The Portuguese brought corn to Japan in the sixteenth century. Corn was not grown on a large scale until the Meiji era (1868-1912) when Japan began a campaign to modernize the nation. The Hokkaido Development Commission introduced American corn to Hokkaido to be grown as a modern staple grain.
As frequent cold spells rendered rice farming impossible, rice was something to be bought and not grown, and making the purchased rice last as long as possible by adding other grains, called kate, to the rice: naked barley, barley, and proso millet, as well as potato, pinto beans, and red kidney beans, so of course corn was a welcome addition.
The corn introduced at this time was eight-rowed corn; it was flint corn or grain corn. The Sapporo hachigyo and Longfellow, both of which are North American flint corns having eight rows of kernels, were particularly suited to the Hokkaido climate and soil.
People in their eighties fondly remember that corn harvested in the fall would be hung from the eaves to dry, then stone ground into powder and cooked with rice to make corn gruel. Today grain corn, including the eight-rowed varieties, is no longer the staple food of Hokkaidoites.
During the Showa era (1925-1989), consumer demand shifted to sweet corn, which has high sugar content and stays fresh longer. The production of sweet corn surged, and today it accounts for almost all of the fresh corn grown in Japan. There are very few farms growing the old-style corn today, and that is mostly marketed to older people who remember the comfortable tastes from childhood, and those who are interested in historic foods.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Japan imports practically all of the corn it consumes, or over 16 million tons annually of which over 90 percent comes from the United States and the rest from Argentina and other countries.
Corn is used for livestock feed, as ingredients such as cornstarch, glucose, and mizuame (a thick sweetener similar to corn syrup), and fermentation stock for such products as distilled liquor and beer.
Sweet corn is popular on ramen, as corn ice cream, corn kit kats and other snacks, or part of a Mc Donald’s Happy Meal. Corn is sprinkled on almost any Western-influenced dish, especially Italian foods: spaghetti and pizza. At bakeries and convenience stores, you can buy corn korokke, or corn buns which cradle a generous bed of mayonnaise studded with corn. And don’t forget corn cream, a childhood comfort food.