Who Cut the Milk?

To write an article on 2 Hours Drive From Tokyo I studied a bit about the history of dairy products in Japan.

When it comes to dairy farming, the first country which popped up in my mind was Switzerland. But I found that it was a very big mistake… Take a brief look at this data of WORLD DAIRY SITUATION 2011.

Quantity of Production of Raw Milk (2010)

8thNEW ZEALAND17,143

(Quantity: thousand tons)

It is natural that the countries which have extensive territories, such as USA, China and Russia are listed high. While, it was surprising for me that India ranked in the second place. However, it might be very reasonable for those who know about Buddha’s story;

After the repeated extreme austerities for six years, which could have even killed himself, Gautama Buddha realized that he could not attain spiritual enlightenment only with the extreme austerities. He went to Nai-ranyja-na River and met Sujata who offered him a bowl of milk rice, which helped him attain the enlightenment.


photo from India Netzone

In fact, in India there are many vegetarians for whom the milk is a primary source of protein. So it is no wonder that India is a leading country of the milk production in the world.


By the way, if you are a coffee drinker, you will get very familiar with this Indian holy maiden, Sujata in Japan. We assume that very few people know about the Buddha’s story but most of the Japanese know her name because of this.

Coffee creamer pots “Sujata”
Photo from the official website of Meiraku



Milk was brought to Japan in Asuka Period (538–710) from Baekje, a kingdom located in present South Korea (18 BC – 660 AD). In 8th century, Imperial dairy farmers were working and offering milk to the Imperial Family (2.3 litters for each family member), also produced condensed milk and some kind of cheese or butter. Milk was popular as a drink among noble class but only among them. We could say that cows supported the culture of the aristocrats in Heian period behind the scenes. In fact, the aristocracy used cows as a method of transportation. They didn’t ride cows but they let cows pull the carriages.


From the Tale of Genji, Nioumiya
By Askewmind at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

However, after Heian Period, when the helm of state was taken by Bushi, in plain words, under the military government, the dairy production and the consumption stopped. Some documents say the dairy consumption was obsolete with the influence of Buddhism which prohibited the usage of domestic animals for eating. But we don’t think it is true because a bowl of milk rice of Sujata helped Gautama Buddha for his enlightenment, as I wrote. I suppose, instead, that Bushi wanted to say ‘No’ to what the Imperial Court had been doing and didn’t continue taking the dairy production.

Bushi started to use horses as a method of transportation and cows were kicked out with the aristocrats from the main stage. They were recognized more as a labor in rice fields.

Samurai on horseback
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By the way, did you know that the origin of the dairy production in Japan was in Chiba Prefecture?


Chiba prefecture is HERE!


The peninsula of the southern part of Chiba is called Boso Hanto (Boso Peninsula). And in the southern part of the peninsula, there had been a big ranch for raising horses for military usage owned by Satomi clan from Sengoku period. However, it was confiscated by Tokugawa Shogunate in 1614 for direct control of the breeding of horses.

The eighth Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, made an effective use of farming and revitalized the dairy production with three white cows imported from India in 1728. The motivation of the dairy production was not for people’s consumption but for the butter needed for the maintenance of horses!

white cows

white cows in Rakuno-no-sato in Minami Boshu in Chiba


The milk came to be consumed among ordinary people only after Meiji Restoration. There was a prescient businessman named Tomekichi Maeda, who was born in Chiba. He saw many foreigners who came to Japan drinking milk as a drink and predicted that the custom of drinking milk would spread also in Japan. He learned how to produce milk from a Dutch man and started the production and sales of milk for the first time in 1863. However, at the time, there were few Japanese people who were willing to try to drink milk and his business was only for the foreigners. Another prescient man, in 1869, opened the first ice cream shop in Yokohama. However, very few Japanese were interested in ice cream and they passed by the shop with just a glance. It was too unusual and it was too expensive. Once scoop of ice cream costed as much as 10-day-salary of a banker… Unfortunately, this first ice cream shop ended without success. Hard cheese!

icecream in Yokohama

photograph by T. ENAMI of Yokohama
Photo from Japan Vintage Photos


Meiji Government, on the other hand, was very active about farming and they made big farms in Hokkaido. (Hokkaido is a leading area for dairy production.) Milk was drunk as a nutrient mainly for solders in Meiji Period, which had not been recognized as a “normal” drink for long until after the World War II, when UNICEF contributed powdered skim milk for school lunch for 15 years. Many people who have drunk this milk say it had a nasty smell and it was a nightmare. Taking the contributors’ side, this may be because the powder was transported by bulk carriers via Panama and it got damaged from the heat and humidity… This can be one of the reasons many Japanese people of upper 60 years old don’t like drinking milk so much.


I found another surprising fact in our history…

Almost all the Japanese leading companies of dairy products were established more or less in the same period, early 20th century, and their first products were not milk as a drink.

CompanyEstablishmentFirst Product
Yukijirushi in 1925 butter
Morinaga in 1917condensed milk
in 1955fermented milk drink
Gulico in 1921caramels
Meiji in 1917condensed milk


Having read several documents, I assume that the major problem of the milk sales as a drink was, as well as the lactose intolerance, its short shelf life before the pasteurization and the homogenization methods were invented in the dairy industry.


Have you ever felt that the milk you drink in Japan is different from the one you’ve been drinking in your country? If yes, that must be because of the pasteurization method. Many brands of milk sold in Japan today is pasteurized with Flash pasteurization, also called “high-temperature short-time” (HTST) processing. The milk is heated up to the temperature 85 °C (185 °F) for five minutes and then 120 °C (248 °F) for 2 seconds. This method brings the longer shelf life to the milk but it must give its nutritional value and its good taste in sacrifice.

Of course, there are milk pasteurized with “low-temperature long-time” method in 65 °C (149 °F) for 30 minutes, which allows the milk to stay true to itself even though it cannot have a long life.


I thought Switzerland was the leading country of the dairy production in the world, which was a mistake. However, when it comes to the business scale of dairy products, Switzerland is the first place because of Nestle. So, we can say, at least, it was not a sheer folly. We are just too familiar with Holy Swiss cheese!


photo from drawception.com


To make the situation of the Japanese dairy production better and to compete with imported dairy products, we should have something very original. So, Japanese cheese doesn’t have to have holes like Swiss cheese does but it has to have something that no other has….

I found a very special cheese produced in a small cheese factory in Chiba. A cheese which was washed by Sake! I bought it in a Michi-no-eki (roadstation) Miyoshi and I fell in love with this cheese… It is not so strong as l’ami du Chambertin, which is my favorite french cheese, but it has a delicate and creamy taste with a hint of Sake flavor. I would love to mature it more and taste it!


cheese washed with Japanese Sake of Fromage Komagata

It is almost 1300 years since dairy products was brought into Japan. But I think it has not been fully Japanized yet, compared to cows’ meat. Milk is no longer a ‘must’ for kids at school lunch, although it is not powdered skim milk any more, saying that milk does not match Washoku, the Japanese dishes, even though Gautama Buddha attained spiritual enlightenment from a bowl of milk rice… I saw the new movement of using milk in Washoku going on and they call it New Washoku, as the Kanji for milk 乳 can also be pronounced as “nyu (new)”. I saw some recipes but, unfortunately, nothing stimulated my appetite.

Hard Milk!

にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ


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