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5 Dec

Policing cuisine – Last week, Japundit had a blurb on the so-called “sushi police,” a group of inspectors commissioned by the Japanese Agriculture Ministry who will tour the globe beginning next April to inspect and certify Japanese restaurants overseas. (The Japundit post lists Japanjin as its primary source and then adds a link to an article to the Chosun Ilbo as an additional source. In fact, Japanjin links to the Chosun Ilbo article, so as far as we’re concerned the Chosun Ilbo is the primary source. You’ll see later why I felt the need to clarify this.) What follows is a rather meandering discussion that starts with the sushi police and ends up wandering farther afield.

“I imagine that the sushi police inspections will have little effect on the local market”

The short Japundit post generated a lot of discussion in 26 comments. Just in case you don’t feel like reading through all these comments, I’ll summarize the ideas expressed. Only a few people expressed support of the idea. One commenter bemoaned the “mish-mash of Japanese/Korean/Chinese in San Diego.” Another commenter suggested that “only a seasoned Japanese chef” is capable of making “the perfect tempura batter”—although the author of the original post was quick to jump in and say that “you don’t need to be Japanese in order to make great Japanese food” (and then was just as quickly challenged by the next commenter).

Most commenters, though, thought it was a pretty bad idea, and their reasons included: it is a misguided attempt to maintain the purity of culture, it is a lame attempt at cultural marketing, the Japanese bastardize Western food and thus have no right to complain about others bastardizing Japanese food, Japanese tourists who go abroad and seek out Japanese restaurants because they are afraid of the local cuisine need to get a grip and should be shot with pellets of their own feces (the Japanese tourists, of course, are where the idea for the sushi police came from in the first place), etc.

Some of these issues are worth discussing, but others don’t deserve more than a quick dismissal. The claim that only Japanese can make real Japanese food is at worst a form of racism and at best an excessive generalization. I will agree that if you want to make authentic Japanese cuisine, you have to be trained in the Japanese tradition. For a non-Japanese this may or may not entail going to Japan, learning the language, and studying there. It might even be possible to learn from someone trained in this tradition without ever going to Japan or learning Japanese. But I think we can all agree that being Japanese has nothing to do with being able to make authentic, traditional Japanese food. I could probably spend an entire entry discussing this issue, but to be perfectly honest I find it rather boring and thus will give it no further thought.

On the other side of the fence, the “well the Japanese bastardize Western food, so why are they complaining?” argument doesn’t hold water with me either. This line of reasoning is favored by those who want to avoid the true subject of the discussion. To illustrate, let me use this line of reasoning in a different context, one that you may recognize. Talk about racism in any country, and someone will invariably say, “Well, the United States (or whatever country you happen to hail from) is racist too, so you have no right to accuse us of being racist!” Is it hypocritical to condemn another nation for racism when your own nation is guilty of it as well? I hold that it is not. The problem is that people identify very closely with their nations, and they often mistake criticisms of their nations as personal attacks when, in fact, they are not. They then respond in kind, attacking your nation and assuming it will trickle down to you. But the impracticality of this argument should be evident. If every citizen of a nation that practiced racism (or whatever social evil you may be discussing) was forced to remain silent on the issue, we would never talk about it.

To get back to the issue at hand, if those Japanese chefs who bastardized Western food rose up in protest over the bastardization of Japanese food in the West, I would call that hypocrisy. But we’re talking about two different groups of people—those Japanese chefs cooking East-West fusion foods (let’s stop using the word “bastardization” now) might actually even welcome new perspectives on Japanese cuisine. So whether or not the sushi police turns out to be a good idea, this line of reasoning has no bearing on the discussion.

The most interesting idea expressed in the Japundit comments, at least to me, is the idea of culture as commodity. Ever since my time in London I have been a fan of Guinness stout. I remember reading an article once about how Guinness sent inspectors around the world to establishments that served Guinness to make sure their product’s image was not being sullied (here is a similar article, although not the one I read—can’t seem to find that one). Things like storage temperature and serving temperature (to the exact degree), not to mention other aspects of the service such as what kind of glasses are used, are inspected and only those establishments that pass this inspection are “certified.” In this way, Guinness does everything it can to make sure it maintains a good image overseas.

The sushi police situation is a bit different, of course. Guinness is a corporation selling a product, whereas Japan as a country policing its cuisine. But the significance of this certification is similar. The sushi police are not going to try to stop people from serving what they consider inferior Japanese food, they are simply going to grant or deny the restaurant certification so customers looking for an authentic Japanese experience know what they’re getting. In the same way, Guinness does not prevent establishments from selling their product (technically they could, of course, but why would they want to?), but they do award establishments that pass inspection with the “Gold Pint Standard” designation. Keeping this in mind, I imagine that the sushi police inspections will have little effect on the local market—locals who enjoy the food will continue to frequent non-certified establishments. All the certification will do is warn off customers who wouldn’t be a source of repeat business anyway.

