Japan, a country without major natural resources, has the lowest self-sufficiency rate of 40% among the major industrialized nations and is highly dependant on food imports. The United States and China are Japan’s major food suppliers, followed by Australia. A recent food poisoning scandal over tainted dumplings imported from China earlier this year points to the ambivalence of Japan’s dependency on foreign food suppliers, popular skepticism about foreign foods, and the high level of concern about food safety among Japanese consumers.
In response to the recent food poisoning incident a restaurant in Sendai offering dumplings has ensured its customers that only dumplings produced in Japan (kokusan) are part of the menu. This presentation will look at initiatives in Japan that aim to preserve local foods as a way to counterbalance the homogenization of foodways, to maintain a diversity of regional agricultural products, and seek to ensure a high quality of food. The desire to become independent from imported foods may prove to be wishful thinking, but the call to produce and consume more “local foods” is supported by Slow Food Japan, a non-governmental organization that seeks to protect local foodways. In addition, there are initiatives by regional farmers in Miyagi Prefecture who have decided to grow ‘traditional vegetables’ (dentō yasai) and are supported by the prefectural government in their efforts.
This project is based on one year of research in Miyagi Prefecture in Northern Japan and draws from a number of sources such as participant observation at food fairs, in-depth interviews with members of the prefectural government and members of Slow Food Japan. From a cultural anthropological point of view, this paper addresses how a culinary heritage is being created in order to evoke a consciousness for regional culinary treasures, to revive a sense of local identity and to promote tourism in an area in Japan that is being driven to the margins of the country.
Stephanie Assmann is currently a lecturer at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. She holds a PhD in Contemporary Japanese Studies from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Her research interests include consumer behavior, especially with regards to fashion and foodways, gender, and social stratification in contemporary Japan. This presentation will be a contribution to an edited volume tentatively entitled “Past and Present in Japanese Foodways” which the author is currently co-editing together with Eric C. Rath (University of Kansas).