An International Symposium on
Travelling Cuisines: Culinary Politics and Transnational Foodways in and out of Asia

Consumer Education Initiatives in Japan in Transnational Perspective: Slow Food, Nippon Food Action and JRO

Stephanie Assmann, Akita University

Japan is struggling with three food-related issues. At 40 percent, Japan has one of the lowest food self-sufficiency rates among the industrial nations. Japan imports sixty percent of her foodstuffs, mainly from China, the United States of America, Australia and Canada. Second, Japanese consumers have been alert to food safety due to a number of food scandals, such as the Morinaga milk incident in 1955. In 2008, the scandal of Chinese tainted dumplings that caused food poisoning among ten consumers led to the perception of domestic foods as being safer than imported goods. The third problem is an increase of lifestyle-related diseases among the population such as obesity and underweight, diabetes and high blood pressure that are a result of poor eating habits.

Consumer education initiatives in Japan target these entwined issues. Consumer cooperatives such as the Consumers’ Union of Japan and the Japan Homemakers’ Association have been active in Japan since the 1960s and 1970s. This chapter features three recent consumer education initiatives in Japan. The Slow Food Movement is a transnational activist network that took root in Japan in 1998. The aims of the Slow Food Movement are to protect culinary heritage, strengthen culinary coviviality and educate consumers about food production and food preparation skills. In 2008, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) founded Food Action Nippon, a government initiative which utilizes the promotion of regional foods to counter Japan’s low self-sufficiency rate. Lastly, the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO) conveys an image of Japanese haute cuisine outside Japan through promotion events.

Despite differences in structure and aims, all three consumer education initiatives seek to strengthen Japan through increasing domestic food sovereignty and promoting a unique culinary heritage within and outside Japan. From a transnational perspective, the goal of consumer education initiatives to achieve domestic food self-sufficiency contrasts with the dependance on food imports and the Prime Minister’s objective to engage in a Pacific free trade area. Through an analysis of consumer education initiatives, I seek to provide an answer as to how successfully Japan will be able to counter globalization through an emphasis on food sovereignty and culinary heritage.

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Stephanie Assmann

Originally trained as a Japan specialist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, Stephanie Assmann is associate professor of Cultural Studies at Akita University, Japan. She has done extensive research on the cultivation and promotion of regional agricultural products, on activities of the Slow Food Movement and on food education programs (shokuiku) in Japan. She applies a sociological approach towards her research and has extensive experience in using qualitative research methods such as participant observation and in-depth interviewing in Japanese. In her recent research, she examines the promotion of regional food products as a way to revive tradition and counter food-related risks. (as of June 2013)