Saving washoku

Statistics show Japan is rapidly rejecting its culinary traditions in favour of westernised cuisine. But as Maida Pineda discovers, the country’s chefs are fighting back in a bid to keep Japanese cooking alive

When UNESCO declares a river, mountain, island or city a World Heritage Site everyone takes notice. On December 4, 2013, at the eighth annual session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO registered washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine expressing people’s respect for nature) as an intangible cultural heritage, a social custom handed down from generation to generation.

Washoku has four characteristics: diversity and freshness of ingredients and respect for their inherent flavours; a well-balanced and healthy diet with little animal fat; an expression of natural beauty and the changing seasons; and close links with annual events, especially New Year’s festivities.

Inscription into the UNESCO list aims to preserve traditions, but with washoku there are deep ties with local history and customs of every day life as well. Prior to washoku’s inscription, only four other culinary heritages had been registered: French gastronomic meals; Mediterranean cuisines; traditional Mexican; and Turkey’s keskek.

While this UNESCO inscription may be a welcome development for many Japanese, one culinary icon in Japan is thrilled. Yoshihiro Murata, a 62-year-old Japanese chef, worries traditional Japanese cuisine is being lost. He is the third generation chef-owner running the family’s restaurant that dates back to 1912. His main restaurant Kikunoi has three Michelin stars, with his two other restaurants each awarded two. He is preoccupied by the fading interest among the Japanese in their own traditional cuisine. Murata told Reuters that Japanese children now prefer hamburgers, curry and rice, and spaghetti, pointing to a shift towards western food.

Chef Murata’s fears of Japanese food becoming extinct are consistent with the decline in consumption of traditional ingredients. The government and fishing industry are addressing a decline in seafood consumption over the past two decades. Since 2008, when meat consumption overtook fish products in Japan, the gap has been widening. Tsukiji, Tokyo’s famed fish market once had 4,000 stalls, but now there are just over 1,000.

The decline in domestic consumption has pushed traders to eye up the export market. In May, The Japan Times reported Tsukiji’s traders were taking courses co-ordinated by the Japan External Trade Organization, teaching them how to handle shipping procedures, product inspection, sales and marketing – skills necessary in the export market.

Reuters also reported a decline in the purchase of traditional Japanese ingredients. The amount of miso paste bought in 2013 was down 39% compared with 1990 figures. Rice consumption declined by 40% in the same period. By contrast, there is a noticeable spike in sales of bread and cheese – up 15% and 67% respectively – over the same period.

The Japanese, admired by the rest of the world for their healthy, balanced diet, seem to be shifting their tastes. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported a per capita consumption of fish products at 96.9g per day in 1995, 18% higher than 82.3g per capita intake of meat products. In 2013, the per capita consumption of meat products is estimated at 83g per day, with fish consumption down to 74g per day.

Japan’s Fisheries Association president Toshiro Shirasu noted a particular decline in the popularity of horse mackerel, which requires lengthy preparation. The challenge now for fish processors is to make products more convenient for time-poor, young professionals.

While chef Murata’s restaurant is known for its delicious kaiseki, an intricate Japanese feast comprised of seasonal fish and produce, he is keen to promote seasonal eating in everyday Japanese life. Murata is the chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy, a Kyoto-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) established in 2004 to promote global understanding of Japanese cuisine and encourage the next generation of Japanese food chefs. The academy has partnered with the Kyoto City Board of Education since 2006 to bring food education classes to elementary schools.

Kylie Clark, head of marketing for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), says Japanese food is a key factor in inspiring people to visit the country. And other Japanese chefs have been doing their share to keep washoku alive. Yoshihiro Narisawa, chef-owner of Narisawa, The San Pellegrino Best Restaurant in Japan and Number 14 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year, feels strongly about the decline in popularity of washoku.

Narisawa says: “I think it’s dangerous that everyday food handed down from the past, built by the Japanese climate, is forgotten.” He explains that the food culture has been shaped by the climate of each part of Japan. “Food from each place is full of the wisdom of the typical Japanese life, based on co-existence with nature. Now, food has become the same all over the country, especially among young people.”

Narisawa identifies a sad reality affecting Japanese food. “People prioritise cheapness, ease and speed. The family meal, which may take a lot of time to prepare, is disappearing.”
For Narisawa, it is essential to be connected to the environment. “At our restaurant, we purchase all ingredients directly from the producers,” he says. “We also visit producers to ensure the quality of the ingredients we use.”

To produce traditional Japanese cuisine, Narisawa says, it is of the utmost importance to use organic and native ingredients. Surely, the inscription into the world heritage list has brought, and will continue to bring, much interest in washoku, not only within Japan but also to the rest of the world. Washoku is more than just a culinary tradition. It celebrates grandparents and parents passing on the preparation and consumption of auspicious traditional food believed to bring good health and prosperity.

Older relatives do still pass on their knowledge and techniques in creating traditional dishes to the younger generation. But it is more than generations passing on dishes – washoku fosters bonds among families and communities. Washoku relates food to Japan’s seasons and nature.

Japan has been enticed by western culture and food, as have many countries in the world. But as long as there are tireless Japanese chefs educating the public on traditional Japanese food, it will never be extinct. There is no definitive evidence yet that the efforts by Japanese chefs in promoting washoku are successful. However, they remain hopeful that in future consumption patterns will be reversed, and an increase in the use of traditional ingredients will be seen in coming years.

Maida Pineda

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