Pacific Money

Can the UN Save Japan’s Shrinking Food Exports?

If the UNESCO puts washoku on its cultural heritage list, it could reverse the decline in Japanese food exports.

From sushi, okonomiyaki, soba and udon noodles, sashimi, rice, to sake and tea, Japanese food is one of the most widely-consumed cuisines around the world. The number of Japanese restaurants in the U.S. alone has more than doubled over the last 10 years, and imported Sake has nearly doubled over the same period.   

It should be no surprise then that Japan’s traditional cuisine, washoku is hoping to join the representative list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. The gastronomic meal of the French, Mexican food traditions, the Mediterranean diet, and Turkey’s keskek dish are the only food cultures to have made the list thus far.

UNESCO created the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 to ensure the survival of cultural traditions in the face of globalization and transformation.

Japan is already on the list for many of its cultural traditions, including noh theater and kabuki. Next month, a UNESCO sub-committee will convene to decide whether or not to place washoku on its list. If it gains inclusion, it could strengthen public confidence and boost exports as Japan continues to rebuild and recover in the wake of the 3/11 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Worries still abound about Japanese food safety because of lingering radiation. Daily leakages of 300 tons of contaminated water from the Fukushima fallout has led to serious concern that it is mixing into the groundwater that flows into the sea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced plans to spend more than US$470 million to stop the leaks. Yet despite assurances from the government that it abides by the world’s strictest tests, as well as Abe’s recent sampling of local food from Fukushima, many nations are steering away from its food products, unconvinced that Japan has been able to stem the flow of radioactive activity.

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As of last March, 44 countries including the U.S. were still restricting imports due to heightened concerns over radiation. Major importer South Korea recently imposed a total ban on Japanese fish imports from Fukushima and seven other prefectures, as there continue to be ongoing concerns over iodine and cesium, which can accumulate radioactive materials as well as increase the likelihood of cancer. Seoul has called operator TEPCO’s data on the safety of its food “scientifically unacceptable.” This comes after the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation came out with a summary of a report raising doubts about the dose estimates of the government and TEPCO. Japan’s government has brought South Korea’s ban to the World Trade Organization for review.

China, another major importer, has perhaps the most expansive ban on the country’s food imports that includes 12 prefectures. These international bans are harming Japanese farmers who now rely on government support for well over half of their total receipts.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit earlier this month, Abe asked the leaders of South Korea, China, and ASEAN to ease or lift restrictions on food shipments, insisting that fisheries and other food products were safe. With the divisive historical issue of WWII and ongoing territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, it will be difficult for Tokyo to undo deep-seated mistrust and negative public sentiment in China and South Korea. However, if Abe wants agricultural exports to double by 2020, officials will have to be successful in scheduling bilateral talks aimed at improving diplomatic relations. Japanese farmers' livelihoods depend on it.

Amid hopes of an economic recovery, winning the UNESCO bid could prove to be a mild victory for Abe’s economic agenda and national strategy. It will put the international spotlight on Japan, and remind the world over why Japan and washoku is worth emulating.

It might be small in the grand scheme of events, but it's a step toward strengthening Japan’s public image at a time when the international community is skeptical about the government’s ability to take control of the nuclear situation.    

Justin McDonnell is Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter: @JustinVerocai.