JRO to focus on seafood export promotion

Published on
April 1, 2014
The Japanese government’s effort to define and manage Japanese cuisine as a national brand, and thus get more export sales out the sushi boom, has taken a few knocks, but is now in full-swing.

In 2006, Japan’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, proposed an inspection and rating system to certify Japanese restaurants abroad as authentic, citing excessive confusion with Asian fusion. An organization to carry this out was formed, named Japanese Restaurants Overseas (JRO). But the idea was opposed on a several different grounds, leading to a softening of the inspection regime’s image.

Firstly, the organization was re-named as the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (though it still uses the initials JRO). It has been redefined from the image of “sushi police” cracking down on “non-authentic” establishments (those offering Asian fusion dishes while advertising themselves as Japanese) to a kinder, gentler organization focused mainly on export promotion.
As a consortium of Japanese government-supported organizations picks up the pace of its efforts, the seafood industry can expect to see more cooking contests, booths in trade shows and Japanese Food Fairs, which should fuel a continued interest in seafood-rich Japanese foods.
Meanwhile, the effort to certify Japanese restaurants abroad has been mainly focused on using the certified establishments to showcase and promote Japanese exported ingredients. Additionally, through cooperation with the All Japan Sushi Association, a program of seminars to educate chefs in food handling for raw fish and in traditional cooking methods has been conducted from 2011.
Looking back at the original criticisms and how Japan has responded, one criticism was that Japanese food was developed by adapting foreign cuisines, so why attack fusion?

For example, at leading conveyor-belt sushi chain Akindo Sushiro, where employees top machine formed rice with pre-sliced frozen fish, prosciutto and roast beef sushi are found on the menu, and the non-traditional shrimp-avocado sushi is the third most popular item. Such conveyor belt shops now account for 60 to 70 percent of sushi shops in Japan, presenting a contrast to the proto-typical image of the elderly taciturn sushi master. Both sushi and Japanese cuisine continue to evolve inside Japan, so how can authenticity be judged?

The current head of the JRO, Yuzaburo Mogi, in his official chairman’s message on the organization’s website admits as much, saying that Japanese food was developed “by skillfully assimilating aspects of different food cultures around the world.”

And Masayoshi Kazato, who heads educational seminars for the All Japan Sushi Association, has said, “every country has different ingredients, so we can’t say what is good sushi for them or what isn’t.”

On the whole, the JRO promotes Japonification of foreign foods by creative use of Japanese ingredients, while condemning the use of non-Japanese ingredients in traditional Japanese dishes. For example, a cooking contest held at the JRO Umami Pavilion at the 2014 International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York, featured two French dishes — foie gras and consume, and a South American dish, a surf clam cheviche, all modified with Japanese ingredients. The emphasis here is on use of Japan-origin products.

A second criticism was that Japanese ownership would be an unstated condition for authenticity (perpetuating a bigoted idea that only Japanese can properly make Japanese food). Though it may be right to assume native familiarity, it is wrong to say others cannot learn it, just as all chefs and owners of Italian restaurants in Japan need not be Italian. This suspicion was fueled by the lack of clear criteria for the proposed evaluations. The JRO has tried to put this suspicion to rest, clearly stating that ethnicity of owners and chefs would not be a criterion.

A third criticism was that low ratings might be imposed on non-participating/non-cooperating restaurants, that is, bad ratings or attack pieces against non-members. This is the threat that caused the organization to be viewed as coercive and labeled in the media as “the sushi police.”

In response, the organization is not focusing on pointing fingers at non-members, but is instead promoting health guidelines and chef certification programs, with the implication that certified shops will be safer, as special education is needed for safe handling of raw fish. Some of these cautions are well founded: fish served raw may contain the Anisakiasis parasite, which must be blast-frozen to a certain temperature to be killed, and raw fish must not share cutting boards and counters with raw meat as salmonella may be picked up.  

But the awarding of chef certifications, which is done through the All Japan Sushi Association, is arbitrary. There are three levels, and while the lower level can be obtained by attending a seminar and taking a test, awarding of the uppermost “master” level is entirely at the discretion of a single judge, with no clear criteria.

Lastly was the criticism that the purpose of the effort may be not be so much to protect the integrity of Japanese cuisine, but simply to increase exports. This appears to be the case, though it does not follow that the organization cannot do both.

Certified restaurants can benefit from promotional events sponsored by the JRO, while at the same time serving as a venue for introduction of new dishes incorporating Japanese export ingredients.

Together, the interlocking group of supporting organizations aims to help Japan both control the Japanese cuisine brand and secure export sales: the All-Japan Sushi Association supplies chef training, contests and health guidelines; JETRO supports trade fairs, food festivals and product introductions; and the JRO certifies and recommends overseas Japanese restaurants.
Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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