Foreign visitors to Japan have been increasing rapidly over the past decade; one of the most common motives for their visiting this island country? To ‘experience Japanese cuisine’. With its induction into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages list in 2013, ‘wa-shoku’, as the cuisine is called locally, is increasingly becoming a focus for travelers and aficionados from abroad.
What few know is that UNESCO, upon adding ‘wa-shoku’ to its Intangible Heritages list, defined four specific characteristics as those that are essential in making the cuisine special.
|1. The Four Essential Characteristics of ‘Wa-Shoku’
|2. Why ‘Wa-Shoku’ Became an Intangible Cultural Heritage; A Background|
The Four Essential Characteristics of ‘Wa-Shoku’
Respect of the Unique Tastes of a Variety of Fresh Ingredients
Japan’s geographical layout, elongated north-south and lavished with diverse natural expressions from sea to mountain to forest to field, allows its incredible variety of fresh local ingredients; furthermore, an advanced evolution in culinary techniques and tools help realize the maximum potential of each intricate element, from vegetable to seafood.
Nutritional Balance Supporting a Healthy and Sustainable Culinary Lifestyle
The traditional format of Japanese cuisine, with soup and three dishes alongside rice, is commonly lauded as having a ‘perfect’ balance of nutrients; the cuisine’s central allocation and creative use of ‘umami’ makes for a diet low in animal fats, a factor frequently underlined in explaining Japan’s long-living, low-obesity rate population.
Depiction of Natural Beauty and Transient Seasons
‘Wa-shoku’ is noted for its expression of the beauty of nature and Japan’s transient seasons in the culinary environment; innocuous cues, from garnish in the shape of seasonal flowers and vegetation, to cutlery and tableware that are reminiscent of the season, allow for immersion into the awe-ing natural transience through all five senses.
Deep Interconnection with Religious and Communal Events, Traditional Culture
Japanese cuisine has always been inseverable with events and tradition; whether the occasion be merry or sober, through the sharing of nature’s bounty in the shape of delicacies, and the sharing of the time and space in taking part, families and communities have formed and deepened bonds, and ‘wa-shoku’ has evolved.
Why ‘Wa-Shoku’ Became an Intangible Cultural Heritage; A Background
Not Necessarily an Appraisal of Food Alone
The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list is not a culinary curator; it exists to promote respect, protection, and succession of shapeless cultural aspects, including local arts and craft skills as well as cuisines, that are deemed closely related to the history, lifestyle, and culture of a locale.
It is important to note that it was not any Japanese food (‘sushi’ for example) but ‘Traditional Dietary Cultures of Japan’ in general that was assessed highly by UNESCO; according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, “Japan, long north to south, is blessed with vibrant seasons and a diverse natural environment; naturally, the culinary cultures across the isles too evolved to complement this transience. The ‘wa-shoku’ that UNESCO has decided worthy of its cultural heritage honor is the aggregate of such ‘traditions’ regarding ‘cuisine’ that the Japanese temperament of ‘holding nature in high esteem’ has nurtured over the ages; that is the ‘Traditional Dietary Culture of Japan’”. Essentially, it is the cuisine’s character of unique harmony with nature and the seasons, not solely its taste, that the world has come to hold in high regard.
The Culinary Traditions of ‘Wa-Shoku’ Endangered?
The proposal and subsequent addition of ‘wa-shoku’ to UNESCO’s list may have been a marketing strategy, to appeal Japanese culture to foreign populations. On the other hand, the reality that there was movement towards recording the dietary culture as heritage could be taken as a signal that the Japanese themselves are beginning to let go of their culinary heritage.
The decline in Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate; Japan’s status as the top food-waster; gradually changing seasons due to climate change; a decrease in importance and focus on traditional communities and events; these are all common current-day woes that point towards Japan’s modern population and its move away from ancient culinary traditions. This too, may have been a motive for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage addition, and a reason behind Japan’s push to appeal it’s cuisine to the external population.
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries [On ‘Wa-Shoku’, the UNESCO World Heritage Japanese Dietary Culture]
A Pair of UNESCO World Heritage Japanese Cuisine Recommendations