Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Japanese debate food nationalism


From sushi with foie gras in France or with cream cheese in the US, Japanese food is going global. But not everyone in Japan is pleased.

The Japanese government, joined by some leading local chefs, has launched a campaign to preserve "real" Japanese cuisine from a "bastardized" version that has spread so wildly overseas.

"Our goal is to offer real Japanese cuisine," Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka told a recent conference of food experts in Kyoto.

"We don't want restaurants that look Japanese but whose content is anything but. We would like to differentiate them from those where we can say: Now this is real Japanese cuisine,'" he said.

The number of Japanese restaurants abroad will top 50,000 in three years -- twice the current number, according to government forecasts.

The biggest number of fans live in the US, where Japanese cuisine -- which includes sushi, tempura, miso-soup and ramen and udon noodles -- is prized among health-conscious eaters for its low-fat, high-protein ingredients.

It has also enjoyed an explosive welcome in Europe, Russia and Southeast Asian countries where Japanese restaurants have mushroomed.

But some Japanese traveling overseas are not feeling at home.

Japanese officials and tourists are alarmed by dishes overseas that are not seen in Japan.

While Japanese food is often seen in the West as vegetarian-friendly, Japanese tourists overseas have been alarmed by the absence of fish-stock in miso soup.

And not only is the food under fire, but also the service.

"When I went to Paris and entered a restaurant with a sign in Japanese and called to the waitress `excuse me, excuse me' in Japanese, she didn't turn around even once," bemoaned Yukiko Omori, who, ironically, is a French-style dessert chef.

"So I don't want there to be so-called Japanese restaurants if they're inconsiderate towards guests and tourists," she added.

The Japan External Trade Organization will release a guidebook next month for Parisians listing 50 restaurants in the French capital as real Japanese establishments, out of the 600 that claim to be.

The Japanese government set up a committee of experts on the food authentication issue last month. It is due to reach its conclusions by February.

However, some chefs dismiss the effort as a misplaced cause.

"I don't see what the big fuss is about. Whether you cut sashimi correctly or not doesn't have anything to do with being Japanese but rather on an individual chef's technique," said Sadaharu Nakajima, who has worked in Italy and appears on Japanese television.


A Japanese government plan to certify whether Japanese restaurants abroad are serving "authentic" cuisine could face the chop from finance officials keen to trim fat from the budget.

The agriculture ministry had sought about US$2.3 million in funds to implement it.

But the funding was deleted from a draft budget unveiled this week, forcing Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka to try to revive it in last-ditch negotiations later yesterday.

"This is one of several important points of the final budget negotiations," said Yoichi Masuzoe, a ruling party lawmaker who personally opposes the plan.

The proposal has come under fire as "food nationalism" and a waste of tax money, but Matsuoka touted it in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's online magazine last week.

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