Japanese curry is a thing but did you know the Navy has had a hand in perpetuating curry culture in Japan? Let’s take a short trip to Yokosuka to learn a bit about Yokosuka Kaigun (Navy) Curry!
Yokosuka’s Link to the Japanese Navy
Yokosuka has a series of ties to the modern naval traditions in Japan: In Kurihama, in southern Yokosuka, is where American Commodore Perry used his trademark gunboat diplomacy to open up Japan for trade. Yokosuka is also where the 1860 delegation from Japan to the United States set sail from. This city is also where the first modern Arsenal was built in 1865 and eventually became the headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Navy after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
During WWII, a series of tunnels were built in 20 networks with at least 260 caves to act as protection and escape routes for Navy sailors and officers in the event of American air raids. This has nothing to do with curry, but I thought it was cool and worth mentioning!
The Japanese Navy’s Link to Curry
Around the turn of the century, during the Meiji Era, the Japanese Navy faced a problem: Beriberi. It’s a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin B1, and can cause all sorts of nasty problems with your digestive system, nervous system, and heart. Thousands of sailors got the disease, and nearly a third died from it. Naval Surgeon General of the time, Kanehio Takagi, pinpointed poor diet as the main problem. The Navy looked towards British beef stew as a quick and easy-to-make recipe. Using a curry base and rice instead of bread, the Navy introduced Curry Rice into rotation, and saw a significant decrease in Beriberi cases and deaths.
Given that Yokosuka was so tied to the Navy, and this new dish gave a great nutritional bang for your buck, it became a local favorite. Even after the Navy was restructured into the Maritime Self-Defense force after World War II, the dish continued to be served to sailors as part of their weekly meals.
To formalize its significant contributions to Japanese culture and the local flavor landscape, in 1999, Yokosuka city signed the Curry Town Declaration. This set forth some specific criteria for what is and isn’t Yokosuka Navy Curry. Some requirements include:
- The recipe should be based on a recipe from the Navy Kappou Art Reference Book (a military recipe book first published in 1908).
- It can only be served in Yokosuka City.
- It must be served with a glass of milk and a side salad.
- Stores must be certified by the Yokosuka City of Curry in order to be able to use the official Navy Curry title.
One such establishment to pass muster is Yokosuka Navy Curry Honpo, which means head shop or specialty store. The shop boasts Navy Curry and 10 different authentic curries for sale, as well as a soundtrack of music you would have heard being played by the navy band during mealtimes on Japanese battleships. This naval-themed restaurant was renovated in 2012 to give it the appearance of an officer’s room aboard the battleship Mikasa. But what’s the deal with this ship in particular?
The Battleship Mikasa
Just down the street, maybe a 10-minute walk, is Mikasa park, where you can see the historic Battleship Mikasa, the last pre-Dreadnaught battleship still in existence in the world. It was also the flagship for the newly formed Japanese Navy back at the turn of the century.
The ship is most famous for heading the Battle of Tsushima, in which Japan defeated the Russian navy in the first major upset of a Western power by an Asian power seen in modern times. This also cemented the legendary naval status of Admiral Tojo, who stands as a statue just in front of the Mikasa in Mikasa park.
The Mikasa had a turbulent history after retirement: It was cemented into place, bombed in WWII, converted to a dance hall and aquarium, and eventually left to rot. It was in a sad state of affairs. One British man, John S. Rubin, who worked in the shipyard building the Mikasa, wrote a letter to The Japan Times to share his feelings about the state of disrepair. This spurred a big preservation movement, allowing the ship to be brought back with the cooperation of the Americans who still held some old pieces of the ship in naval storage.
Now, you can pay a small fee to go onto the ship and see it in all its restored glory. If you want the true naval experience, eat some curry and walk along the Mikasa, taking in the smell of the sea and the midday sun.