Michio Kushi, a Japanese scholar who popularized the macrobiotic diet in the United States, helping to change the way health-conscious Americans eat, died on Dec. 28 in Boston. He was 88.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Alex Jack, general manager of the Kushi Institute in Becket, Mass., a 600-acre macrobiotic education center that Mr. Kushi founded in 1978 with his wife, Aveline.
“He was in the vanguard of the natural foods movement,” Mr. Jack said. “He was the pivot from an animal-based to a plant-based diet, and while that sounds very mainstream and normal now, it was heresy back when he started teaching it.”
Mr. Kushi and his wife spread their message of diet as a pathway to good health and peace widely, through lectures and seminars and dozens of books.
In the early 1960s, they founded the Erewhon brand of natural foods, and a store of the same name, selling brown rice, miso, tofu, tamari soy sauce and other staples of the macrobiotic diet. In the early 1970s, they and their students founded the East-West Journal and the East-West Foundation, for macrobiotic research and cross-cultural understanding.
In his early years, Mr. Kushi, who studied political science and law at Tokyo University, was more interested in the politics of peace than in diet. In 1949, with the support of Norman Cousins, a world peace advocate who was editor of Saturday Review, Mr. Kushi went to the United States to continue his studies in political science at Columbia. His English was so limited that he could not take classes, Mr. Jack said, so he spent his first years in New York in libraries, studying utopian texts, including Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel “Erewhon,” the title of which he later took for his company’s name.
He also held a variety of odd jobs, working as a bellhop, a translator and an importer of Japanese handicrafts. And in the late 1950s, when Takashimaya, a leading Japanese department store, opened an American outpost on Fifth Avenue, Mr. Kushi was vice president of the operation.
Meanwhile, for all his reading, Mr. Kushi was losing faith in politics as the best route to world peace. In Japan, he had studied briefly with George Ohsawa, who taught that food was the key to health and health the key to peace.
“It took him a while to get the food connection,” Mr. Jack said. “At first he just thought they were a bunch of health fanatics.”
But when Aveline, another Ohsawa student, arrived in the United States, they began teaching macrobiotics, a diet based on whole grains and local vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods.
In the 1960s, the family moved to Massachusetts, eventually settling in Brookline. Mr. Kushi taught shiatsu massage, and gave classes and individual consultations on macrobiotics; Ms. Kushi taught aikido and cooked for their students.
As the natural-food movement gathered steam, people began showing up to meet Mr. Kushi.
“They came from all over the country, all over the world, to stay and study how to cook, learn the principles of yin and yang, and the idea of idealistic balance,” said Kezia Snyder, a New Yorker and a student of Mr. Kushi’s since the 1960s. “It’s so powerful to learn that food has so much to do with how we function in the world every single day.”
Many of the visitors ended up staying with the Kushi family.
“Back in the 1970s, my sister tried to make a list of everybody who’d lived with us for at least a month, and it was hundreds,” said Mr. Kushi’s son Haruo, also known as Larry.
Because it was initially so difficult to find the ingredients for a macrobiotic diet, Erewhon began as a small buying club operating out of the basement of the Kushis’ home. But in the 1970s, Erewhon grew into a large operation, with warehouses in Boston and Los Angeles. Eventually, the pressures of the expansion proved too much, and the company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1981. It was sold soon after.
Mr. Kushi and his wife also opened two macrobiotic restaurants in Boston: Sanae and the Seventh Inn.
His books include “The Cancer Prevention Diet,” “The Book of Macrobiotics” and “The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health,” all written with Mr. Jack.
The Kushi Institute has also been involved in research on the health effects of a macrobiotic diet on cholesterol, blood pressure and, more recently, cancer. Last summer, the institute held a seminar on breast cancer, and now, Mr. Jack said, it is awaiting financing for a double-blind study of a macrobiotic diet on Stage 4 breast cancer.
Haruo Kushi, an epidemiologist, said that, because macrobiotics had been promoted as a way to prevent cancer, he was often asked what it signified that his sister, his mother and now his father all died of cancer.
“I’ve actually done cancer research, and it’s clear that many different things contribute to cancer, and there’s a lot we don’t understand,” he said. “But everybody dies of something, and we do know that macrobiotics drastically reduces cardiovascular problems, and if you take away heart issues, cancer is one of the big things that’s left.”
Aveline Kushi died in 2001, and their daughter, Lily, died in 1995. Mr. Kushi is survived by his second wife, Midori; four sons, Norio, Haruo, Phiya and Hisao; a brother, Masao; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.