The Concept of Authenticity in Japan's Culinary Politics

Sushi symbolizes a de-territorialized and globalized food whose connection to place remains firm. Despite the existence of numerous adaptations, sushi is known worldwide as a food of Japanese origin. However, sushi has also become a hybrid food whose adaptations are characterized by fusions with elements of different cuisines. In the context of culinary styles that have been changed, adapted, hybridized, and indigenized, a discussion of the term authenticity is timely. The term authenticity is often used with regard to foodways and tourism, but remains contested among sociologists.[1] A very basic definition of the term is as follows: ‘The concept of authenticity evokes a range of meanings - that which is original, genuine, real, true, true to itself.’[2] The originality of the food itself and the authenticity of the food maker are equally important, both of which Jeff Pratt has identified with specific reference to foodways as two themes in the concept of authenticity:‘First there is food specific to a location; second, these food products are the result of a craft process.’[3]

Japan’s culinary politics claims ownership of a hybridized food, and in doing so, provides a lens towards the paradigm shift of authenticity. Authenticity in a modernist sense is seen as an essential concept, which pre-supposes the existence of genuineness, accuracy, originality, or even truth.[4] On its website, the organization JRO states that a Japanese restaurant provides an opportunity for people living overseas to come into contact with Japanese culture. In this context, the organization avoids using the term authenticity but instead resorts to a vague description of the transmission of Japanese food culture. The Japanese restaurant is a point of transmission and a ‘showroom’ of Japanese foods made by locally available ingredients and prepared by Japanese chefs.[5] The actors of the JRO claim ownership of a globalized food, and showcase its appropriate preparation techniques and adequate presentation, which is reminiscent of Dean MacCannell’s concept of staged authenticity - one of the early attempts to approach the concept of authenticity as part of research on tourism. Alluding to Thorstein Veblen’s famous work on the conspicuous consumption of a new leisure class, MacCannell borrows Erving Goffman’s concept of the structural division of social establishments into front stages and back stages. This approach includes a belief in the existence of ‘real’ events and ‘pseudo’ events that are performed in designated front stages ‘where locals perform a limited range of activities for tourist audiences’.[6] In the presentation of sushi, the actors of the JRO offer an educational performance demonstrating the genuineness of sushi to a targeted audience, which marks the distinction between ‘real’ sushi as a unique, traditional, and carefully crafted Japanese food in opposition to mass-produced adaptations of sushi.

Whereas the JRO claims ownership through staged authenticity, the hybridization of sushi is much closer to the constructivist approach, which defines authenticity as fluid, relational, always constructed, and highly contextualized: ‘Authenticity is flexible; it takes different forms depending on the tourist type and his/her own definition of it and its interpretation.’[7] In a similar way, Sean Beer proposes to look at authenticity as a ‘triumvirate relationship between the individual (the self), what is being experienced (the thing), and the way in which society defines the authenticity of the thing (the others)’.[8]

Taking the fluidity of authenticity one step further, the postmodernist perspective has dismissed the concept as altogether irrelevant: ‘If the products transformed by the commoditization process maintain characteristics that satisfy tourists, they will remain authentic in their eyes.’[9] The post-modernist perspective does not equate a touristic experience with a search for an authentic experience as MacCannell took for granted in his account of authenticity in tourism.

Rather, the post-modern tourist recognizes the concept of authenticity as a construction of a marketing device for commercial purposes.[10] This is not, however, viewed in a pessimistic way, in fact, post-modernist tourists might deliberately look for an inauthentic, imagined, and fantasized experience, as is experienced in spaces of consumption such as Disneyland or perhaps in the form of sushi made of chocolate instead of fish and rice.[11]

In the de-territorialization and re-territorialization of sushi, different approaches towards authenticity become evident. The hybridization of sushi allows for a subjective and relational experience of authenticity, sometimes even a deliberately inauthentic and playful experience. In contrast, Japan’s cultural diplomacy reveals a fixed approach towards authenticity, which involves control and ownership.

  • [1] 1 am grateful to Fukutomi Satomi for drawing my attention to the scholarly debate onauthenticity. Authenticity has been discussed from the perspectives of sociology (MacCannell,‘Staged Authenticity; Reisinger and Steiner ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’; Lu and Fine,‘The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity’, and Molz, ‘Tasting an Imagined Thailand’), in heritageand museum studies (Cameron, ‘UNESCO and Cultural Heritage: Unexpected Consequences’),and more recently in consumer theory (Zukin, ‘Consuming Authenticity’; Pratt, ‘Food Values.The Local and the Authentic’).
  • [2] Pratt, ‘Food Values. The Local and the Authentic’, 293.
  • [3] Ibid., 294.
  • [4] Reisinger and Steiner, ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’, 69.
  • [5] Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO) [Nihonshoku resutoran kaigaifukyu suishin kiko],
  • [6] Reisinger and Steiner, ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’, 68. MacCannell describes thetourists of modernity as ‘motivated by a desire to see life as it is really lived, even to get in with thenatives, and, at the same time, they are deprecated for always failing to achieve these goals’.(MacCannell, ‘Staged Authenticity’, 592). In this context, ‘[t]he term “tourist” is increasingly usedas a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences.’MacCannell, ‘Staged Authenticity’, 592.
  • [7] Reisinger and Steiner, ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’, 71. See also Beer, ‘Authenticityand Food Experience’, 158.
  • [8] Beer, ‘Authenticity and Food Experience’, 161.
  • [9] Reisinger and Steiner, ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’, 72.
  • [10] Ibid., ‘Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity’, 67; Beer, ‘Authenticity and FoodExperience’, 158.
  • [11] Another approach locates authenticity firmly in consumer theory as a concept, which is definedagainst mass culture and suggests a romantic tradition, which opposes modernity (Pratt, ‘FoodValues. The Local and the Authentic’, 293). In his study on alternative food movements andauthenticity, Pratt argues that alternative food movements seek to reconnect production andconsumption which takes place in ‘a kind of pre-set discursive field, that of the natural, theorganic, the local, the rooted, the distinctive, the authentic, this field being precisely that ofromantic tradition’ (Pratt, ‘Food Values. The Local and the Authentic’, 287). Here, local food isbeing equated with authentic food in opposition to the artificial, adulterated, and mass-producedfood of modernity. Sharon Zukin defines authenticity as ‘consumption spaces outside thestandardized realm of mass consumption’ (Zukin, ‘Consuming Authenticity’, 735—736).
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