The Japanese, seemingly stuck in political doldrums, sluggish economic growth, and waning international influence, are pushing past those frustrations with a new government-led campaign to sell the world—and their own children—on their country’s distinctive traditional cuisine.
Unfortunately, they’re not talking about shrimp tempura, California rolls, or spicy tuna sashimi. That “commercial” Japanese food has long since won over at least Europe and the Americas, just as Western food has made inroads in Japan. No, the traditional washoku cooking that is the new new thing consists of umami-flavored fish, soya, mushrooms, and seaweed steeped in dashi, a liquid made by boiling desiccated kelp with dried tuna shavings. It is, for many, an acquired taste.
Yet the campaign’s sponsors have high hopes. “We want Japan’s real dietary culture to become a pop culture for the world,” says Hiroko Kaizuka, a senior deputy director with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Once people learn to appreciate washoku they will love Japan and its people.”
If this sounds far-fetched, consider that French celebrity chef Alain Ducasse is an enthusiastic supporter of Tokyo’s effort to climb to the top of the international food pyramid, as is Jean-Robert Pitte, president of the French Mission for Food Heritage and Cultures. “Since the days of Napoleon, France has used its cuisine as an imperialistic element to seduce the rest of Europe,” he explains. “It’s harder for an island nation to communicate the complexities of fish and rice.”
Japan’s gastronomic campaign was launched in December 2013 when Tokyo convinced UNESCO to list washoku as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This January, Japan underscored its commitment by staging the Washoku World Challenge, an international competition that brought 10 foreign chefs to Kyoto to see who best could master the subtleties of savory umami cuisine. Seattle sushi chef Aaron Pate, whose soya milk shabu-shabu was edged out in the final round by a competitor from Thailand, represented the United States.
For Kyoto mayor Daisaku Kado-kawa the event demonstrated “the superiority of a society that feeds tofu to people, not soybeans to cattle.” Other political observers saw the competition as an attempt to rescue traditional Japanese food from irrelevance.
Part of the impetus for the campaign is the belief that Japan is losing its soul to globalization. Certainly fewer Japanese adults are eating traditional food. Over the past decade even the consumption of sake has declined
40 percent as people switch to wine and beer.
The move away from the Japanese paleo diet of dried kelp, anchovies, fermented sauces, and herring roe began as long ago as 1872, when the Meiji emperor finally allowed the people of Japan to eat meat. Back then meat was seen as the most modern of proteins.
Today, the rejection of traditional food is especially pronounced among the young. Yoshihiro Murata, chairman of Japan’s Culinary Academy, first sensed an impending crisis several years ago when he observed that schoolchildren were unable to distinguish Japanese dishes from Western ones. “Their favorite foods were curry rice and spaghetti,” he recalls with disgust. Nutritionist Yukio Hattori, host of the Iron Chef television program that ran for six years in 89 countries, says the problem has only grown with time. “It’s hard to go back once you get used to Western food,” he sighs. “Today we’re seeing that many kids don’t even know how to use chopsticks.”
Countering that cultural loss is an ambitious public school lunch program in which every elementary student receives a 500-calorie lunch, freshly prepared in each school and served by the students who will eat it. “The principal is the first person to eat lunch,” says Masahiro Oji, director of the Ministry of Education’s School Health Education Division. “If he gets sick none of the rest of the food gets served.”
At the Sanya Elementary School in Tokyo’s Suginami ward, students visit local farmers, maintain their own vegetable garden, and receive full accounting before every lunch on the provenance of each dish they are served.