After the European (re-)discovery of the Americas, there was a widespread transfer of animals, plants, culture, human populations, communicable diseases, technology and ideas between the Americas and the Old World (primarily Europe). This became known as the Columbian Exchange).

Some examples of this, in the form of animals and food stuffs, would be the potato and the horse.

Before the Columbian Exchange, (white) potatoes were unknown to the old world. After being brought back by traders and merchants, they were fairly quickly adopted as a staple food stuff, providing much needed starches. Although not completely related to just the potato blight disease, the fact that potatoes were ruined as a crop throughout Europe in the 1840's was a leading factor in the creation of the Great Potato Famine of Ireland. This famine (and admittedly other factors as well) caused the population of Ireland to drop by 1.5 million from 1841 to 1851, instead of the expected raise of about a million.

During the exploration of the Americas, the Europeans brought many things with them (including disease), such as the domesticated horse. With the horse, the North American West was conquered (indeed nothing is, IMO, as American as the American Wild West). It can be said that some tribes of Native Americans became more accomplished at horsemanship than the peoples who brought them over.

I really don't want to get into a political (Meiji Restoration) or medical (diseases) discussion, but would rather just discuss 'fun facts', perhaps food stuffs or animals, as discussed above.

Were there any foods introduced into the Japanese culture AND accepted by them to the point of being called, perhaps, a staple food? What about any taken from them back to the Old World?

Were any animals introduced into Japan by Europeans that are now treated as 'a part of the natural fauna' of Japan? Or the other way?

  • Since the question did not specify the date of exchange, neither the continent (Eurasia includes Asia, too), let me just remark that the original Jomon population and agriculture was followed by a very strong population exchange with the Asian continent, so technically whatever happened 2000 years ago and introduced rice to Japan, or later all the Chinese products are technically all answer to this question.
    – Greg
    Jan 5, 2019 at 19:43
  • 1
    How late? Milk and dairy products (ice cream particularly) are very popular in Japan and entirely ubiquitous. They aren't treated as foreign - and much of the dairy production is Japanese. But that might be a bit late? May 22, 2021 at 9:49

7 Answers 7


Japanese cuisine and culture are very much focused on rice - I don't think you can really call anything else a staple food. However, there are a number of foodstuff that had been introduced into Japan by Europeans, and achieved varying levels of popularity.

For example, base foodstuffs that have became important include:

  • Chili pepper, introduced in 1542 - now a major export product
  • Corn, first introduced in 1579, and large scale planting began in early Meiji Era - major import
  • Tobacco, introduced in the mid to late 1500s

Also, the Japanese enthusiastically embraced European desserts and bakery products:

  • Alféloa / Alfenim, introduced c. mid 1500s
  • Comfit, called Konpeitō, introduced c. mid 1500s
  • Castella, original form introduced c. mid 1500s
  • Doce, introduced c. mid 1500s
  • Fios de ovos, introduced c. late 1500s
  • Bread, first reached Japan in the late 1500s, but became popular in the late Edo Period
  • Bolo cake, introduced via Okinawa during the Edo Period
  • Biscuits, introduced near the end of the Edo Period

Pretty much all of these examples were taken to Japan by the Portuguese.

Unlike the Columbian Exchange, Japan was close enough to the continent to be linked into the Old World's trading grid. So, while Japan does have several common originally-Eurasian crops, those were generally introduced from China before contact with Europeans. Examples of these include carrots, watermelons, cucumbers, and others.

  • 1
    I guess I'm (very) surprised at bread being on the list, they didn't have what? wheat/flour? yeast?
    – CGCampbell
    Sep 5, 2014 at 19:39
  • 1
    @CGCampbell Well, they did have Chinese steamed buns which I guess is a kind of bread? But they didn't make European-style baked bread apparently until much later. Incidentally the Japanese word for (European style) bread is pan, a loan word from the Portuguese pão.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 5, 2014 at 19:43
  • 1
    @CGCampbell : use of bread is recent. Indeed whereas the standard crops of the western world were wheat, oats and barley, the standard crop of the far eastern societies was rice. It was the main source of energy (carbohydrates) for millennia and they made everything, from noodles to liquor out of it. This is also reflected linguistically: the word gohan in japanese means rice, but also means meal like bangohan meaning dinner "evening rice", literally. On the other hand in German "Abendbrot" evening bread is a word for dinner.
    – Matthaeus
    Sep 11, 2014 at 16:33
  • Rice itself was introduced to Japan through human agriculture (just as soy or wheat). You can also mention almost all vegetables...
    – Greg
    Jan 5, 2019 at 19:38
  • Portuguese colonies and trade posts spread many crops during the age of discoveries. cashews (caju in portuguese, close to Hindi word), banana, manioc / tapioc (E Asia today is great producer of tapioc/manioc), moved around Brazil - Africa - India. Moreover, sugarcane moved from Europe, and wheat and grapes followed the Catholic Mass. BUT, I guess Japan did not have a climate tropical enough to fully participate in this movement, thus the Japanese Exchange is less radical than the Columbian Exchange. I would be impressed to find fios de ovos in Japan... yummy....
    – Luiz
    Mar 8, 2019 at 16:56

At least two of the new crops introduced by the Portugese in the early 1600s had major social and economic impacts in Japan.

Sweet Potato

As with white potatoes, they were first introduced by the Portugese in 1605, and were initially fed only to horses. A few decades later they started to be accepted as food and by 1735, the Tokogawa shogun planted them in his own palace garden. A gruel made with sweet potato became "a standard banquet dish" for the aristocracy.

