To date, there are officially four UNESCO-designated cuisines: Mexican, Turkish, Mediterranean, and French. By any measure, if there is a distinction for the world’s most important, unique, or vital cuisines, Japan deserves to be at the top of the list. The depth and breadth of Japanese cuisine is stunning. In Hokkaido, you can feast on salty orbs of salmon roe and golden mountains of sea urchin for breakfast and plates of charcoal-grilled lamb for dinner. In the mountains and coastline that surround Kanazawa, you’ll find families who ferment their own soy sauce and miso, and old men who have done nothing their entire lives but turn ground buckwheat into soba noodles. And in Tokyo, thousands of ramen bars and subterranean izakaya share cement with hushed temples of raw fish run by Jiro Ono, Japan’s most famous sushi master, and a crew of single-minded fish whisperers.
But no city is more important in representing and protecting the traditions of Japanese cuisine than Kyoto, capital of the ancient empire for more than 1,200 years and ground zero for Japan’s greatest culinary achievements.
Setsuko Matsui, owner of Matsui Honkan, serving a kaiseki dinner
Over the past week of eating here, I’ve talked to a lot of people about UNESCO: knife makers, sake brewers, line cooks. It’s a topic everyone in this food-obsessed town wants to discuss, and everyone I spoke with firmly believes that Japanese cuisine deserves the recognition, though the reasons why are as varied as the cooking itself.
“It’s the water,” says Setsuko Matsui, owner of the elegant Matsui Honkan inn, who believes the mineral-rich water of places like Kyoto makes for better rice, better sake, better everything. “Japanese cuisine is dedicated to reflecting nature,” says Hisao Nakahigashi, one of Kyoto’s most respected chefs, whose Michelin two-star kaiseki restaurant fills up six months in advance.
‘Japanese gets its flavor from umami, which has zero calories. That’s why we live longer than everyone else.’
Yoshihiro Murata, president and chef of Kikunoi, one of the country’s most storied restaurants, says it all comes down to one word: umami, the deeply savory taste that forms the basis of Japanese cuisine. “Western cuisines are based on fat,” he says, “but Japanese gets its flavor from umami, which has zero calories. That’s why we live longer than everyone else.”
If anyone understands why Japanese cuisine is deserving of distinction, it’s Murata-san. Not only does he captain a famed restaurant and kaiseki juggernaut, but as chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy, he is the one who approached the government about seeking out UNESCO heritage status.
“These are ancient traditions and they need to be maintained.”
But therein lies the challenge for UNESCO. Whereas preserving a building or a monument is relatively straightforward, the objective of the intangible heritage program is considerably more opaque. UNESCO officials are careful not to use the words “protect” or “preserve,” as it implies freezing or impeding growth. What’s at hand is even more delicate: educating communities on the importance of their greatest cultural traditions, without stunting their development or dictating their future.
“We’re not talking about locked practices,” says Edmond Moukala, a program specialist for UNESCO’s Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue. “Some of these traditions have existed for centuries, and they have been transmitted through their own internal mechanics. We just try to check that these transmission mechanics are sustainable. If they’re not, then we step in to help.”
Moukala points out that some countries’ traditions are in immediate danger, whether from war or crippling economic conditions, in which case UNESCO takes a more active role in helping to safeguard them. But the vast majority of intangible heritage designees are more susceptible to the entropy of globalization than the immediate threat of a calamitous event. And so in most cases, the UNESCO distinction is little more than a public recognition of a unique cultural practice. Then, says Moukala, it’s up to the government and the local communities to honor the designation properly.
But that hasn’t always proved successful.
In 2010, French cuisine was recognized specifically for the “French gastronomic meal,” a nod to the tradition of gathering with family and friends over long, drawn out homemade feasts. To celebrate, a brigade of the country’s Michelin-starred chefs threw themselves a lavish party at Versailles, essentially co-opting a distinction reserved for a humbler style of cooking.
Who would help us if we ran out of food? Not the Western world.
Japan is already showing a wide-spanning view on what a UNESCO intangible heritage listing could mean. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to double Japanese exports by 2020, and many think the UNESCO brand may help him reach his goal. Chef Murata talks about food security and the need for Japan to produce more of its own calories. “This isn’t about now, it’s about 50 years from now. Who would help us if we ran out of food? Not the Western world.” He believes the UNESCO distinction may help boost domestic agriculture.
Most likely the distinction will be shaped by the beholder. Citizens will embrace it as a source of national pride in a country weakened by a tough economy and the residue of the Fukushima disaster. The Abe government and savvy entrepreneurs may try to use the newfound status to export Japanese luxury items. Chefs and culinary practitioners will hopefully do exactly what they’re supposed to do: pass traditions on to the next generation.
The only sentiment that everyone seems to share is the overwhelming desire to achieve the UNESCO milestone. A recent poll asked citizens about their opinion of Japan’s bid to have its cuisine safeguarded. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they fully support the bid. The other 8 percent, presumably, still had their mouths full.