Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Imperial Household should entertain foreign guests with Japanese cuisine
NISHIKAWA Megumi / Journalist

February 13, 2024
The Imperial Household has maintained the hospitality of "French wine and French cuisine" at the banquet for foreign guests since the early Meiji period. The first feast to which the Imperial Household invited foreign guests was a luncheon in May 1875 at the Akasaka Detached Palace (now the State Guest House). Hosted by the Emperor Meiji, the event was attended by the ministers of ten countries, including Britain, the U.S., France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia.

According to "Feasts of the Imperial Household" (edited by Shushi-kai), the hall of the palace was used as a pre-lunch lounge, where the emperor chatted with the ministers and invited them to join him in the dining room when the time was right. During the meal, the traditional musicians from the (then) Ministry of the Imperial Household played music, and after the meal, the guests moved back to the lounge, where coffee and liqueurs were served.

The meal consisted of 16 dishes, beginning with consommé soup. Meats such as lamb, pheasant, veal, turkey, foie gras, and rabbit were served in different arrangements. Six desserts were served, including a fruit cake.

The chef in charge of cooking was one from the Ministry of the Imperial Household, who had studied four months earlier at the Oriental Hotel in Yokohama, which at the time served the best French cuisine in Japan. The way the feast was conducted, the content of the meal, and the staging of music, etc., all were modeled after European court diplomacy. There was no mention of wine, but presumably French wine was served.

The Meiji government made a pitifully earnest effort to show that it was as civilized as the Western powers by pursuing a policy of Europeanization, and the field of food was no exception.

After World War II, the diplomatic feasts of major countries, which used to be "French cuisine and wine," changed significantly during the 1980s and 1990s. They began to show foreign guests the splendor of their own food culture through their national cuisine and their national wines (or their national drinks). It was only natural that this happened.

In December 2013, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) registered Japanese food culture as an intangible cultural heritage. This was an opportunity for then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to instruct the Japanese Prime Minister's Office to treat foreign guests with Japanese food and wine, which has been carried on to this day. However, the Imperial Household has kept French food and French wine at the banquet except for special occasions, such as the emperor's coronation in 2019.

The late Yasuaki Oonuma, an international law scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who was well-versed on issues of cultural heritage around the world, was an advocate that the Imperial Family should serve Japanese food at the banquet. "It is a vestige of the spirit of the Rokumeikan that the Imperial Family entertains foreign heads of state with French food and wine." he said harshly.

The Rokumeikan was a social hall built in the early Meiji period to entertain foreign guests and diplomats as part of the government's policy of Europeanization. Mr. Oonuma referred to an unconscious sense of inferiority that has existed since the opening of Japan to the outside world.

The first sign of change in the Imperial Household came last November at a palace luncheon for the Kyrgyz President and his wife and the President of Vietnam and his wife. For the first time, Japanese food was served as an appetizer.

For the Kyrgyzstan guests, it was temari-zushi (Sushi that can be eaten in one bite ) with scallops and steamed shrimp. For Vietnamese guests, it was oshi-zushi (Sushi with rice and ingredients pressed together, mainly from the Kansai region). Alcohol was not served to Kyrgyzstan guests because they were from a Muslim country, but for the Vietnamese guests, a toast was made with sake, also for the first time.

The menu consisted of Japanese appetizers (oshizushi), consommé soup, braised beef thigh, salad, fruit, and dessert.

The sake and Japanese appetizers were the idea of Their Majesties. White and red wine was also served. The conversation was lively and the luncheon proceeded in a friendly atmosphere.

Why did the Imperial Household serve Japanese food at this time of year, even if only as appetizers? I imagine that the Imperial Household Agency felt that Japanese food was attracting worldwide attention and that the Imperial Household must do something about it. After the end of the self-restraint caused by the Coronavirus disaster, opportunities for feasts to be held in court will increase. It has also been 10 years since Japanese food was registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. I suspect that they saw this as an opportunity to serve Japanese appetizers and sake. However, it was not announced what wines were served this time, it was probably French wine.

Until now, the Imperial Household Agency had cited as one of the reasons for not using Japanese food the fact that "Japanese food requires tableware of various sizes, which is difficult to serve at a feast for more than 100 people". However, the Prime Minister's official residence is doing it. For Japanese guests, French food and French wine are fine. However, from the perspective of conveying the splendor of Japan's culinary culture to foreign guests, we should base our hospitality on Japanese food and sake or Japanese wine.

Megumi Nishikawa is a contributing editor of Mainichi Shimbun
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2024年 2月 13日















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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Imperial Household should entertain foreign guests with Japanese cuisine