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

Searching for Local Food in Japan

Eric C. Rath, University of Kansas

In March 2011, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs applied to UNESCO to include “Japanese traditional dietary culture” (washoku) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage Asset, defining washoku as, “utilizing various fresh ingredients depending on such factors as the four seasons and the locale.” This definition not only grants local foods the same importance as seasonality in Japanese cooking, but it also suggests the diversity of Japan’s dietary culture. Efforts to describe national food preferences by incorporating provincial examples are neither new nor unique to Japan, but the Japanese case as demonstrated by major ethnographic studies undertaken before, during, and after World War II have left local dietary culture surprisingly undefined except in the ways that it can be mobilized to support the policy aims of the central government. The regional diets represented in these studies reveal more about how culinary boundaries have been superimposed by the central government rather than how variations in eating habits stem from local geography and culture. Consequently, the conspicuous role of the central government in the process of defining local food in Japan offers a counter example to the situation that Arjun Appadurai has described for India where he finds that premodern regional cuisines contributed to the rise of a modern national cuisine. My paper contends that the opposite situation occurred in modern Japan where dominant definitions of national cuisine shaped the meaning of local food.

Eric C. Rath is professor of premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas and a specialist in Japanese dietary culture and the traditional performing arts. His recent publications include Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2010) and “Revaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine,” Journal of Japanese Studies 39.1 (2013): 67-96. His current research interests encompass local foods in Japan, tobacco, confectionery, and sake.