July 10, 2014 12:00 am JST

Keeping tradition alive

YOSHIMASA HAYASHI

There is a custom in Japan that almost all Japanese eat a dish of the same name on a certain day every year, but the ingredients vary from region to region and also vary between families within a locale.   

     No country seems to enjoy a richer and more varied diet than Japan. We have numerous traditions that were passed down through the generations. One such custom is eating special dishes during seasonal festivals. The once yearly dish eaten all over Japan that was mentioned above is ozoni, a soup made with mochi (rice cake) among other ingredients.

     In Japan, many people eat ozoni on New Year's Day. The dish is unique in that although it is uniformly known as ozoni, its ingredients differ depending on the area because the produce used is chosen to suit the climate and landscape of each region.

     One example is mochi, a staple ingredient of the dish. Round mochi is used in western Japan, while in the east of the country they use a square variety. Nature's bounty varies in each area, resulting in some regions making a clear soup, others using red miso and different areas adding white miso.

Regional taste

In Shimonoseki, my home town in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a clear soup using niboshi stock, made from small dried sardines, is favored along with sliced carrot and Chinese cabbage, among others, and the mochi is round. The custom of eating ozoni on New Year's Day is a tradition based on the hope for health and well-being for the coming year.

     Washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, is a food-related social practice that embodies the Japanese spirit of respect for nature. Washoku has four features. One is that it uses a wide variety of fresh food and ingredients, drawing on a long history of ingenuity to make the most of each original flavor. Each season brings a diversity of fresh delicacies from sea and soil, and cooking with soup stocks have been developed to maximize each aroma and flavor.

     The second feature of washoku is that it is a nutritionally well-balanced, healthy diet. It uses a broad range of natural local produce, such as rice, fish and vegetables including edible wild plants, and makes the best of the umami, a popular Japanese term used to describe a pleasant savory taste, of soup stock. Washoku creates a diet with very little animal oil and fat.

     The third characteristic of washoku is presentation. Dishes are presented in a manner that often expresses the beauty of nature touched by the season. Emphasizing the aesthetic of garnishing dishes with flowers, leaves or vegetables cut in decorative ways, Japanese food culture relishes the senses associated with each season through tableware and other implements that also reflect the time of year.

     The fourth is that, as mentioned earlier, food has much bearing on traditional annual events. It is a custom to eat soba -- buckwheat noodles, a symbol of longevity -- on New Year's Eve to mark the transition into a new year. Food also has a close relation to festivals and ceremonies celebrating life milestones, such as the weaning ceremony for babies and the shichigosan festival for 3-year-old boys and girls, 5-year-old boys and 7-year-old girls.

International impact

Thus, washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, a unique cuisine culture in which we respect nature yielding an abundance of food against the backdrop of seasonal change and geographical diversity, was registered as a Unesco intangible cultural heritage in December 2013. The registration is expected to lead many Japanese to take a fresh look at their food culture and encourage a stepping up of efforts to pass washoku on to future generations.

     However, data on item-specific food consumption per capita in Japan shows that, with consumption in 1965 set at 100, rice intake fell to 50 in 2012 while consumption of meat and chicken eggs, milk and other dairy products, and fats and oils swelled to 228, 239 and 216, respectively, during the same period. Meanwhile, the proportions of prepared foods and dining out in total spending on foods have consistently risen since 1965, but the proportion of fresh food has declined. This underscores a dietary trend in Japan toward less home cooking along with progress in westernization.

     The basic law on food education, enacted in 2005, stipulates that central and local governments should take the measures necessary to enlighten people and diffuse knowledge about Japan's eminent traditional dietary culture in order to promote the continuation of the diet. This food culture is an integral part of traditional festivals and manners including those particular to certain regions. In line with the law, action is being taken across the country.

     Obama City in Fukui Prefecture focuses on a food education program to ensure that citizens ranging from infants to the elderly learn about the importance of food and dietary habits. In the city, a Kids Kitchen cooking class for small children and their parents has been held since 2003. It is an initiative of the food-based community development section of the city government.

     The class gives kindergarten pupils the chance to experience cooking on their own. Their mothers or fathers do not assist them in any way, but rather just watch their children. Before starting to cook, quiz games about the names and scents of vegetables are held to stir interest in ingredients. However, it is through the actual cooking that children can feel a sense of accomplishment. They sometimes skillfully wield knives to clean live sardines. All ingredients used are local. Rice is cooked on a stove and miso soup is made using stock from kombu (kelp) or niboshi. It is important for children to experience cooking with fire.

Bringing back the bento

In 2001, Kazuo Takeshita, then principal of an elementary school in Ayagawa, Kagawa Prefecture, launched Bento Day -- a bento is a Japanese-style lunch in a box -- when students bring a bento prepared by themselves. The program was initially implemented under three rules: Students must cook their own lunch; the event is only for fifth and sixth graders who learn the knowledge and skills needed to make bento in a home economics class; and it is carried out once a month from October to February for a total of five times. Takeshita also introduced Bento Day to a junior high school that he worked at after leaving the elementary school. He chose themes such as local ingredients.

     Bento Day's substance and purport came to be known by many, and the number of institutions hosting the day reached 1,377 nationwide as of June 2014. The practice has had a broad array of positive effects. Through preparing bento, young people not only acquire cooking and domestic skills, but also have more conversations with family members. While watching children making bento, parents are reminded of the importance of food, and through food, they remember the significance of agriculture and the value of life.

     Japanese Culinary Academy, a nonprofit organization set up by restaurant owners and cooking school officials, organizes food education projects and lectures to help peers understand and experience the excellence of Japanese cuisine. It also engages in activities at home and abroad, including in Asian countries, in a bid to disseminate washoku across the world.

     The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is gearing up for an exhibition at Expo Milano 2015. It is planning to introduce Japan's approach to the farm, forestry and fishery industries as well as to food under the theme of how wisdom and art contained in the Japanese dietary culture can contribute to solving problems common to all humankind. The ministry is also preparing to offer omotenashi, Japanese-style hospitality, through indigenous farm, forestry and fishery products and Japanese food culture to international visitors who come to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Hopefully we can provide many opportunities for people from around the globe to enjoy Japanese food and cuisine culture.

Yoshimasa Hayashi is Japan's minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries.