Coming this December, traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, is likely to be designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage, if UNESCO’s voting on the heritage list goes as it should. If that happens, washoku would join 21 other important Japanese cultural assets such as kabuki, noh, and traditional Ainu dance already accepted by UNESCO. This would be the first Japanese food item to make that list, joining French cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, Mexican cuisine and Turkish ceremonial dishes. Japanese cuisine is indeed unique in the world and deserves a recognized status.
The UNESCO designation is aimed at protecting social customs, rituals, craftsmanship and other traditions inherited from the past that may not have a concrete, physical form.
Protecting washoku not only gives Japan’s culture a boost in advance of the 2020 Olympics, but also helps to counteract the negative image of food safety after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Traditional Japanese cuisine has always been safe, healthy and delicious.
Perhaps even more threatening to Japan’s cuisine is the increasing presence of mass-produced, often unhealthy factory-made food products marketed by large, multinational corporations.
Washoku, like the best local cuisines all over the world, stands against that corporatized view of food consumption. Japanese traditional cuisine is healthy, nutritionally balanced and serves important social functions of reaffirming identity and reestablishing community.
The long life expectancy of Japanese comes in large part from this cuisine.
Washoku also expresses an essential respect for nature and the cycles of the year. It is connected to annual events such as New Year but is also part of daily life.
The delicate, visually appealing presentation of this food is a big contrast with the plastic-wrapped, machine-made food sold everywhere in Japan.
Japan’s cuisine should be recognized as special, too, in the ways it encompasses many different climates and food areas along the long, north-south archipelago. Japan’s contribution of umami, a deeply savory taste at the heart of much Japanese cuisine, as the fifth flavor also deserves recognition.
Will the designation of washoku as an Intangible Cultural Asset spur a revival of local food in Japan?
Will a younger generation set aside the hyper-marketed, factory-made “food” products and focus on the beauty and taste of traditional cuisine?
Those questions may find an answer soon. The UNESCO designation would at least help the lovers and creators of Japanese cuisine hold the line against the siege from big companies and perhaps instill a bit of curiosity, and even pride, in more people about what is one of the most marvelous expressions of Japanese culture — its food.