Katarzyna J. Cwiertka and Yasuhara Miho’s Branding Japan’s Food: From Meibutsu to Washoku (University of Hawaii Press, 2020) explores historical and contemporary practices of place branding through food in Japan. The book’s narrative centers on the event that precipitated its writing, namely, the 2013 addition of “Washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, notably for the celebration of New Year” to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The authors argue that the definition of washoku in the UNESCO nomination is part of a longer history of manipulative place branding in Japan that has its roots in the premodern period. Contemporary Japan’s penchant for and success at gastrodiplomacy is well known, but Cwiertka and Yasuhara place this national-level soft-power branding strategy within a centuries-long history of business practices that fabricated connections between products (many of them food products) and locations. Those stories are told through the book’s other two protagonists, meibutsu (famous products associated with a particular region) and omiyage (travel souvenirs), many of which are edible these days. Meibutsu and omiyage are central to the travel experience in contemporary Japan, and many of the fictional narratives associated with various edible souvenirs have become part of the national collective memory. Branding Japan’s Food is in part a warning about how quickly and effectively these branding strategies, especially when associated with the pleasures of food and travel and national pride, can overwhelm historical realities. This, Cwiertka and Yasuhara argue, is not just a pedantic matter for academics, but a question about the value of culture and heritage.
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