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Japan's Aborted 'Sushi Police'
[Commentary] Tokyo's initial plans to officially certify Japanese restaurants came under fire
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-07-01 10:31 (KST)   
As part of Japan's farm export drive, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is preparing to launch a program for recommending Japanese restaurants abroad during the current fiscal year ending in March 2008.

But the ministry has been forced to back down from its initial plans for the Japanese government to officially certify 쏿uthentic Japanese restaurants overseas, after being fiercely criticized both at home and abroad, especially in the United States, for attempting to send the "sushi police."

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The Japanese government has set an ambitious goal of nearly tripling Japanese exports of agricultural and marine products to 1 trillion yen (about US$8.1 billion) by 2013. Of the 2.3 billion yen to be spent by the government for the farm-export drive during fiscal 2007, 276 million yen is to go toward the controversial Japanese Restaurant Recommendation Program.

Last autumn, the then farm minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, announced plans to award "pure Japanese" restaurants around the world with official Japanese government seals of approval. But the plans drew an immediate barrage of criticism both at home and abroad, especially in the U.S., as being discriminatory and tantamount to setting up a "sushi police" force.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry's advisory panel, set up to discuss the details of the Japanese Restaurant Recommendation Program, ditched the proposed official-certification plan for overseas Japanese restaurants in March, although it kept the program itself alive.

In its report making recommendations about the specifics of the program, the advisory council, chaired by Kazuo Ogura, president of the Japan Foundation, pointed to problems that could hurt consumer confidence in Japanese restaurants -- and Japanese foods -- and thereby undermine Japan's efforts to increase exports of agricultural and marine products.

The report said, "Although the menu and other aspects vary from restaurant to restaurant, there are some that operate under the guise of a Japanese restaurant just because of the upmarket image that is associated with Japanese foods. There are restaurants that are using ingredients that are not suited to Japanese cuisine, or there is simply not enough range or quantity of ingredients suited to Japanese food being provided to cope with the rapidly increasing number of restaurants."

The report also specifically said, "Fish and shellfish are often eaten raw in Japanese restaurants, but in places where it is not customary to eat raw fish, the knowledge or skills required for handling, processing and consuming fresh fish are often lacking. The possibility of an incident as a result of such shortcomings has the potential to damage the image of Japanese foods."

The report went on to note, "The rapid increase of Japanese restaurants has led to a shortage of professionals who are skilled in and have a detailed knowledge of Japanese foods, particularly in overseas countries. It has also been strongly suggested that it is necessary to spread these skills and knowledge. In addition to the above points, there is a lack of information concerning Japanese cuisine being transmitted overseas."

But the advisory council's report concluded that the program "shall be an initiative primarily managed by private bodies and relevant parties", rather than by the government itself, and that the government will be limited to a supportive role, such as providing necessary information. The report added that the program "should take into consideration the fact that a diverse range of Japanese foods fused with cuisine from the local area is being provided" and that the program "should not be discriminatory or exclusive in any sense".

The Japanese Restaurant Recommendation Program is to be launched anyway during fiscal 2007, which ends in March 2008. It remains to be seen, however, how the significantly diluted program will actually take shape.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. This is part of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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