Introduction: Reconsidering Japanese Food

Tine Walravens and Andreas Niehaus

In December 2013, washoku was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (UICH) list of the United Nations. The UNESCO defined washoku as a ‘social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food’.1 The accolade thus refers to Japanese food culture, rather than one food item, and stresses the fact that washoku provides the Japanese people with a sense of identity and belonging, based on healthy eating and respect for nature and the environment. Dietary patterns, attitudes towards and perceptions of food are certainly central to the experience [1]

of everyday life and integral to the formation of local and national cultures. However, in times when young Japanese are turning to high-end Western cuisine and fast-food chains, annual rice consumption continues to fall, and demand for meat has exceeded that for fish, the UNESCO’s praise for the role of washoku as a form of ‘social cohesion’ may be slightly overestimated. What is furthermore missing in the UNESCO’s ‘appreciation’ is an understanding of the historical dimension, of political agendas and discourses of power that shape the notion of a ‘national cuisine’.

The listing of washoku and its imprimatur of ‘safeguarding measures’ to protect the cuisine seem to have come at precisely the right moment for Japan. The UICH list is the product of an international organization recognized, sponsored and protected by member states, and its appraisal of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which promotes trade and tourism, generally results in a boost to both prestige and commercial potential. In the face of the waning popularity and status of Japanese food and cooking prompted by the rise of Western-style and Chinese-style culinary culture domestically, several cooking professionals have expressed their concern that traditional Japanese cuisine could be lost,[2] while Japan’s food industry itself has suffered a series of safety-related scandals and incidents. Also the government understood the potential of the listing for its ongoing projects related to diet and health among the general public. The shokuiku programme, since its launch in 2005 considered the focal point of Japanese food policy, aims to teach the public about eating habits, health risks and a healthy lifestyle, triggered by a variety of pressing concerns related to food and nutrition, such as changing dietary habits, health-related diseases such as obesity, loss of traditional food culture and import dependency.[3] Furthermore, the ministries involved started preparing its application for the Intangible Cultural Heritage label just months after the March 11 Triple Disaster. When serious safety and security concerns regarding the food supply emerged in the wake of the nuclear meltdown, the government of Japan set out to rebuild the country, regain domestic consumer trust and restore the country’s image abroad.[4] For the authorities, the UNESCO’s recognition could therefore add impetus to the existing projects promoting food culture and dietary education and trigger other promotional initiatives and economic incentives. Converging interests between the private sector and the Government of Japan [and mainly its Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF)] thus led to the initiative for the UNESCO application. As such, Japanese national cuisine recognized by the UNESCO became not only a marketing tool for washoku abroad and the country’s international image but also seems to have been appropriated as a response to a perceived crisis in national culture and identity domestically.

As many of the chapters in this volume will show, the construction, reconstruction, assertion and promotion of a national cuisine in Japan often reach beyond the aims of tourism and trade and are easily applied as a soft power instrument in the hands of those fostering nationalism. National and cultural identity is reinforced and reiterated by emotionally binding the nation and its food culture on a historical and cultural, as well as political and commercial level. Long before the UNESCO list came into existence, the narrative of a ‘pure’, natural, authentic and timeless cuisine successfully shaped a Japanese national and cultural identity, which centred on the ideas of homogeneity and uniqueness. As a commodity, food thus plays a significant role in national ‘imagined communities’.[5] Once national consciousness is imagined, it is constantly reinforced through a unified ‘national culture’ constructed by the state and dispersed via education and bureaucracy.[6] However, as many scholars such as Hobsbawm (in general) and Cwiertka (for Japan in particular) have already pointed out, there is no such thing as a ‘national cuisine’. The concept of alleged culinary traditions is a construction in itself, rendering pre-existing food customs into a national symbol, a flag of identity for the nation.[7] In her historical account of Japanese culinary tradition, Cwiertka showed how the idea of modern Japanese cuisine is constructed on a ‘Japanese-Western-Chinese tripod’ combining preexisting Japanese local food customs with Chinese and Western influences.[8] Furthermore, the invented discourse surrounding a Japanese national cuisine of rice, fish and vegetable side dishes is presented as pure, healthy and unique, allegedly due to the growing process in Japanese soil. According to Ohnuki-Tierney, this notion of ‘purity’ has always been integral to the concept of the Japanese Self, even long before the rise of nationalism.[9] Yet, as will be shown in this volume, this concept is, in practice, easily politicized domestically as well as internationally in claims of qualitative superiority or when aimed against an external Other, which is defined as ‘impure’.

