Health Benefits, Aesthetics Help Japanese Cuisine Win UN Status

Japan’s successful bid to have its traditional cuisine recognized as an intangible world cultural heritage was supported in part by the exceptional longevity and ultra-low obesity rates of its people.

Known as “washoku” in Japanese, the nation’s traditional cuisine has been recommended by a subsidiary body for designation by UNESCO as a world Intangible Cultural Heritage. Such a recommendation has never been rejected, virtually ensuring that Japan’s dietary tradition will receive that designation in early December when an intergovernmental panel is scheduled to meet in Azerbaijan.

Another important factor behind Japan’s UNESCO coup is the highly aesthetic quality of Japanese cuisine, in part because so many of the food ingredients are intimately linked to the nation’s seasonal changes.

The process of securing recognition for washoku began long before the actual formal application submitted in March of 2012. In the summer of 2011 a campaign to urge the Japanese government to apply for cultural heritage status for Japanese cuisine was launched by the Japanese Culinary Academy which is chaired by Yoshihiro Murata, 61, Kyoto chef and restaurateur who founded the Kikunoi restaurant chain.

“Sometimes culture blends in so naturally with our lives that we don’t appreciate its value,” he said soon after the government submitted the application to UNESCO. “If washoku gets UNESCO heritage status, it will motivate Japanese chefs across the globe — and also enhance the quality of chefs in this country.”

Taking up the crusade the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry cited washoku as a factor behind Japan’s famously low obesity rate and longevity. Japan’s obesity rate of 3.9% is a full order of magnitude lower than those of nations like Mexico, the US and Germany. At 83, the average life expectancy of Japanese is the world’s highest.

In its supporting documentation for the Cultural Heritage designation, the Ministry cited the minimal use of animal fat and the nutritional benefits of rice and various fermented foods like miso and soy sauce.

Murata cited the fact that while other cuisines use fats to add richness and flavor, Japanese cuisine is centered around umami, a flavor recently recognized as being one of the six basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour, bitter and piquant. Dashi, the flavoring stock used in Japanese cuisine, imparts the satisfying umami flavor without adding to a food’s calorie load. For that reason, Murata argued, UNESCO recognition of Japanese cuisine would “contribute to worldwide health.”

Japan currently has 21 assets on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list of 257 items, including oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, and knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Washoku will be the first Japanese food asset to win recognition, joining an elite company that includes only four others: French cuisine, the Mediterranean diet as practiced in Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco, Mexican cuisine and Turkey’s “keskek,” a traditional ceremonial dish.

South Korea is seeking similar recognition for its royal court cuisine but couldn’t get past last year’s screening by the UNESCO subsidiary body which requested more information on the cuisine’s connection to modern Korean society.

Japan’s success in winning UN recognition for its cuisine should be a big boost for the nation’s efforts to restore global trust in its food products following the Fukushima nuclear crisis.