Two weeks ago, an advisory panel to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recommended it apply to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for recognition of Japanese cuisine as an intangible cultural asset. The panel made its suggestion after UNESCO granted the same status to French and Mediterranean cooking. The chefs and restaurant owners who make up the panel originally wanted the campaign to be for kaiseki ryōri, the traditional Japanese multicourse meal, but changed their minds because a similar application by South Korea for its royal court food was rejected by UNESCO. Kaiseki is expensive and considered something only a small cross section of Japanese ever eat.
But even if UNESCO did acknowledge kaiseki as a valuable asset to world culture, what would Japan gain from it? Though the honor is supposed to be enough, nobody lobbies for these things without hoping they’ll profit in some way — tangible cultural heritage sites have proven to be reliable tourist draws. In that regard, kaiseki is just too pricey and rarefied to attract enough surplus consumers to make a difference. As the Occupy Whatever movements keep reminding us, there are only so many discriminating rich people to go around, but the panel’s idea of recommending the ichijū-sansai (one soup, three dishes) concept as Japan’s contribution to international cuisine isn’t much better, since it’s mostly associated with kaiseki meals.
The panel might be better off taking a hint from the B-kyū (B-class) Gourmet movement, whose annual orgy of down-home gastronomy, the B1 Gold Grand Prix, was held last weekend in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. A record half-million people attended the festival to sample original concoctions from 63 localities and select the dish they liked best, which this year was Hiruzen yakisoba, stir-fry noodles with chicken and cabbage from the town of Miniwa in Okayama Prefecture. The winner won a golden trophy in the shape of a pair of chopsticks.
But what Miniwa mainly won is the kind of media exposure that amounts to billions of yen if translated into advertising terms. The Grand Prix was not only covered by all the major news shows, including NHK’s, but many of the dishes that placed in the Top 10 were highlighted in depth; meaning film crews were dispatched to the places where these dishes originated in order to produce tokushū (special reports) about the food and the people who make it.
What’s that worth? Fujinomiya, the town in Shizuoka Prefecture that has won the Grand Prix twice for its own style of yakisoba, claims that the dish has enriched the local economy to the tune of ¥44 billion since 2001. In the three months after Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture won the 2008 GP, the town reaped ¥3 billion from people who came to eat its prize-winning Shirokoro horumon (stewed guts). Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture, saw the number of its visitors increase fourfold in the year since the city won the GP in 2010.
The B-kyū movement has been ascendant for years — the Grand Prix was launched in 2006 — and is being hailed as one of the few successful schemes for revitalizing rural and ex-urban areas, though “scheme” may not be the right word. B-kyū sprung up organically, without help from a coordinating entity. The various related trademarks are held by the committee that puts on the Grand Prix, but this organ simply filled a centralized public relations need that had grown large by the mid-2000s as more and more local governments endeavored to take advantage of the general public’s interest in regional home cooking.
To anyone who watches Japanese TV at all, the B-kyū boom is hardly surprising. So many variety shows incorporate the preparation and eating of food that the Western genre known as “cooking shows” has no meaning here. More significantly, travel shows are often centered on seeking out exceptional dishes, and while regional cuisines have been around as long as there have been regions, Japanese TV has standardized the promotion of local foods with a production style built around the money shot of a celebrity taking that first mouthful, pondering its quality and then erupting in ecstatic praise over the amazing flavor.
Everybody knows the drill, which is why nobody is impressed any more. After decades of watching the same reaction repeated over and over, viewers invariably become jaded. They know travel shows are inexpensive to produce because small businesses offer free food and accommodations in exchange for exposure, and so the on-air talent has no choice but to effuse over everything they put in their mouths. It’s not that the public doesn’t believe the food is delicious; only that the producers’ priorities have little to do with honesty.
B-kyū could partly be seen as backlash: viewers telling the media what’s good rather than the other way around. The very name, “B-kyū,” rejects the notion that people want something approved by someone whose authority on the matter is arbitrary and, by implication, snobbish. It’s a movement that belongs to everyone. Now there are a number of programs that explore regional peculiarities on the locals’ terms, most notably Nihon TV’s “Kenmin Show.” But they followed the trend, they didn’t spark it.
It’s this anti-elitism that people find gratifying and which may disqualify B-kyū for UNESCO’s imprimatur for the same reason kaiseki would have been rejected. By definition, regional cooking, especially that which was designed to be cheap and resourceful (many B-kyū dishes started out as something to sell at local festivals), can only be representative of a small group. But that’s what makes Japanese food great, if not exactly unique. Ingredients and cooking methods vary widely, but are less important than the enthusiasm of the consumer. As Japanese people are always quick to tell you, they’ll eat anything as long as it tastes good.