The addition of “washoku” to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage has government and food industry officials hoping the recognition will provide a boost to traditional Japanese food not just overseas but also at home, where its popularity is waning.
“The biggest issue was that washoku may be fading from our psyche, and I felt a sense of alarm,” said Isao Kumakura, president of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture and head of the panel of experts advising the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry on Japan’s campaign for the UNESCO listing.
“My wish was that the listing would create a chance for the Japanese to refocus on Japanese food and culture,” said Kumakura, who specializes in Japanese cultural history and the history of the tea ceremony. “We are eating less rice, and less domestically produced ingredients. We should eat more domestically produced foods.”
Seeking the UNESCO status was aimed at supporting efforts to keep the cultural tradition alive domestically, and not necessarily to promote it overseas, according to Tsutomu Hashimoto, a farm ministry official.
However, Hashimoto also acknowledged that the international organization’s “recognition of washoku as a worthy tradition may contribute to, say, increased exports of Japanese food.”
One certainty is that the popularity of washoku has been soaring outside Japan. According to a survey by the ministry, as of last March there were some 55,000 restaurants worldwide, including those operated by non-Japanese, serving Japanese food — anything from tempura or sushi to “gyudon” or ramen, more than double the estimated 24,000 seven years earlier.
A clue to this increase can be found in a December 2012 survey by the Japan External Trade Organization conducted on 2,800 people in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States, France and Italy.
The survey of popular foreign food found Japanese food and Japanese-style restaurants at the top of the list, with 83.8 percent of the respondents saying it’s among their favorites. Chinese food followed at 65.0 percent and Italian at 59.5 percent, with those surveyed allowed to name more than one style.
Asked why they eat at Japanese restaurants, 25.4 percent cited “good taste,” followed by 13.7 percent who cited preparation and 11.8 cited atmosphere and style. Taste was cited by 37.7 percent of South Korean respondents, which was the highest ratio, followed by U.S. respondents (26.6 percent) and French (26.2 percent).
As might be expected, sushi and sashimi, yakitori and tempura were highly popular in all the countries in the survey.
But while ramen scored higher in Asia and the United States, buoyed by an increase in specialized establishments, Europeans showed more enthusiasm for curry rice, thanks to exposure of the dish through its appearance in Japanese anime, according to JETRO.
Education and training are also key to promoting the traditional fare overseas, industry experts say.
“Japanese foods have been mostly exported in the form of packaged foods, but that doesn’t lead to further acceptance of our country’s food,” said Kiyotoshi Tamura, an official in the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, which was established in 2007.
“I think the Intangible Cultural Heritage listing is great, but I hope people overseas will not be led to think that luxurious meals like ‘kaiseki’ (multi-course meals) are the main thing,” Tamura said. “We include ‘takoyaki’ (octopus dumplings) ramen, gyudon and other reasonably priced foods among Japanese foods, and we want to promote them. We want to turn people into fans of Japan and Japanese food.”