Food on trains was a big thing in the US when passenger trains were a big thing. The Fred Harvey diners were famous in their day, enough so that the restaurants called "diners" today were attempts to emulate the mobile versions.
Also, at the other extreme, Japan offers Calorie Mate "balanced food blocks" These contain all the nutrients required by humans in a convenient package. Popular with Japanese salarymen who eat lunch at their desks. It's the humanoid form of dry dog food. They have a liquid version, which is like Soylent without the hype.
I wouldn't want to subsist on shortbread alone, but it does seem like a decent snack for people who skipped a meal.
I one time saw an older lady sneak a sip of water...
The US government also subsidizes corn, soybeans and wheat over fruits and vegetables, making it far cheaper to produce meats, carbs and sugars, and thus easily undercuts any other food types. It can be more expensive to buy a head of lettuce than it is to buy a hot dog.
I guess the best you can do is steal the best ideas from everyone - Japanese at least have zero issues with doing just that, going right back to first western contact with the Portuguese that brought them Tenpura and a bunch of cakes.
I still think the greatest fast food I've ever had was a Greek place that did amazing kabobs.
1) regardless of your safety beliefs, this is done a lot
The primary on-the-go food would be onigiri, with "festival booth" foods second (mostly stuff on a stick e.g. karaage, dango, yakitori, takoyaki, ikayaki).
When I think pizza, I tend to think of it as its own thing given the whole delivery culture.
If you hit a bump eating a sandwich, you mash a soft loaf of bread into your face.
Do the same thing eating a kabob, and you're sending a skewer through the roof of your mouth.
Uhm... you can eat kabobs from the side.
It has amazed me that there isn't a USA chain that has taken some food from Japan or China and it put it in a form that would be a good burger substitute. I would imagine some wrap? I could really go for a spring roll when I'm driving instead of a burger.
They were pretty tasty, but the only one where I live went under ages ago.
(Googling shows that a chain by the name exists, but they don't have burritos. Either they pivoted or it's a new business who picked up the name.)
Alas my go-to is still the classic New England general store steamer full of red hot dogs...
On the flip side, I'm originally from the South, where there's a huge number of gas stations which also include a diner (or even just a hot bar) which is often some of the best Southern food you can find, including "real" restaurants. There's actually an entire regional chain of gas station/convenience store/fast-food friend chicken places called Dodge's which I really miss. That being said, I used to drive between Mobile and North Mississippi pretty often, and there was a little place halfway along the way called the Buckatunna Grocery which I swear has some of the best fried chicken I've ever had.
How far are you going to have to go in Tokyo if you're craving Mexican? And is there even a decent Mexican restaurant in Tokyo? (I'm guessing the answer might be yes but not many.)
On the other hand, I understand KFC is very popular in Japan which happens to be one of my favorite US fast foods if I really need to choose.
Some types of fast food appeal to me more than others. I'm actually not much of a cold bento box fan in general; I usually end up picking at them at conferences. But I like a lot of Japanese food generally.
I don't think it's just a matter of density. Folks in Tokyo, like folks in New York but perhaps even more so, are willing to try a variety of foods and care about doing them authentically.
To have decent restaurants from a certain ethnicity, you do need some significant population of that ethnicity, and at least some of those people who are lower or lower-middle-class. Having moved to Seattle from New York, the Chinese food here is much worse; Seattle has a large population of Chinese people, but the vast majority of those are college-educated and working at tech companies, and are not a likely demographic for opening or running restaurants.
I really like some Xinjiang and Hunan dishes, but they're next to impossible to find in the US despite "Chinese" food ostensibly being common.
You'd be surprised.
Tokyo has insane amount of good restaurants.
† Especially this one - there's lots of food carts but those are a long way away from 'healthy'.
My hypothesis: Massive population density, combined with almost nobody home-cooking and then bringing in a boxed lunch, leads to a HUGE market for lunchtime food options (restaurants, bento). However, due to population density, rent is high, and so bad restaurants get pushed out quick, because if a place is bad, there are ten other options in the same building that are delicious.
So, I often wonder if US cities achieved the same population density, if we'd get the same level of amazing restaurants crammed into 10 story tall buildings, block after block after block.
As for why Japanese food is healthier, I'm just guessing culture.
It is truly remarkable though that I have literally never had a bad food (taste) experience, ever, in Japan, despite having eaten thousands of meals and snacks there.
And most married persons do bring boxed lunch. Along with a lot of female, married or not.
And Japanese food is no where near healthy with all the deep-fried menu as a staple. But I guess if you compared it to US fast food..
What? As an exchange student (high school) my (japanese/host) mum totally spoiled me with lavish bento box lunches every day - as I assume she used to do for my older host siblings. I seem to recall she used to prepare a lunch for my host dad too.
(that said, thankfully, Japan's been progressing to a more equal society, so hopefully the man work/woman work at home divide is disappearing - which likely means ain't no-one got spare time to prepare box lunches - hence more of a market opening up).
A bento box is very much a "make at home, bring to work thing" that just happens to be available to buy. Like a burger fried in the back yard vs various inferior commercial offerings ranging from burger king to passable restaurant grade burgers..
Nearly all of my Japanese coworkers, in several industries, went out for lunch. I guess it's not the case in school? That makes sense.
TBF these three permeate the entirety of japanese cooking. Even japanese deep-frying is not bad (tempura uses a very light batter incompletely covering the foodstuff and short frying times, and the ingredients are mostly veggies and seafood although they also have western-style fried foods using thick breadcrumbs-based batter and long frying times).
Beyond the ekiben, even the grab-n-go food of the convenience stores (7-11, family mart etc) is even a step above most in the States.
The companies making these products have to pay the recycling authority for waste management in proportion to the amount of trash they generate.
> In the bigger picture, however, Japan is a recycling laggard. According to 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the municipal recycling rate for Japan was only 21 percent, below top-ranked Germany at 48 percent, Sweden at 33 percent and the United States at 26 percent.
Rubbish days were interested the first few years though, (5 days a week, something different every day where I live. Luckily there are multiple books describing what and how, in English haha).
Some food trucks around here (Minneapolis) have kind of elaborate hand-cooked processes. You can see confusion where there's a line to order, and a bunch of people standing around for minutes waiting for their order.
It's because of 'customization' every American customer seems to want in a resturant here.
Almost no one seems to order food in US as it's offered by the restaurant. Everyone wants something replaced with something else, with something added a little more while something is subtracted a little less.
There's also a growing UK/Japanese chain called Wasabi Sushi & Bento that has locations in both Penn Station and WTC Oculus.
If you want better food you may as well hoof it to Koreatown especially if you think you may have to use the toilet. The toilets at Penn Station are truly the things of nightmares. I didn't go to Koreatown because I had a bunch of luggage, but that's another problem you wouldn't have in Japan.
Meanwhile the food options at SFO are generally pretty decent (if pricey) and the sushi place seems to be a surprisingly good value. If the Salesforce Transbay Terminal ever reopens it'll be interesting to see if the city puts any effort at attracting decent food there.
Now I'm curious, what was the disaster?
Japanese expect their food to look pretty much exactly like the picture or wax model that is displayed in front of the shop.
Over priced garbage (fast food) -> high salt/sugar/wtf ever intake -> Health issues -> Overpriced garbage ('super' foods, supplements)