At his three-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo, Yoshihiro Murata serves elaborate 12-course meals of delicate Japanese food. But his real passion is to make sure simple, traditional food is passed on to the next generation.
Japanese food is now widely available around the world, and washoku – traditional cooking – was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO last year. But Murata fears that even though sushi has become near-universal, appreciation for Japanese food is declining in its homeland.
“Japanese cuisine is becoming extinct”, Murata said, seated in a quiet tatami mat room in his Kikunoi restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka business district. “The fact that it has become a ‘cultural heritage’ means it’s fading so it needs to be protected.”
Murata, 62, is the third generation of his family to run the restaurant established in 1912. He lived in France to learn French cuisine in his younger days and now runs three restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo, one of which has three stars from Michelin and the others two stars.
His big concern, though, is that many Japanese have drifted away from their own national cuisine.
“Japanese people rely too much on Western food every day,” Murata said. When he asks school children what their favorite dish is, the most popular item is hamburger steak – essentially a hamburger minus the bun, followed by curry and rice and spaghetti. At many schools in Japan, bread is served more often for lunch than rice.
“They have lost their identity when it comes to the food they eat every day,” Murata said.
Household spending on the basic ingredients of Japanese daily food is falling. The purchased amount of miso paste, the main ingredient for miso soup, was down 39% last year compared with 1990, while purchases of rice were down 40% over the same period, government statistics show. Meanwhile, sales of bread and cheese rose 15% and 67% respectively over the same period.