So maybe it’s pointless from the locals’ point of view. Maybe it’s evidence of Japanese insularity (although I know plenty of Koreans who are just as terrified of trying foreign cuisine when traveling—and I must confess that I too have been guilty of frequenting Gangseohoegwan (known locally as “Kang Suh Restaurant”) for lunch when in Manhattan). I’m sure that when the Agriculture Ministry first came up with the idea, they only conceived of it as a measure to protect the delicate palates of Japanese tourists abroad. I doubt that they considered how foreigners might react to the scheme. In other words, I don’t think this was a conscious effort at marketing Japanese cuisine or protecting the purity of Japanese culture abroad.

Whether it was a conscious effort or not, though, it does betray a certain insular mindset. I think the reason that many foreigners (at least the foreigners who even care) might react negatively to this is not that it is inherently a bad idea, but 1) it is the Japanese government behind it, which makes it the official position of the nation of Japan, and 2) most Westerners, at least, view sampling the local cuisine as one of the most important parts (if not the most important part) of any trip. It is because of this difference in mindsets that the sushi police will probably end up being nothing more than a curiosity to foreigners, or at least to Westerners. If everything goes well, the Japanese tourists will be happy (or at least forewarned of their misfortune, should no certified restaurants be available) and the locals will remain happy with their fusion Japanese food (like—God forbid!—sushi and kimchi).

And now I’ll get to what really caught my attention about this article when I first saw it. It wasn’t the content that intrigued me, but where this content was found—namely, in a Korean newspaper. As anyone who has spent any amount of time in Korea will know, Koreans will never pass up an opportunity to take a shot at Japan. The Chosun Ilbo article is openly critical of the plan, pointing out the supposed hypocrisy of the Japanese love of Western fusion and hatred of Japanese fusion. After discussing what others think about the plan and speculating on the reaction overseas, the article ends with an ominous quotation from the Foreign Ministry spokesman (translated by an autistic five-year-old, apparently): “What’s called ‘sushi police’ is not going to do good for the better image of Japanese food, I believe.”

That quote raises a key point. When the Agriculture Ministry dreamed up the sushi police, they were not concerned with the image of Japanese food. They were simply concerned about their citizens’ ability to find quality Japanese food abroad. Korea tends to be very image-conscious, though, so it automatically became a discussion of the image of Japanese food abroad. As I mentioned above, less image-conscious Westerners probably won’t even bat an eye at the measure. Will it harm the image of Japanese food overseas? I doubt it. But it might be hard for a nation still pushing “the Korean Wave” to comprehend this.

When I visited Tokyo this past summer, it was about a five to ten minute walk from our ryokan to the subway station. Along the way we had to pass a very large poster of Bae Yongjun and Yi Yeongae, two Korean “talents” I despise with every fiber of my being. I began to grimace as soon as I woke up in the morning on the way out, and as soon as I got off the subway on the way back in the evening. This was only the most visible aspect of the Korean Wave that many would like to believe is sweeping across Asia and the rest of the world. For all I know, it might be. Maybe the rest of the world is caught in the grips of Korea Fever, and I’m just isolated here like a frog in a well.

Whatever the result of this wave, rest assured that it is not rolling under its own power. The government is doing everything in its power to keep the wave rolling, and I suppose I can’t blame them. Culture is just another export these days. Korea is a bit late to the game compared to her two East Asian neighbors—most Western nations were exposed to Chinese and Japanese culture long ago. Part of that culture is food, and as a result Japanese food has become so popular in the West that standards have dropped. As the Chosun Ilbo article opens: “Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world—perhaps too popular for some in Japan.”

So my question is this: it may be all well and good that the Korean Wave is rolling across Asia now, but what happens when the mystique wears off and Korean culture becomes integrated into the local culture in the way that Japanese and Chinese culture have been integrated? What happens when “Korean” restaurants start serving Korean food without kimchi because the locals don’t take a liking to it and don’t feel the need for something spicy to cut through richness or greasiness? Sooner or later we are going to reach equilibrium, and what passes for Korean culture abroad may be a far cry from ‘real” Korean culture here on the peninsula. What then? I wonder if the current promoters of the Korean Wave have given any thought to that eventuality. Will Korean tourists rise up in protest just at the Japanese tourists have?

I know I’ve wandered away from where this entry started, but in my mind there is a connection. Having played my part as a cog in the Korean Wave Machine (I don’t even want to know how many articles I’ve translated on the Korean Wave—enough to make me want to stab Bae Yongjun in his sleep, at least), where I ended up in this entry seems far more interesting than where I started. What people say and do is often not as interesting as how other people interpret those words and actions. Such was the case here as well, at least in my opinion.

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