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Will Japanese Food become a World Heritage? What is Proper Japanese Food?

Ikuhiro Fukuda
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

There is a boom in Japanese food occurring around the world. Even in France, a country of gourmets that prides itself on its high-level food culture, there has been a sudden and rapid spread of Japanese food visible since the year 2000. More than anything else, the number of restaurants serving Japanese food is increasing at a remarkable pace.

In many of those restaurants, sushi is one of the main available dishes. A research thesis notes that as of the year 2010 there were more than 430 Japanese restaurants serving sushi in Paris, and if divided by the area of the city this equates to 4.1 such restaurants in 1 square kilometer. Data for Japan in the same year shows that in the 23 Tokyo wards there were 4442 sushi restaurants, which at first glance appears to be an extremely large number. However, because the area of the 23 wards is approximately 6 times that of Paris, this converts to roughly 7.1 restaurants per square kilometer. This is a density exceeding that of Paris, but calculating it again based on the entire Tokyo Metropolitan area then leads to a result of about 2.5 restaurants per square kilometer, meaning that Paris actually comes out ahead. Comparisons in terms of the population ratio show nearly the same situation, clearly indicating that sushi restaurants in Paris have a density that can be considered comparable to that of Tokyo.

Moreover, what must not be forgotten is that in Tokyo, as well as in Japan overall, sushi restaurants are on the decline, with the number of sushi restaurants in Tokyo decreasing by 14% from the year 2006 to 2010. On the other hand, there are more and more Japanese restaurants opening in Paris every year, with sushi appearing on the menus of such establishments. Sushi, a representative food of Japan, is valued today overseas more than in Japan.

Incidentally, the thesis mentioned earlier was the master’s thesis of a female student attending graduate school at the Geography Department of Sorbonne University. Currently, field work is mandatory in France during the 2nd year of a master’s program, and I was the one who instructed that student during her 2 months of field work in Japan. She was one of students in the past few years choosing the food culture of Japan as the topic of their thesis. The Japanese food boom is now the subject of research at the university level.

Against the background of the booming interest in Japan that has been occurring since the year 2000, centered on the subculture referred to as Cool Japan, an unparalleled boom in Japanese food is also being welcomed by the environment of the intellectual class. This is because compared to French cuisine, which has its foundation in the use of meat and fat, Japanese food is low in calories, healthy, and furthermore delicious. There is also the background factor of the numerous problems that have occurred with meat products previously, such as BSE and avian influenza, to be considered.

However, a problematic issue can be seen upon closer examination of these Japanese restaurants. Although they are increasing rapidly, many of them are former Chinese or Southeast Asian-type restaurants that have taken advantage of the Japan boom and converted their establishments into Japanese restaurants. They often display signs like the one in the photograph with the words SUSHI YAKITORI SASHIMI, and offer highly-modified versions of Japanese cuisine. Yakitori, by its nature a meat-based dish using a salty-sweet sauce, took hold and gained popularity before sushi in the 1980’s, and today it is often served together with sushi as a set. Even recently, when I took a French visitor to Japan to a familiar sushi restaurant, the first thing that visitor said to me was “Isn’t there any yakitori?” In actuality, the pairing of sushi with yakitori is one that strikes Japanese people as just a bit strange. Furthermore, catering to the popularity of salmon among Western people, salmon rolls and other modified versions of sushi itself can frequently be found, with somewhat dubious examples of Japanese cuisine in high number.

Japanese Food Culture Week: Food Culture Symposium flyer

Amidst all of this, the entry of Japanese food into the candidacy to become a World Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Japanese government is without a doubt a major opportunity to clarify what exactly Japanese food is, and to further broaden the appeal of Japan’s food culture across the entire world. Through a joint hosting by the Japanese Embassy in France and Sorbonne University, a Japan-France international symposium regarding Japanese food culture was held at Sorbonne University in March of this year, accompanied by related events introducing the cooking, cuisine and beverages of Japan. According to a female Japanese journalist residing in France who was involved in the hosting and who is also a long-time friend of mine, the event was more successful than anyone expected. The keynote performance was given by Isao Kumakura, a specialist in the history of Japanese food, and chairperson of the Investigative Commission for the Registration of Japanese Food Culture as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. It makes me extremely pleased to see the history of Japan’s cuisine introduced from such a solid academic viewpoint.

Actually, the registration of Japanese food as a World Heritage is an excellent chance for the people of Japan to reconsider the concept of Japanese food. The amount spent on ready-made meals per household in Japan currently exceeds \8000 per month, and has increased by 1.5 times in the past few years. Japanese cuisine where dashi stock is made, and food is prepared with exacting care, is becoming increasingly rare in the lifestyles of Japanese people. Japanese food is losing ground in everyday life to curry, hamburger, and other Western foods that have been Japanized, while when dining out, it is falling behind French and Italian cuisine and tends to yield to popular Chinese food and Korean roast meat. It is the fact of the matter that we Japanese ourselves are the ones forgetting the traditions of Japanese cuisine the most.

Up until now, there have been 4 cases registered as World Intangible Cultural Heritages in the field of cuisine: the gastronomy of France, the cuisine of the Mediterranean area, the traditional cuisine of Mexico, and the traditions of Turkey’s keskek (porridge made from wheat. In all of these cases, it is not just cuisine that has been registered, but special emphasis has been placed on the social customs and traditions surrounding that cuisine, which have become the subject of protective efforts. The example of France, which uses gastronomy, a term that includes the ways of eating within its meaning, as the registered name, is a perfect representation of this. The official name for Japan’s World Heritage registration is “Washoku (Japanese food); the traditional food culture of the Japanese people”, and the success or failure of its registration will be announced in December of this year. Following in the footsteps of Mount Fuji, if Japanese food succeeds at becoming a World Heritage, then just as with Mount Fuji, it is likely that it will prompt the people of Japan themselves to take another, closer look at what Japanese food actually is.

Ikuhiro Fukuda
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1955, Nagoya.
Graduated from the Department of French Literature, First School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Waseda University. Withdrew from doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences of the same university. While attending graduate school, studied abroad in doctoral program at University of Paris III for 3 years as a French government benefit international student. After obtaining position as Assistant Professor at Ryutsu Keizai University, is currently serving as Professor on the Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Areas of specialization are food and drink representation (social history of food and drink), and culture and literature of French-speaking countries.

[Main literary and translated works]
Literary works include: Traveling around France by Wine and Books [Wain to Shomotsu de Furansu Meguri] (Kokushokankokai, 1997); and The Lessons called “Food and Drink” [“Inshoku” to iu Ressun] (Sanshusha, 2007). Translated works include: Dion, Roger, Wine and Climate [Wain to Fuudo] (Jimbun Shoin, 1997); Boudjedra, Rachid, Divorce [Rien] (Kokushokankokai, 1999); Dion, Roger, The History of Wine and Vineyards from origins to the 19th century[Furansu Wain Bunkashi Zensho: Budoubatake to Wain no Rekishi] (Kokushokankokai, 2001, co-translated); and Butor, Michel, Improvisations: Butor Speaks on Himself [Sokkyou Ensou: Byutooru Mizukara o Kataru] (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2004, co-translated).