Okay, don’t laugh. The photo is technically taken in Fukuoka, not Tokyo. But read on.
Once prevalent in Japanese culture, street food vendors (or “yatai” as described locally) are starting to return in some parts of the country, including Tokyo.
The most common foods you’ll find served from these mobile wooden carts include ramen, okonomiyaki, oden, and yakitori.
The yatai can come in a variety of different forms, from fixed structures offering a few seats for diners, to stalls that could be carried around on the vendor’s shoulder.
It all dates back to the Meiji Period when the stalls were just small wooden carts built out of wood.
To understand why the yatai declined, we need to go back to the late 1950s.
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What Caused The Yatai To Decline?
In May 1959, the International Olympic Committee chose Tokyo to host the 1964 Summer Olympics.
With the eyes of the world soon to be watching, winning the bid instigated a ‘clean-up’ of the country’s image in the years of preparation that led up to the event.
Japan decided to regulate the yatai (or street food vendors) ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The authorities were worried about the potential health risks posed to tourists by consuming food from the yatai, concerned it would reflect poorly on the country’s image.
Where Did The Yatai Continue?
For those who lived in the southern city of Fukuoka, sitting on the shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island, the yatai was a sacred part of their culture.
The idea of the yatai being regulated quickly promoted furious backlash from locals.
Despite immense pressure and tightening regulations, Fukuoka’s yatai was able to continue, after owners managed to organize themselves into a trade union.
Several decades after the initial crackdown, in 1995, a new law was passed – banning the distribution of new yatai vending licenses.
These new government sanctions meant that the food stalls could only be inherited or passed down to the wives and children of the original license holders.
Also, if they were successfully passed down, the relative would only be allowed to run the yatai on a full-time basis, making it their sole source of income.
While not being completely banned, these new laws made it increasingly tricky for the yatai to continue operating from both a financial and legal perspective.
Why Is The Yatai Making A Comeback?
If we fast-forward to the present day, in Fukuoka, the original street food markets continue trading despite those sanctions decades ago.
Many of the yatai have passed down through the family generations, keeping the cultural tradition alive in the city.
In most of the bustling cities of Japan, street food wasn’t welcome until more recently. Street food culture is now on the rise in most of the busiest, bustling cities of Japan, such as Tokyo.
For a long time, the Japanese saw it as disrespectful and inappropriate to eat on-the-move.
Combined with the potential health risks that were highlighted ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it’s no surprise that street food struggled to find a secure place in the culture.
With the challenging economic climate in Japan, street food is finding its feet in cities like Tokyo.
This comes at a time when Japan is openly embracing and being influenced by other cultures across the globe.
You can be sure to find plenty of sushi now on offer as a street food dish. Have you ever been to eat down by Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market?
It’s worth visiting if you’re looking to get a taste of the Tokyo street food experience!
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