"A smile and a good meal"

Bonds and bridges between Japanese and Italian cuisine

A popular aphorism says: "There is nothing that cannot be solved with a smile and a good lunch". Reflecting for a few minutes on these words, the thought can only go to the cultural traditions of Italy and Japan, where food is conviviality, a moment of leisure, sharing and especially art. In the land of the Rising Sun the way of preparing ingredients, cooking and even consuming has an aesthetic connotation that binds tradition, religion and history[1]. You can see it in the famous tea ceremony (茶の湯 - "hot water for tea"), dating back to the fifteenth century and founded by Zen Buddhist monks of the school of Murata Jukō to mentally and physically reach the higher spirituality. This important Zen school is responsible for transforming the Chinese tea ritual into an autonomous Japanese ceremony, in the Wabi-cha style.

Even the Italian culinary tradition has a history of aesthetic sense, search for taste and pleasant sensations. The examples would be countless, but to provide a very risky parallel with Japanese customs, one could catch a vague similarity in the "ritual" of coffee, or in the simple and engaging preparation of pizza. Italian and Japanese cuisine are among the most appreciated in the West and the East, respectively, and bring with them in each dish a unique and unmistakable heritage of knowledge dating back thousands of years. The philosopher Emil Cioran wrote that one does not live in a nation, but in a language: food is also a language. The cuisine of a society is the language through which it unconsciously translates its structure, wrote another philosopher, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The richness of the Italian culinary tradition is a treasure at the disposal of the whole world. This success is due both to the many emigrants who in the past were scattered to the four corners of the planet and their descendants, and to the memories and positive impressions that millions of foreign tourists over the years have brought back with them in the countries of origin. Even the great Italian cinema of the second post-war period has given its contribution in making known the customs and traditions of Italians at the table. A rich and varied heritage that changes from North to South, from region to region, from one city to another and even between neighborhoods or families. From the 1980s onwards, the spread of the concept of "made in Italy" has been a forerunner to the success of Italian products, especially agri-foodstuffs, which over time have become ambassadors of a unique "know-how".

By Mario Rafaniello


In Italy the image of the classic Italian restaurant abroad has taken root, lost in some little Italy of the great American cities or in the main cities even in the Far East. For decades, Italian cuisine abroad has been a certainty, something that is even obvious, due both to the fascinating appeal that this culture still exerts, and to generations of Italians who have kept alive (and high) the idea of Italianness in the world. Less accustomed, on the other hand, is to see Italy undergoing the opposite phenomenon, that is to say the large-scale spread of themed venues with foreign cuisine, particularly Asian. The boom in Chinese and Japanese restaurants in recent years has been incredible. Sometimes, these restaurants have taken the place left empty by Italian restaurateurs and have established themselves with strength and success in a market that had long since seen other types of foreign cuisines present (Mexican, Spanish, North African and Indian, for example).

In other words, we are literally witnessing a phenomenon that mirrored what concerned the spread of Italian cuisine in the world. In addition to the many Asian citizens (including second or third generation) who have lived in Italy for a long time and who run themed restaurants, we should not overlook the influence that this culture has had on much of the West. Eating sushi, ramen or doriyaki, using sticks or drinking sake are things external to Italian culture, but with which many people, especially young people, now live. These are stimuli present in the enormous cultural offer coming mainly from Japan, which, as is widely known, is one of the most influential countries on Italian society. Years of souls, manga, books and cinema have had the same effect that has led Italian cuisine to become a phenomenon of custom everywhere. It's no surprise, then, that this mutual success has taken place. Italy and Japan have a very deep bond but just as unique given the enormous difference between the two peoples. However, this diversity is not an obstacle, on the contrary. It has always been an opportunity to get closer and discover even more.

