. Hard metal cans are great for shipping and parachuting into the field, but they are space-inefficient and difficult to dispose of. The Ground Self-Defense Force manual requires troops to bury their cans, but they do not decompose quickly and fill up military training grounds. On exercise, the army now collects and recycles the cans.
The cans must also be boiled for 25 minutes before eating. That means that unprepared cans must be cooked in pots and on a stove by soldiers in the field. This increases the amount of kit soldiers have to carry.
In 1990, the Self-Defense Forces began fielding the Type II Combat Rations, a retort-pouch alternative to the canned menu. And now the pouches are fully replacing the cans, ushering in a new era for arguably the world’s leading gourmand military.