Food, as a metaphor of the nation, thus provides a promising referential framework through which a sense of belonging is communicated. As food and eating are intertwined with ‘embodied sensations’[10] [11] that affect our feelings, food helps to bind the people emotionally to the idea of the nation. Consuming and preparing ‘Japanese food’ means performing and incorporating an emotional home, be it a hometown, a region or the nation. Containing melancholic notions of rural nostalgia or furusato, the concept further refers to and idealizes a vanishing past or an endangered local environment.11 In fact, the UNESCO’s acknowledgement of washoku even contributes to the somewhat soothing idea of an unadulterated and timeless past of the Japanese nation. Carrying symbols of the homeland, food is used to articulate identity and identification, and as such becomes a source ofinclusion and exclusion, national pride or xenophobia. In Japan, food has not only become a powerful conceptual image of the nation but has also turned into an influential psychological tool for positioning the Self in relation to the Other, or ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’.

Conformity or unity seems to be achieved by contrasting Japanese food with the food of the ‘Other’, which is often perceived as polluted and unhealthy. National claims of the qualitative difference, significance and even superiority of Japanese cuisine - as opposed to ‘foreign’ food - are used to ‘create unity’ through identification.

The positioning of the ‘Self versus the ‘Other’ is definitely a key element determining narrative structures in a nation's collective histories and identities.[12] As this volume will demonstrate, practices of ‘othering’, which are based on generating differences, are not limited to one exclusive image of the ‘Self, neither to one exclusive ‘Other’. Hence, national identity construction is characterized by a high level of intersubjectivity through social interaction with multiple ‘Others', which results in various changing and even overlapping self-identities.[13] A specific ‘Self will manifest itself, depending on the context and the particular ‘Other'. There are ‘Others' that one wants to identify with positively, while there are also ‘Others' from whom one would prefer to distance oneself. In this volume, we thus consider identity as embedded in social relations and subject to change. Of course, when this identity negotiation concerns two nation states or entire populations, the context can also prove to be power-laden or contentious. By the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the forced opening of the country by the West and the unequal treaties that followed made Japanese policy makers and intellectuals realize that, on the one hand, they had to make sure that the country was not being confused or identified with China or Asia, and on the other, that a political and economic reform of the country was needed, based on the Western model.[14] This implies that the definition of the ‘Other' is highly dependent on the contextual definition of the ‘Self, and vice versa. In Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan, the binary Self-Other became conveniently expressed through the development of the terms ‘wa and ‘yo to differentiate Japanese food from the food of the ‘Other’. Even now, rice, the often considered

‘timeless staple’ of the Japanese diet and core of Japaneseness, is used to set Japan apart from the bread-eating Europeans, or from other Asians, by juxtaposing the ‘superior’ Japanese-grown rice (naichimai) against ‘inferior’ foreign rice (gaimai).15

The inscription of washoku on the UICH list is thus an example of a political process, and the message portrayed on the UNESCO website fits in very well with the interests of those ministries (the MAFF and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) that advocate a return to (what is perceived or presented as) Japanese culinary traditions and the consumption of domestic foods. Indeed, while healthy diets and traditional food culture provide reasons for the state’s promotion of washoku, the fact that Japan imports roughly 60% of its food points to other motivations. Furthermore, the promotion of the narrative of healthy domestic food as part of a broader policy aim has faltered in the aftermath of a recent series of domestic food scandals and the repercussions of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. On a policy level, Japan’s food system displays contrasts and disparities. The globalization of the food supply chain and Japan’s dependency on imports are in contrast with the nostalgic return to the local and a rediscovery of the culinary roots of the nation. These conflicting spaces and narratives influence Japan’s domestic policy making and politics which are based on and, more importantly, tap into pre-existing emotions of the Self versus the Other.

