The version of Japanese cuisine presented to Western diners, however, is an adulterated version of the real thing, as this article suggests. What surprises me is that Japanese officials haven’t reacted sooner, given the important place food has in Japanese culture. One simply needs to turn on the television to see how the Japanese food. Countless shows have hosts visiting a region to try its specialties or tasting a unique dish in the studio. Restaurants and grocery stores are ubiquitous, and the food they provide is invariably fresher. And who can forget the omiyage, the gifts Japanese tourists bring back from trips (almost always some kind pastry or snack — Kamakura is known for cookies shaped like pigeons, for some reason I’ve yet to discover).
As such, it surprises me that Japan has yet to try to exercise some control over how Japanese cuisine is marketed abroad. The vision of Japanese cuisine marketed abroad — i.e., sushi as the staple of the Japanese diet — hasn’t harmed Japan’s image, but it has presented a distorted picture of the national palate, in which sushi usually takes a back seat to donburi, noodles, and curry. The Japanese diet includes more meat, usually pork, than a visit to a Japanese restaurant in America would suggest.
That said, it’s unclear how exactly Japan can exert control over how Japanese food is sold abroad. Will Japanese restaurants abroad buy into a kind of “seal of approval” system, especially considering that the most exclusive Japanese restaurants tend to deviate most from the Japanese way of food? And, moreover, as the article suggests, how can Japan criticize others for doing what Japan has long done to dishes imported from abroad:
But some here have expressed caution about the launch of the government approval system, arguing that Japan is a country also notorious for adapting foreign foods to local tastes. Indeed, that rare talent gave birth to Japanese seafood and mayonnaise pizza.
All this points to one of the major problems with soft power of the cultural kind: it’s pretty much impossible to wield explicitly as a policy tool.