‘Washoku’ served up as heritage

by Mayu Yoshida

Kyodo

As the world acquires a taste for sushi and other Japanese treats, the government is hoping that its application to have “washoku” placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list will prove irresistible.

Japanese cuisine, or washoku — characterized by its use of fresh, seasonal ingredients and attractive presentation — is gaining adherents across the globe who are drawn to its taste, appearance and healthy qualities.

The government is now aiming to get “Washoku: Traditional Dietary Cultures of the Japanese” put on the list of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage assets.

It will file a formal nomination with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization by the end of March but will have to wait until November 2013 at the earliest before UNESCO issues its judgement.

In the government’s definition, washoku is a customary social practice expressing “respect for nature” and serving to strengthen the bonds of family and community. The nomination will highlight three features of washoku — various fresh ingredients, balanced nutrition and seasonal aesthetic presentation.

“Japanese cuisine is becoming global food,” said star chef Yoshihiro Murata, one of the first people to call on the public sector to help get washoku status as an intangible cultural heritage.

“Chefs from high-ranked restaurants across the world are enthusiastic about learning how to cook Japanese food and also learning about the tableware and culture,” Murata said.

The 60-year-old president of Kikunoi, whose flagship restaurant in Kyoto was awarded three stars in the 2012 Michelin Guide, said UNESCO recognition of Japanese food would help Japanese people recognize the splendor of their culture as a whole and encourage more people to work in the traditional food industry.

“Sometimes culture blends in so naturally with our lives that we don’t appreciate its value,” he said. “As a chef, I started out with Japanese food. If washoku gets UNESCO heritage status, it will motivate Japanese chefs across the globe — and also enhance the quality of chefs in this country.”

The Japanese Culinary Academy, of which Murata is chairman, initially proposed nominating washoku to the Kyoto Prefectural Government last summer. It soon became a national project led by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

In the initiative, the ministry is stressing washoku as a factor behind the nation’s low obesity rate and longevity. Japan’s obesity rate stands at 3.9 percent, which compares favorably with rates of more than 20 percent for the United States and other Western countries, while the average life expectancy for Japanese men and women comes to 83, the highest in the world, according to data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The ministry attributes the healthfulness of Japanese cuisine to minimal use of animal oil and fat as well as the nutritional balance provided by rice in combination with different fermented foods, such as miso and soy sauce.

“All cuisines, except for Japanese food, are based on oils and fats. Japanese cuisine is built on ‘umami,’ ” said Murata, referring to the savory fifth basic taste along with bitter, salty, sweet and sour.

He said basic Japanese stock, called “dashi,” which brings out umami flavor, contains zero calories. This makes it possible to serve a course of dishes with 65 food items totaling 1,000 kilocalories. By contrast, one plate of spaghetti carbonara packs 1,200 kilocalories.

Promoting the culture of Japanese food via UNESCO will help “contribute to worldwide health,” Murata said.

UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 to safeguard and raise awareness of culture at local and international levels.

The number of Japanese cultural traditions on the UNESCO heritage list totals 20, including kabuki and noh. So far, only four types of food culture — French, Mexican, Mediterranean and Turkish — have been registered on the UNESCO list.

Makoto Osawa, director of policy planning of the agriculture ministry, said, “Japan, thanks to its shifting seasons, has a rich variety of food ingredients, while cooking methods vary depending on local conditions.”

As an example of the diversity found in Japanese cuisine, the ministry cites “nabe” pot cooking from the Tohoku region, which developed out of the cold winters and active fishery industry.

“Japan has been concerned to raise awareness of protecting food culture,” Osawa said. “This can be seen in the establishment in 2005 of the Basic Law on Shokuiku (Food and Nutrition Education).” The law encourages people to learn more about food and make proper food choices, and Osawa says few countries have legislation that promote public health in this way.

“The Westernization of food in Japan is not necessarily a bad thing, but the move (toward an UNESCO listing) will be an opportunity to urge Japanese not to let their food culture fade,” he said.

It may not be easy for washoku to be registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, however.

South Korea is seeking to have its traditional royal court cuisine registered but missed out in last year’s screening, with the body seeking more information on its connection with current society.

Japan is expected to underscore the cultural uniqueness of washoku and efforts to maintain the nation’s culinary traditions to clear the hurdles in UNESCO’s registration regimen.

A government online survey shows strong public support for registration, with 92 percent of the respondents in favor, while nearly 100 percent said they want to see the washoku tradition passed down to succeeding generations.

Also behind the government’s efforts to win over UNESCO is its hope to regain global trust in the country’s farm and marine products after the damage inflicted on their reputation by the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Exports of Japanese agricultural and marine products were hit hard by radiation concerns, so international endorsement of washoku would be seen as a big plus.

“We are hoping that recognition of Japanese food by UNESCO will spur recovery from the disaster,” Osawa said.