Culinary Politics and Nation-Building

Within Asia, Japan offers an intriguing example of state-led politics that fosters recognition of cultural heritage as a strategy of nationbuilding. Long before strategies of nation-building included culinary politics, governmental efforts to identify and protect cultural heritage properties were prevalent in Japan. As Akagawa Natsuko asserts, a concern for establishing national identity in Japan was initially a response to a process of rapid modernization and industrialization and the encounter with the West at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912).[1] Japan was among the first countries worldwide to establish a normative instrument for acknowledging and protecting cultural heritage. In 1871, the Meiji government legislated the preservation of ancient objects (koki kyubutsu) such as Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines in light of the rapid onset of modernity.[2] Also in the Meiji period, Japan began to present Japanese arts and crafts at international exhibitions such as the Paris International Exhibition in 1867 and the Vienna International Exhibition in 1873 (see also Mitsuda in this volume). Efforts to safeguard a national cultural heritage extended to the protection of cultural objects in Korea, a colony of Japan from 1910 until 1945.[3] Through a state-led politics of asserting cultural heritage, Japan strengthened its role as a major cultural and colonial power at the beginning of the twentieth century, which also found a different expression in Japan’s imperial expansion politics. Eating practices played a significant role in the state-led politics of nation-building as Katarzyna Cwiertka asserts in her account of an increased consumption of meat during the Meiji period. The practice of eating meat had been a clandestine custom prior to the Meiji period, but was encouraged in order to strengthen the military and prepare the military expansion of Japan prior to World War II.

Post-war Japan witnessed a period of rapid economic growth and re-construction between 1955 and 1973.[4] During this time period, heritage preservation and legislation continued. The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (Bunka-zai hogo-ho) was enacted in 1950, and replaced the imperial decree of 1871, which had previously legislated the preservation of ancient objects.[5] [6] This law was also the first legislation that distinguished between tangible and intangible cultural properties. Intangible cultural heritage covers five broad domains: Oral traditions, performing arts, social practices such as rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature, and traditional craftsmanship. Japan increased its presence in international discourses on cultural heritage preservation. For instance, in 1994, Japan co-hosted with UNESCO the International Council on Monuments and Sites International Conference on Authenticity. This conference resulted in the Nara Document on Authenticity, 0 and brought a significant change in the perception of authenticity in heritage and conservation theory. Authenticity came to be understood ‘as a relative concept that must be understood within its own cultural context’.[7]

The country aimed to represent its own national system of heritage preservation, which inspired the UNESCO’s ‘Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’. This convention was enacted in 2003 with the objective of expanding the definition of cultural heritage from places and monuments to include intangible cultural heritage practices.[8]

Heritage politics needs to be seen in the context of major historical transformations such as the Meiji period and the post-war period of re-construction and economic advancement. In contemporary Japan, recent efforts of the government to gain recognition for items of popular culture such as manga, anime, and more recently food, as a means to counter major changes such as population shrinkage and economic decline mirror the use of soft power. The phenomenon of advancing national identity through strategies of state-led culinary politics and branding that include the efforts to re-establish the link between food and place has received particular attention. In this context, the term culinary soft power offers a useful tool for analysing state-led efforts of re-territorializing culinary styles. Culinary soft power can be defined as ‘the acknowledged attractiveness and appeal of food culture that adheres to a nation, region, or locality’.[9] While culinary practices are not specified as a domain of their own, ‘culinary practices’ are acknowledged as a sub-domain of intangible cultural heritage.[10] Japan has not only had an impact on the formation of a normative instrument, which acknowledged intangible heritage, but the Japanese government also searched for recognition for its foodways from UNESCO, which yielded successful results. On 5 December 2013, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage acknowledged washoku, and in particular o-sechi ryori, the elaborate New Year’s cuisine, as an intangible cultural world heritage.

The culinary foundation of washoku - which is also the foundation of the food education campaign to be discussed later - is Japanese-style dietary life (Nihongata shoku seikatsu, JSDL), which can be defined along the following three characteristics: Firstly, rice - Japan’s major staple food - is a component of every meal. A meal without rice is not considered to be a full meal but rather a snack. Secondly, the presentation of a meal is based on the composition of ichiju sansai - which refers to the composition of a meal in the form of a soup and three side dishes served with rice and Japanese vegetable pickles.[11] Thirdly, Japanese cuisine is a hybrid cuisine and consists of Chinese, Japanese and European culinary components. Washoku has now found its entry into the list of culinary practices along with the Turkish coffee culture and tradition, and the Mediterranean diet - shared by Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal - that were acknowledged by UNESCO in the same year. In 2010, the gastronomic meal of the French and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia were both acknowledged as an intangible cultural heritage.

