Washoku vying with fast food

Food is always in the news in Japan, but recently two stories reveal two very different approaches to what is consumed and enjoyed by Japanese consumers. On the one hand, there is a rich culinary tradition of unique and world-renowned cuisine. On the other hand is the free-market system of fast-food consumption. Which direction Japanese will choose in the future is yet unclear, but recent events offer a chance to reconsider them both.

Recent incidents surrounding McDonald’s Japan has tarnished the image of the company. Among them, in July, a video taken at a meat factory in China that supplied McDonald’s allegedly showed expired meat being used. Earlier this month, a customer in Japan claimed to have found vinyl in his food. Although McDonald’s says an investigation has shown the piece of vinyl is of a type not used in the factory that produced the food or in the shop where it was served, the company’s image has suffered.

Such problems in the fast food industry usually have less to do with ethical lapses than with the long chain of production necessary for creating such food.

These incidents came fast on the heels of another important milestone for Japan’s cuisine. Last year, the traditional dietary culture of Japan, washoku, was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Adding this healthy and appealing food culture to such an esteemed list was a boost to Japan’s self-image.

The washoku approach to eating could not be more different from fast food. The fast-food industry produces snacks, drinks, sandwiches and quickly consumable products. Washoku aims at serving food connected with the seasons, in a human setting that allows people to savor complex, nuanced flavors. Washoku is about eating healthy, but also about being in touch with the world around us. Fast food aims at providing a convenient service at a cheap cost, but it also aims at turning a large profit through efficiency.

Unfortunately for McDonald’s Japan, those profits are falling — reportedly down 21 percent in December from a year earlier. Still, that decline does not mean that busy Japanese are necessarily eating more washoku, they could be finding their fast food fix elsewhere. But perhaps some might be realizing that washoku’s emphasis on rice, seasonal vegetables and fish is not just healthy but also more pleasurable.

Choice is good, of course, and in this increasingly hectic world fast food will never disappear. But more and better education for young people about exercise and nutrition is greatly needed. Every culture attaches deep meanings to food and how it is consumed. Japan now has the chance to reconsider what is most healthy and valuable in one of the most important daily activities — eating well.