Washoku Designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Culture Lifestyle

At the eighth annual session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage—held in Baku, Azerbaijan, on  December 4, 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization agreed to register washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible cultural heritage, a social custom handed down from generation to generation that expresses Japanese people’s respect for nature.

Culinary Customs Founded on Respect for Nature

When applying for registration in March 2012, the Japanese government gave the following four characteristics as typifying washoku.

1. Diversity and freshness of ingredients, and respect for their inherent flavors

Because of the great latitudinal range of the Japanese archipelago from north to south, the land is characterized by many mountains and proximity to the sea. The richly varied natural environment has meant that each regional Japanese cuisine uses a diversity of ingredients strongly rooted in the terroir. This has been accompanied by the development of cooking methods and utensils that make the most of the ingredients used.

2. An exceptionally well-balanced and healthy diet

The basic composition of the typical Japanese meal, rice with ichijū sansai (“one soup and three side dishes”), is said to have ideal nutritional balance. Because washoku makes skillful use of the umami flavor, very little animal fat is used. This is one cause of the longevity of Japanese people, and it also helps to prevent obesity.

3. An expression of natural beauty and the changing seasons

Another characteristic of washoku is the sense of the beauty of nature and of the changing seasons expressed at the table. By decorating food with blossoms or leaves and by using dishes and other utensils that reflect the changing seasons, the Japanese are able to enjoy each season at mealtimes.

4. Close links with annual events

Japan’s food culture has evolved in a close relationship with New Year’s festivities and similar annual events. By eating at the same table and sharing nature’s bounty, familial and community bonds are strengthened.

Washoku Becomes the Fifth Food-related Heritage

The registration of cultural heritages is aimed at preserving traditions that have no tangible form but are closely related to local history and customs of everyday life, such as traditional performing arts, festivals, and artisanal skills. The system of registering such heritages was instituted under the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came into force in April 2006.

The intangible cultural heritage scheme is one of UNESCO’s three major cultural programs. The other two are the World Heritage Site program, which is concerned with natural sites and architectural structures of exceptional significance; and the Memory of the World program, which addresses documentary heritage, such as written documents and paintings. The eighth session of the Intergovernmental Committee registered about 30 items, including Japan’s washoku and South Korea’s kimchi pickle-making tradition. This brings the number of heritage items on the register to 328. With washoku, Japan now has a total of 22 items on the register, among them the nō and kabuki theatrical traditions and the ancient dances of the Ainu people.

Before washoku, four other culinary heritages had been registered: France’s gastronomic meals; the Mediterranean cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Morocco; traditional Mexican cuisine; and Turkey’s ceremonially prepared dish of wheat and meat—keshkek.

Encouragement to Preserve Culinary Traditions

At one time importance was attached to seasonal produce in washoku, and great attention was paid to ingredients and appropriate culinary methods, but with the ever-increasing trend towards convenience, ingredients no longer receive as much consideration as before.

Another source of change is the introduction of foreign foods and eating habits. As lifestyles have been westernized, young Japanese have increasingly tended to move away from washoku, with the result that it is now in a critical state in Japan.

Registration of an intangible cultural heritage requires that continued measures be taken to preserve it. The Japanese government hopes that the inclusion of washoku on the list will encourage a wider understanding of Japan’s culinary culture by other nations, thus contributing to global cultural diversity. At the same time it is hoped that this recognition by UNESCO will stimulate a movement among the Japanese themselves to preserve and pass on the Japanese culinary culture of washoku to future generations.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 30, 2013)

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UNESCO Washoku cultural heritage Japanese food