Protecting Japan's Culinary Tradition

For Japan, China has always been a very significant Other in the process of identity formation.[1] The first nascent Japanese cultural and national consciousness in the eighteenth century emphasized precisely ‘that which made the Japanese irreducibly Japanese, meaning the same, and thereby different from the [Chinese] Other’.[2] In this discourse of Self and Other, food is a very powerful tool for articulating identity and identification. As a commodity carrying many symbols of the nation, it communicates a sense of belonging to the Self, by differentiating oneself from the Other.

Other chapters in this volume have explored how, not unlike other culinary traditions, Japanese food and foodways were cultivated and became part of national identity in the context of what Ferguson (2010) calls culinary nationalism.[3] The Japanese national cuisine is glorified as pure, healthy, and unique; characteristics attributed to its growing process on Japanese soil.[4] However, these characteristics of purity and safety are easily politicized against an external Other, which is then defined as ‘impure’ and ‘unsafe’. The public negativity towards China within the context of (real or imagined) food-related issues is readily applied to invoke a revived sense of national identity expressed through the ‘food’ framework. A report from the World Bank in 2004

stated that ‘most Japanese believe that domestic food is safer than imported food, [... ] and Chinese products are believed to be least safe’.[5]

National cuisine as such becomes a cultural and material resource, which shapes as well as responds to a political agenda. State-initiated protective policies and promotion programmes aim at protecting these national claims of qualitative difference by re-emphasizing the boundaries between national and foreign foods.[6] These institutionalized ways of protecting and promoting domestic produce are manifestations of what DeSoucey termed gastronationalism; the use of food in order to ‘create and sustain the emotive power of national attachment’ in the context of growing globalization.[7]

It was claimed for a long time by Japanese regulators - and believed by customers alike - that the Japanese framework ensuring food safety provided the public with ‘the safest food in the world’.[8] The nationalist ranking thus goes beyond the culinary tradition: also the gastronational strategies and policies that protect Japanese cuisine are highly valued. In 2007, Kakita Tatsuya, a much-published expert on food safety in Japan, stated, ‘Japan is five years ahead of the rest of the world in dealing with quality problems from China. The world can learn from Japan.’[9] What stands between the safe and pure Japanese cuisine and the dangerous and impure Chinese imports is thus a policy of institutionalized culinary nationalism, protecting the national claims of qualitative difference.

Sustained by a national emotive attachment to a socially constructed culinary tradition, and legitimized by a perceived threat from the Other, this idealization of Japanese food and culinary nationalism can result in symbolic boundary politics. Food, as a marker of identification towards and differentiation from the Other, thus becomes an important element in the consumers’ political lives on the one hand, while it contributes to domestic and global identity politics on the other hand. The potential factors affecting the perception of Chinese foods in Japan, which the chapter will now explore, should be seen within this conceptual framework of culinary nationalism resulting in conscious policies of gastronationalism.

  • [1] Duara, ‘Historical Narratives and Trans-nationalism in East Asia’, 105.
  • [2] Harootunian, Things Seen and Unseen, 409.
  • [3] Ferguson, ‘Culinary Nationalism’.
  • [4] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 131.
  • [5] This report was compiled in 2004, after incidents of excessive pesticide residues on vegetablesimported from China, but before major media scares such as the poisoned dumpling scandal(January 2008) or the ‘cardboard bun hoax’ (July 2007). Jonker et al., ‘Food Safety and QualityStandards in Japan’, 30.
  • [6] See Assmann’s contribution in this volume.
  • [7] DeSoucey, ‘Gastronationalism’.
  • [8] Jonker et al., ‘Food Safety’, 1. Also see the contributions by Reiher, Kimura and Takeda in thisvolume.
  • [9] Fackler, ‘Safe Food for Japan’. Kakita, Anata mo tabeteru Chugokusan.
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