Italian cuisine in Japan is called itameshi (イタメシ): an abbreviation of "Italy" and "meshi" (飯 -pietanza-). The first itameshiya (Italian restaurant) was opened in 1881 by Pietro Migliore from Turin, who opened Italia-ken ("Casa Italia") in Niigata, the capital of the homonymous prefecture[2]. The young Italian cook was part of a French equestrian circus but, due to a serious accident, was left in Japan. Thanks to a providential gesture of charity by the prefect of Niigata, Migliore was able to open a small restaurant, which was unfortunately destroyed in 1880 by fire. The following year, with the help of many Japanese friends and acquaintances, the cook from the other side of the world managed to open a new restaurant[3]. A beautiful story of understanding and solidarity between Italians and Japanese.

Through these simple testimonies it is also possible to sew the history of peoples, demonstrating once again how much cooking is a source of wealth. In Japan, these were the years of Meiji's renewal and openness to foreigners, many of whom were invited by the government itself to enrich Japanese knowledge in various fields. Just in 1881 there was a serious political crisis that saw opposed Prince Itō Hirobumi (who would be prime minister four times) and the Marquis Ōkuma Shigenobu, then forced to resign. Only twenty years had passed since the Unification of Italy, and that same year I Malavoglia di Giovanni Verga, another jewel in the crown of the Italian cultural heritage, was born. Despite the greater interest in Japanese cuisine in French, Italian restaurants began to spread more and more. One of the most famous became the restaurant Donnaloia opened in 1952 in Kobe, during the years of the great economic recovery of the two countries[4]. Also this restaurant, as it had happened about seventy years before with Italia-ken, proposed itself both as a meeting point for foreigners and as a reason of curiosity for the Japanese[5]. The Italian restaurants, as it happened simultaneously for example in the USA, were meeting points between different cultures, exploiting the love and the interest for food.


The interest in Italian cuisine in Japan has remained intact to this day. In this regard, in November will take place in Japan the Italian Cuisine Week, an event related to the homonymous project on a global scale that promotes the Italian culture of food abroad. The initiative is promoted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the participation of various bodies and associations in the agri-food sector[6]. As part of the previous edition of the event, the well-known Japanese e-commerce platform Rakuten promoted Italian food under the banner of "The Extraordinary Italian Taste"[7]. In Italy, however, there are portals like Domechan, from which you can buy Japanese food.

In Italy, the events and venues that offer Japanese food are now countless and have a great success with the public, although the phenomenon has only been recorded since the seventies. In 1972 a young man, Hirazawa Minoru, moved to Italy to work in Rome in one of the very first Japanese restaurants, then little known to the public. A few years later he was sent to Milan to run a small Japanese grocery store. In 1989 Hirazawa set up his own business and opened Poporoya (House of the People), one of the first successful sushi bars in Italy[8], which is now a trendy place. Also in Milan, in 2003 the Italian Association of Japanese Restaurateurs (AIRG) was founded, of which the president was the pioneer Hirazawa Minoru. AIRG deals with "promoting taste education in Japanese cuisine and food through events and tastings, offering curiosities and cultural stimuli known and lesser-known and rediscovering typical recipes related to different regional realities or the uniqueness of each season"[9]. Milan was also chosen by the Japanese catering giant Toridoll to act as a springboard for its diffusion in Europe[10].

[1] L'arte culinaria nel Giappone tradizionale, su

[2] Itameshi: la cucina italiana in Giappone, su

[3] La storia è presente nel sito web di Italia-ken.

[4] Yuko Suyama, Fenomeno Itameshi, su

[5] Concetto ribadito nel sito web di Donnaloia.

[6] Ambasciata d’Italia a Tokyo, Settimana della Cucina Italiana in Giappone 2019, su

[7] Il cibo italiano conquista l'e-commerce giapponese, su

[8] La storia del sushi (in Italia) abita qui, su

[9] La nostra storia, su

[10] L’Italia fa gola ai giapponesi, su

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From the World Central Asia Sections Culture Health & Wellness


cucina italiana cucina giapponese Italia Giappone sushi

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