The politics of washoku: Japan’s gastronationalism and gastrodiplomacy

Felice Farina

Food plays an important role in our daily lives, not only for its indispensable role as source of dietary energy but also for its profound implications for national identities and politics. Numerous studies have shown that food and food habits represent emblematic elements of culture and operate as markers of individual and collective identities (Appadurai 1988; Bourdieu 1979; Montanari 2013; Lupton 1996; Ohnuki-Tierney 1993; Belasco and Scranton 2002; Bell and Valentine 1997; Pilcher 1996). Indeed, in the same way as language or religion, food plays a fundamental part in delineating distinctive boundaries between “us” and the “others” through a process of selection, remaking and even invention of national traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). For these characteristics, states and state-backed organizations have often exploited food for their national objectives, putting a particular significance to specific foods and playing a fundamental role in the process of creation/invention of national cuisines (Ichijo and Ranta 2016).

Foods and nations are also linked through marketing and promotional campaigns. Recently, the constant expansion of the food industry and agribusiness has accelerated the process of commodification of food, and many governments have implemented strategies aimed at promoting their national cuisine abroad to increase food export or tourism. These strategies are not limited to highlighting the economic or nutritional advantages of one country’s cuisine, but they also have the aim of projecting a certain image and certain values of a nation worldwide (Zhang 2015; Ichijo and Ranta 2016, 107). In recent years, the Japanese government has become increasingly aware of Japan’s contemporary cultural appeal and has been among the most active nations in exploiting cultural resources to boost its international influence (Otmazgin 2018).

Among these resources, food has acquired an increasingly central role in the promotion of Japanese culture abroad and has become one of the most distinctive elements of its national identity. UNESCO’s recognition of washoku (Japan’s traditional cuisine) as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2013 represents one of the most evident results of this strategy and one of the most striking examples of how national cuisines are “projected on a global screen of cultural identities (cultural defined) and cultural politics for national recognition, as well as to promote domestic goals of cultural identity formation” (Bestor 2014, 61). If a critical evaluation of washoku from Japanese scholars is lacking, a situation remarked by Cwiertka and Yasuhara (2020), English-language literature has shown greater dynamism in the critical analysis of washoku, by putting emphasis on how the concept has been constructed by Japanese government and on the process of inscription in the ICH list (Bestor 2018; Cwiertka and Yasuhara 2020; Cang 2018, 2019; Ichijo and Ranta 2016).

In this paper, we will try to explore the political construction of washoku focusing not only on the implications related to identity and nationalism but also on the food security motivations behind it, an aspect often overlooked in literature. In doing this, we will concentrate on the dual nature of Japanese government’s strategy, at home and abroad. On the one hand, we will analyze the process through which Japan’s government has tried to create a homogeneous national culinary consciousness (gastronationalism), epitomized in the official definition of washoku. We will show that the main goal of this process is the increase in consumption of local agricultural products in order to improve the low food self-sufficiency rate of the country. On the other hand, we will analyze the strategy of the promotion of washoku internationally, through which the government attempts to increase the appeal and desirability of Japanese culture, values and ideas, strengthening the association of some foods with a specific image of the country (gastrodiplomacy). We will argue that Japan’s gastrodiplomacy is not a mere act of popularization of traditional food worldwide, but, just as gastronationalism, it is strictly related to the food security of the country, as the main objective of the government is to raise food export, in order to foster agricultural production and improve self-sufficiency.


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