The Japan Tofu Association is Japan's representative body of all domestic tofu producers.
There are many theories as to how tofu was introduced to Japan.
Tofu and the “Kentoushi”
The most convincing theory is that monks or scholars sent to China through the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1185) periods as Kentoushi (Japanese envoys to China) learned how to make tofu and brought this knowledge back with them to Japan.
China at this time was an advanced nation. The mission of the Kentoushi was to travel to this advanced nation to acquire as much academic and technological knowledge as possible, and of course, food processing expertise such as miso and tofu production may well have been part of this knowledge.
However, there is practically no mention of tofu in literature of the Nara and Heian periods. The oldest record of tofu in Japan can be found in the diary of the priest of the Kasuga Wakamiya Shrine, written near the end of the Heian period, in which the word “tofu” appears. The kanji characters used are different from the kanji used today and are clearly used as a phonetic representation.
An ancient letter written by Nichiren Shonin (Founder of Nichiren Buddhism) also mentions “Suri-daufu” (crushed tofu). One must assume that, if mention of a dish involving crushed and processed tofu appears in literature of the 13th century, tofu was already considerably popular at this time. Incidentally, the number of records mentioning tofu increases dramatically from the 14th century onwards.
Tofu Technology from Korea?
Other than the theory of knowledge passed on from China, there is another theory that says the production technique of tofu was imported from Korea. There is a record concerning the Tosa region of Shikoku (Kochi prefecture) which states that Chosokabe Motochika, a military commander, brought back prisoners from the Bunroku Keicho-no-Eki (Invasion of Korea under Toyotomi Hideyoshi) during the Period of Warring States, and that these prisoners were made to produce tofu.
In general, tofu from Korea is firmer, and tofu from Tosa is characteristically firm in the Korean style. The hard tofu of the Ishikawa prefecture may also be traced back to these origins.
Whichever route, from China or from Korea, the tofu that came to Japan was initially eaten in temples, where the monks further refined production techniques in their pursuit of Shojin cuisine, and a broad range of literature shows that by the end of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), tofu was widely popular.