Cooking is one of the most familiar things to anyone in the world. It is essential to daily life. Being so familiar in everyday life, food is not always perceived as culture, but I think it is the easiest tool to understand another culture. In Japan, UNESCO added traditional Japanese cuisine to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, and in 2017, the Japanese government finally established food as a culture by revising its law.
These events have led me to be dispatched as a Japan Cultural Envoy. In the Japanese Food Culture Seminar, I spoke about the spirituality of Japanese people, rather than merely conveying the techniques for Japanese food. I told the participants that Japanese culture had been formed with the belief that the spirits and gods of nature called “Yaoyorozu no Kami (eight million gods)” dwell in every blessing in nature, from mountains to rivers and the ocean, and that the gratitude for the benefits from the gift of nature underlies the spirituality of Japanese people. Many Japanese phrases were born out of this spirituality. Therefore, before every meal, we say“ Itadaki masu,” which means“ I humbly receive.” The
word “Mottainai,” which means “don’t waste,” was born from the idea of treating things (gods) with respect. The pine, bamboo, and plum blossom, which are considered fortunate items in Japan, are infused with the meaning of “enduring and living strong.” Pines and bamboos are full of vitality, even in the snowy winter. Pines are considered to be the source of vitality because of their thick roots, which were thought to obtain the life energy from the earth. Bamboos are resilient, bouncing back each time even when they are close to falling down by wind or snow. Plum blossoms bloom beautifully in early spring, when it is still chilly, ahead of other plants. I also talked about the significance of listing Japanese cuisine on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list and that Japanese food is healthy and based on“ umami,” which is the core characteristic of Japanese cuisine, and it is a rare taste in other cuisines in the world. In the seminar, I described Japanese as people who cherish the saying, “Harmony is to be valued,” and they value harmony by respecting each other while respecting themselves.
I gave lectures for community members, taught classes for professionals and vocational school students, as well as held banquets where 780 people from 6 countries experienced Japanese meals through demonstrations and tasting. It was an outstanding achievement for me that I had these various opportunities to share the understanding of the wonderfulness and depth of Japanese culture. These experiences also reminded me once again that food is a universal tool. It is a very simple, approachable, and effective method to gain the understanding of people in the world on Japanese customs, philosophy, thinking, etc., because Japanese food is highly cultural.