Unmaking Japanese Food: Washoku and Intangible Heritage Designation

By Voltaire Cang.

Published by Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: July 9, 2015 $US5.00

“Washoku” (literally, “Japanese food”) was inscribed into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in December 2013, three years after the same designation was given to French, Mexican, and Mediterranean cuisines. One major criterion for inclusion into UNESCO’s Representative List, and a prime reason for the List itself, is cultural diversity: Inscribed heritage makes for a diverse cultural community that the world is obligated to recognise and protect. Although the cultural diversity among the world’s cuisines is inherent and self-evident, UNESCO had seen it fit to include national food traditions among the categories of official intangible heritage; Japanese food is the latest to be so designated. The paper is an examination of the application process that led to the inscription of “Washoku, the traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese” into UNESCO’s Representative List for intangible heritage. It identifies and analyses the major developments in the Japanese government’s application, primarily through the deliberations of the official committee tasked with completing the formal nomination dossier for submission to UNESCO. Data is collated from official documents, including minutes of committee meetings and field notes, with references also made to related research. While the ostensible intention for the inscription of “washoku” as intangible heritage was the preservation and protection of Japanese food culture, it was mostly motivated by political considerations that resulted in the creation of an image of Japanese culinary tradition that does not convincingly reflect cultural diversity in food, but instead hews to a standardised model of food heritage based particularly on official French food discourse. Japanese food’s inclusion into the intangible heritage designation system has ironically undermined the role it plays in contributing to food and cultural diversity in the world, and highlights problems that do not bode well for the marriage of food and official intangible heritage designation in general.

Keywords: Japanese Food, Washoku, Intangible Heritage

Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 5, Issue 3, September 2015, pp.49-58. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: July 9, 2015 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 404.659KB)).

Dr. Voltaire Cang

Specialist Researcher, Research Centre, RINRI Institute, Tokyo, Japan