- Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity ed. by Nancy K. Stalker
Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity is an important contribution to the English-language scholarship on Japanese food. As editor Nancy Stalker explains in her acknowledgments, she and her colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin organized a conference in 2014 to commemorate UNESCO's addition of the term washoku to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with funding from the Japan Foundation, the Northeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies, and the Mitsubishi Caterpillar Heavy Industries Endowment. Devouring Japan consists of some of the essays presented at the conference.
Because UNESCO's decision inspired this volume, I will start with the six chapters that treat this topic. Theodore Bestor's "Washoku Far and Near" is a good introduction to washoku that highlights both its domestic and its international dimensions. After rehearsing the history of the word washoku, he points out that the UNESCO application reflects the Japanese government's concern about the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine internationally and its position in the contemporary Japanese diet. The application was produced by a team of officials, chefs, representatives of food manufacturing companies, food critics, and historians, and its success was evidence, Bestor argues, of a new Japanese soft power and an example of "gastrodiplomacy."
Nancy Stalker's contribution presents Kitano Rosanjin as a pioneering advocate of a Japanese "culinary nationalism." She gives us a biographical sketch of Rosanjin as a potter, connoisseur of Japanese objets d'art, restaurateur, and chef, but given the paucity of biographies of Japanese chefs in English, I wish her contribution had been longer. [End Page 271]
Greg de St. Maurice's "Savoring the Kyoto Brand" is a revealing account of what the Kyoto prefectural and municipal authorities have done over the years to promote their brand. Although the "Kyoto brand" has premodern roots and was enabled by the local soil, water, and culture, de St. Maurice contends that it also was the result of the purposeful decisions of local officials, the food industry, and farmers. He catalogs some of what sustains the Kyoto culinary brand: the attention given to bamboo fields, the craftsmanship of kaiseki cuisine, "communities of practice," local government support, discerning consumers, and tourism. For de St. Maurice, washoku is clearly not a given.
Yoshimi Osawa would agree. In "We Can Taste but Others Cannot," Osawa observes that "umami in the context of washoku as UNESCO world heritage . . . has been used as a gustatory instrument to embody the image of Japanese food for promotional purposes . . . [and] is thus a key element of Japan's culinary brand that is becoming increasingly prominent in Japanese representations of its cuisine abroad" (p. 119). He relates the history of umami as a scientific phenomenon (discovered in 1908) and now as a metaphor for Japanese food overseas. Osawa adds that many Japanese nonetheless claim that umami is evidence of their reputed "exquisite taste" and a phenomenon that only they can understand. Osawa is hinting at the mythical nature of washoku.
Ayumi Takenaka, in "Nikkei Cuisine," examines washoku in an immigrant community in Peru. Her fieldwork revealed that after being called first "Okinawan" and then "Japanese," Japanese cuisine there became "Nikkei cuisine." She cites the reasons for these changes, including the Peruvian government's promotion of a fish-based diet, Japan's emergence as a global power, the Peruvian Japanese community's rising fortunes, both a "gastronomic boom" and a "sushi boom" in Peru, and recognition of Nikkei cuisine's contributions to the Peruvian national cuisine. To Takenaka, Nikkei cuisine is not a unitary phenomenon because it is defined differently by chefs, elite diners, and Peruvian Japanese consumers and is influenced by both indigenous and external developments, which challenge the idea of a single, unchanging, Japanese cuisine.
Eric Rath's afterword offers a carefully historicized view of washoku. First, he notes that the word was initially used in the late 1800s to distinguish Japanese from Chinese and...