The outlined dynamics behind the recognition of washoku as intangible cultural heritage serve as a constructive entry point to explore the issues in this volume, in which food and food cultures in Japan are seen as a collective system of meanings shaped, produced, perpetuated and reproduced through cultural practices as well as political mechan- isms.16 The UNESCO listing, first of all, established the importance of viewing food cultures as a social practice. It is precisely the daily [15] [16]

individual performance of the nation through socially established food habits that anchors culinary nationalism and cultural identity on the community level. Food proves to be a medium through which national identity is articulated, experienced and performed, yet at the same time national cuisine and identity are constructed, reproduced and thus imagined. Who then are the actors that operate to create and maintain this idea of ‘our Japanese food’? The UNESCO example has already shown that behind the scenes of the application process, a myriad of private and public actors, and their interests, were involved. By looking at the processes and patterns behind the construction of a timeless Japanese cuisine (and its inherent contradictions), our approach - secondly - seeks to identify the diversity of agents involved in these conflicting narratives and practices and their respective aims, thus unfolding a complex field in which different actors (multi-nationals, politicians, NGOs, activists, farmers and ordinary consumers) negotiate, contest, politicize and emotionalize what will appear on peoples’ plates. This approach enables us to show that Japanese foodways, beyond top-down gastronationalism and discussions on self-sufficiency and food security, have been and still are also fuelled by real consumer concerns. Thirdly, the washoku enlisting shows how food, as a daily necessity and a global commodity, as omnipresent in media and a major policy area, represents a useful focal point for interdisciplinary research. An interconnected dialogue relating to food as an object of study in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, literature or international relations leads to a more comprehensive insight into the dynamics of culinary nationalism in Japan, and to a conceptual understanding of the underlying patterns and processes of conflicting food identities in general. The contributions to this volume, ranging from the fields of history, cultural studies, food studies as well as political science, show that national cuisine ‘happens’ at the intersection of a diverse set of academic approaches and research areas, which - when applied separately - undoubtedly leave certain aspects uncovered. By bringing different fields of research together in one volume, we hope to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics behind evolving food identities and culinary nationalism, in Japan and beyond.

  • [1] UNESCO, ‘Washoku’. UNESCO, ‘Nomination file’. T. Walravens (*) ? A. Niehaus Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University,Ghent, Belgium e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ; This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_1
  • [2] Foreign Press Center Japan, ‘Press Tour’. Iwata, ‘Head chef at Kyoto restaurant’. Kumakura,‘Interview’. Yoshida, ‘Washoku served up as heritage’. Ichijo & Ranta, Food, National Identity andNationalism, 151.
  • [3] MAFF, ‘What is Shokuiku (Food Education)?’, 1.
  • [4]
  • [5] One of the groundbreaking ideas in the scholarship of nationalism was the concept of a nation asan ‘imagined community’, which proposed that any community larger than a group of people whoall know each other is imagined. Anderson, Imagined Communities.
  • [6] See Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine, 177.
  • [7] Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction: Inventing Traditions’, 1-14. Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine,175-180.
  • [8] Ibid, 21.
  • [9] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 131.
  • [10] Lupton, Food, the Body and the Self, 36.
  • [11] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, Robertson, Native and Newcomer, 30-32.
  • [12] See Duara, ‘Historical narratives and trans-nationalism in East Asia’, 105.
  • [13] See Suzuki, ‘The importance of “Othering” in China’s national identity’, 24-25.
  • [14] Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine, 17.
  • [15] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 103—104.
  • [16] See Abbots and Lavis, ‘Introduction’, 1—12. For further reading, e.g. Abbots and Lavis (eds.),Why We Eat, How We Eat. Contemporary Encounters between Foods and Bodies', Counihan and VanEsterik (eds.), Food and Culture. A Reader, Watson and Caldwell (eds.), The Cultural Politics ofFood and Eating. A Reader, and Wierlacher, Neumann and Teuteberg (eds.), Kulturthema Essen.Ansichten und Problemfelder.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >