Commentary / Japan

Food as a 'connector' between people

by Yoko Ishikura

Fall is often called “the best season for food” or literally “the time of the year when we have a big appetite,” because many foodstuffs such as fruits and vegetables ripen, ready for harvest.

Japanese cuisine (washoku) has come to be perceived internationally as being healthy with its fresh ingredients, simple cooking and well-balanced nutrition, as recognized by the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO. Many visitors from overseas select Japanese food as one of the most appealing items that the country has to offer.

But are we making the best of our tradition concerning food? Not quite. Food waste has become recognized as such a serious problem in Japan that legislation has been passed to designate October as the month to reduce food waste. Several nonprofit organizations, such as Second Harvest Japan, are addressing this issue by distributing food that is still good but close to its expiration date.

Meanwhile, cloud technology to store and process data from different sources, integration of different data sets and real-time matching of demand and supply have enabled the development and evolution of new projects and initiatives in the food sector. The number of startups in the food sector, capitalizing on the technological advance, has mushroomed in the past few years, according to the organizer of Smart Kitchen Summit Japan, a major international conference on the future of food and food technology.

I would like to propose the concept of food as a “connector” — as the core concept around a variety of services and initiatives. The reasons include the following: 1) the positioning of food as a connector makes it easy for ordinary people to understand many seemingly separate trends and make them relevant to them; 2) breaking down the silos that exist between different groups of people working on different agenda around food and; 3) stimulating and increasing the potential to develop new ideas and initiatives.

In particular, I want to focus on the aspect of food to connect people who otherwise may not be aware of that. It is well known that food has a social aspect. Sharing meals helps people relax and smoothly discuss difficult matters. This is why the conferences, conventions and negotiations to resolve issues often include meals.

Although many people today are pressed for time and often cut down on time spent on meals, we are often advised to share meals with others in order to become exposed to new topics and ideas and to expand our horizons. I strongly support this idea of making the best of shared meals. Judging from the many office workers buying prepared meals at convenience stores or standing in line at food trucks, however, it appears that many eat alone at their desk while they work.

Eating alone raises more issues than just dealing with time constraints. It reduces opportunity to build relationships and rapport with others. Eating alone is not an ideal situation for anybody. According to several studies, those who eat alone often have no choice due to time and schedule conflicts, even though they may want to share meals. In fact, having nobody with whom to eat meals together at school is considered a problem for children, and being ostracized from group lunch is deemed a form of bullying.

Some services such as KitchHike (established in 2012) offering meet-up opportunities through food by matching those who want to cook and those who want to eat are now available.

Living and eating alone causes various issues such as deterioration of health and extreme loneliness due to lack of communication, especially for the elderly. According to an agriculture ministry study in 2018, the ratio of people over 60 who occasionally eat alone is 23 percent for men and 28 percent for women. Those who eat alone almost every day account for nearly 25 percent of women over 70.

If you live alone, you have much less incentive to cook healthy food, as cooking requires planning and energy, and cooking single portions is not efficient, resulting in food waste. Retailers such as convenience stores and department stores are targeting people who eat alone by offering single portions of ready-to-eat food. There is great potential to use food as a connector for health and wellness.

Manufacturers such as Panasonic are developing kitchen appliances specifically for elderly people who have difficulty with eating harder foods and swallowing.

One startup focusing on food as a connector is CoCooking, established in 2015. It offers a food-sharing service called Tabete, through a smartphone application, to inform those in a specific area of the availability of excess food sold at discount prices that would need to be thrown away if not eaten within a few hours. This service can connect those who are willing to try “good enough” food, with restaurants and food services that have excess food due to planning errors and other reasons, thus addressing the food waste problem. They also offer events and workshops where food is used to facilitate team building, develop new ideas, and to encourage creativity at companies and conferences.

If we keep track of the health data of the elderly by using wearables and other devices, we can suggest food that is appropriate for the wellness and health status of each elderly person (reduced salt or sugar, etc.). It will help maintain a good quality of life for such people and reduce expanding medical costs. It will also help make preventive health care, rather than treatment-centered health care, possible and accessible for many people, and make individualized and personalized people-centric health care a reality. Food can serve as a connector with “hard” benefits through the use of technology.

We can also expect to realize “soft” benefits. When technology is used to connect people in different locations and allow them to share the experience of eating together in virtual space, via smartphone, for example, it will help reduce the problems linked to eating alone.

Sharing a similar menu with their adult children and their grandchildren who live far away and being able to eat together virtually will make elderly people feel closer to them and increase their happiness, according to research. It may also stimulate discussion of recipes that have been handed down in the family over generations.

We have obstacles to overcome to make such services accessible to many people, but I am hopeful that they will become available soon, judging from the growing number of new startups and creative initiatives in the food sector.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.