I think it would be fair to say that sweet potatoes actually became a staple food, although obviously not on the same level with rice. By the early eighteenth century they were an important source of calories and a "bulwark against famine", especially in dry upland areas of western Japan where rice was not as productive. This likely contributed to the rapidly increasing population and urbanization of the period.


Prior to extensive contact with the Portugese, cotton was an expensive, imported luxury item that could make the silk garments of the upper classes a bit warmer. That began to change as "the seeds of cotton introduced by Portuguese had swiftly spread throughout the whole country". Young women began to spin cotton for sale, increasing the cash income of peasant households.

Cotton replaced hemp as the main fiber available to the common people, which "transformed clothing and bedding... and in so doing dramatically increased the quality of life." In western Japan, cloth bedding was apparently so scarce that as late as 1789, "people dried seaweed and wove it into quilts" to keep themselves warm at night!

Cottonseed oil also helped to make lamp oil for lighting much more affordable and widely available in the 1600s then it had been before. Osaka became a center of production, both for cotton textiles and for lamp oil.

  • It should be noted the Sweet Potato was not introduced to the Pacific by Europeans. It had been used by indigenous Polynesian societies for centuries before contact with the Europeans. They even use the same word Kumara as the native peoples of Peru, suggesting trade.
    – Tom Kelly
    Dec 9, 2018 at 7:58
  • 1
    @TomKelly Interesting theory, but apparently a recent genetic study raises doubt.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 9, 2018 at 14:05

The Japanese were never fully isolated from the rest of the world. They're far closer to the Eurasian continent and were not geographically isolated any manner that compares to contact with the Native Americans or the American continent(s).

The Tokugawa Shogunate did restrict trade with the outside world during the Edo period (1603-1868) but they didn't prevent trade, they controlled it. At various times, Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese merchant had trading ports in Japan, most notably in Nagasaki. The Dutch traders in particular, brought with them technology and knowledge from other European countries, most notably Philipp Franz von Siebold who taught German Medical Science to Japanese students. You can still find German language medical and chemistry textbooks in libraries in Japan (some older physicians still speak German as a result).

As such there was no one intense period of "exchange", the import of European goods, cultures, and technologies was gradual into Japan. They imported them almost continuously from European traders and other merchants in Asia that had contact with the Europeans. Foreigners were not permitted on most of the Japanese islands and Japanese traders gained much of the profits from trading foreign goods within Japan. However, by the time of the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry (1863) and the Meiji Restoration shortly thereafter, many European goods had already been in Japan for centuries and were not unfamiliar to the Japanese. Dishes such as Castella sponge cake (from Portugal), Ramen noodles and Gyoza dumplings (from China), and Curry (based on Anglo-Indian cuisine) are widely regarded as traditional foods in Japan rather than foreign (with many local variations). Today there are Japanese derivations of almost any foreign food, including unique pasta recipes and bakeries that incorporate unique Japanese products (such as An red bean paste, mentaiko, and matcha green tea).

Conversely, there were not as many imports to Europe from Japan as there were from the Americas either. Europeans never occupied and controlled the Japanese islands, nor did they have any need to. Due to geographical proximity and trade with other countries in the region, Europeans could already get food crops such as Rice from other countries. Most notably, trade and colonies in China, India, and Indonesia provided many similar crops, tea, and spices (which were more lucrative).

The uniqueness of Japanese cuisine is not due to the differences in local flora, fauna, or geography. Many of the same foods can be found on islands with similar climates. It is due to differences in culture. It takes a high level of training and craftsmanship to produce many Japanese products (including foods rich in "umami"). Without the demands of a local market, these have been uneconomical to produce in the rest of the world until recently. Many items produced by the Japanese (such as knives) are still highly prized in other countries for their quality but cannot be reproduced in the same manner as, say, growing a potato, so they've largely remained in Japan (and the recent diaspora). There were likely plenty of similarly unique cultural practices in Native American societies but the European settlers took little notice of these as they were more interest in the natural resources (such as land, gold, and silver) in the Americas.


Adding to Semaphore's good answer, other products introduced in Japan after European contact were wine and opium.

Wine has been imported into the archipel since the 15th century.

Both wine and opium have been documented to have been produced in Japan as early as 1627 and 1629 respectively.

Japan would later take a major role in the trade of opium in the second half of the 19th century.


It may not be food, but there are quite a few garden plants here on the West Coast of the US that come from Japan originally.

  • Bonsai! Tree that is.
    – CGCampbell
    Sep 5, 2014 at 19:41

Take a look at Wikipedia:GlossaryOfJapaneseWordsOfDutchOrigin

The Dutch were the first Europeans to start larger scale trading in japan and as such loaned many words for the things they introduced.

At the time there was little reverse trade in 'new' things, it was mostly in either raw materials or crafted items such as laquerware.


If you think about it, the cultural exchange is still going on. I can find a sushi place in most any town (in the western US, anyway) - I can even buy pre-made sushi in the supermarket, with California rolls being a staple. Likewise, I can find teriyaki, wasabi, and other Japanese condiments on the shelves. I have a Honda, Toyota, and Mazda in my driveway, at various times have studied judo, kendo, and karate...

  • 2
    That’s not quite the same thing. Those are all still widely regarded as Japanese products and customs. The potato is not regarded as a foreign product in Europe, many people are unaware that it was imported from the Americas.
    – Tom Kelly
    Dec 10, 2018 at 4:24
  • @Tom Kelly: Now, yes, a lot of people are unaware of the American origin of foods like potatos, chili peppers, maize, &c, but that's the result of centuries of use. When Shakespeare's Falstaff exclaims "Let the sky rain potatoes", they must have been a new thing. Just so did tacos and burritos go from being strange, alien foods to being American. (Likewise with Indian food in Britain.)
    – jamesqf
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.