Prior to the recognition of washoku in 2013, Japan started the promotion of food as a symbol of culinary soft power in 2005 as part of the government’s Intellectual Property Strategic Programme (Chiteki zaisan suishin keikaku) under the Koizumi Junichiro administration.[12] This led to the formation of the Committee for the Advancement of Research on Food Culture (Shoku Bunka Kenkyu Suishin Kondankai) in the same year, whose objective was to promote food as part of the creation of a ‘Japan Brand’. The aim of this committee was to analyse Japanese restaurants abroad in terms of number and restaurant type, their food preparation techniques, and their customers.[13]

The close collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office and various ministries is one characteristic of Japan’s powerful ministerial bureaucracy. With regard to the use of food as soft power for creating a Japan Brand, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) obtained a key role and established its own advisory council a year later in 2006, which became known as a restaurant certification system with the objective of maintaining the authenticity of Japanese restaurants abroad.[14] The spread of Japanese restaurants worldwide was given as a reason for the establishment of this organization as was the fact that adaptations of Japanese food had emerged such as the California Roll, which is one of the most prominent examples of an adaptation of sushi. This attempt by the MAFF to monitor and ‘authenticate’ Japanese restaurants outside Japan was soon mocked as the ‘sushi police’. For instance, Mariko Sanchanta, a journalist for the Financial Times

remarked that the attempt to authenticate food ‘is outmoded in a globalized world where McDonald’s in Tokyo serves teriyaki hamburgers and Pret a Manger in London sells sushi’.[15] In response to such reactions, MAFF decided to resort to a less patronizing system and initiated a non-profit organization called the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO) (Nihonshoku Resutoran Kaigai Fukyu Suishin Kiko) in 2007.[16]

JRO places an emphasis on the dissemination of knowledge about Japanese food and culinary preparation techniques. Based on the popularity of Japanese food in a given country, JRO also conducts research on the use of Japanese food products and the number of Japanese restaurants; and it launches events to promote the positive image of Japanese cuisine. For example, in Taiwan, Japanese food enjoys a high reputation. At a promotion event in Kaohsiung in February 2012, a Japanese chef gave a brief introduction to the preparation of sushi rice and tempura, which was followed by the preparation itself and the opportunity to taste samples of an ‘authentic’ and refined cuisine. By June 2015, JRO had established 22 branches worldwide.

  • [1] Akagawa, ‘Intangible Heritage and Embodiment’, 73.
  • [2] Kurin, ‘Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage’, 47; Suzuki, ‘The Buddha of Kamakura’.
  • [3] Akagawa, ‘Intangible Heritage and Embodiment’, 74.
  • [4] Haghirian, ‘The Historical Development of Japanese Consumerism’, 5.
  • [5] Kurin, ‘Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage’, 47; Akagawa, ‘Intangible Heritage andEmbodiment’, 73.
  • [6] Akagawa, ‘Intangible Heritage and Embodiment’, 77.
  • [7] Cameron, ‘UNESCO and Cultural Heritage: Unexpected Consequences’, 324.
  • [8] UNESCO, ‘International Convention’; Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, ‘Intangible Heritage asMetacultural Production’, 61.
  • [9] Farrer, ‘Introduction: Traveling Cuisines in and out of Asia’, 10.
  • [10] UNESCO, ‘Whatis Intangible Heritage?’; Kurin, ‘Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage’, 10.
  • [11] Harada, Washoku to wa nani ka, 11.
  • [12] Sakamoto and Allen, ‘There’s Something Fishy About that Sushi’, 110.
  • [13] Shoku bunka kenkyu suishin kondankai, ‘Nihon shoku-bunka no suishin’, 9.
  • [14] Sakamoto and Allen, ‘There’s Something Fishy About that Sushi’, 110; Farrer, ‘Introduction:Traveling Cuisines in and out of Asia’, 11.
  • [15] Sanchanta, ‘Japan’s “Sushi Police” Are on a Roll’.
  • [16] Sakamoto and Allen, ‘There’s Something Fishy About that Sushi’, 112; Farrer, ‘Introduction:Traveling Cuisines in and out of Asia’, 11; Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad(JRO) [Nihonshoku resutoran kaigai fukyu suishin kiko],
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