Ambassador's Blog

Soft power at the Embassy

March 2014

Although much of the attention Japan attracts in the world’s media tends to involve weighty issues such as security or the economy, Japan’s strengths in the cultural arena are sometimes neglected. I wish to redress the balance this month by focusing on  ‘soft power’. This is a field in which the United Kingdom generally scores highly, and Japan is not doing badly either! Last month the Embassy hosted, on two consecutive days, events highlighting Japan’s achievements in this regard.

On Monday 10 February a reception took place to celebrate the recognition by UNESCO in December of Washoku: traditional food culture of Japan as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Around 125 prominent people from public life, including food critics and journalists, attended the event, where the guests of honour were the Japanese master chef Mr Yoshihiro Murata and his British counterpart Mr Heston Blumenthal. The two celebrities offered their thoughts on Japanese culinary culture in a panel discussion moderated by the chef and food writer Ms Sybil Kapoor. Afterwards the guests were able to sample Japanese cuisine prepared by eight leading Japanese restaurants in London as well as by Kyoto Culinary Academy, whose chefs had travelled all the way from Kyoto for the event. The dishes were, most appropriately, accompanied by varieties of Japanese sake and Koshu wine.

As well as exercising their taste buds, the participants demonstrated great enthusiasm in other ways too. The panel discussion touched on a number of fascinating topics, not least that of umami, one of the five basic tastes alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The term, formed from the Japanese words umai (“delicious”) and mi   (“taste”), was first coined by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University, in 1908, and is generally taken to mean something like “a pleasant savoury taste”. Mr Murata maintained that umami could be found in any cuisine in the world but that in Japan it had long been recognised  as a category of taste in its own right, with combinations of different materials (e.g., bonito fish, shiitake mushrooms, sea kelp) being used deliberately to enhance it.

The day after the celebration of Washoku, the Embassy hosted a seminal fashion event, ĶܡJ Blow 2014, part of International Fashion Showcase 2014, organised by the British Council and the British Fashion Council, which ran in parallel with London Fashion Week.

Visitors to the event were greeted in the lobby by a collection of striking, innovative costumes produced by a group of six talented young Japanese designers, hand-picked by the Japanese fashion icon Kansai Yamamoto.  The occasion was curated by exhibition creator and designer Yoshikazu Yamagata, whom I introduced as “a Central St Martins graduate and a genius who personifies Japan’s current fashion and art scenes”.  He had been selected by Kansai for the creation of the Exhibition space – a choice which was later vindicated when he received the International Fashion Showcase 2014 “Curator Award”.

Around 160 people attended the event.  Four of the six designers I have mentioned were present, and they gave presentations to the guests in which they outlined the background to their designs.  They lived up to their reputations as cutting-edge designers with the dazzling outfits they wore at the event, as did many of the other guests from their milieu. You can see what I mean from the photo of Mr Kenta Takaya, the representative from Kansai Yamamoto’s office, standing between my wife and me!  As they mingled with the guests during the reception, the leading representatives of the Japanese design community shared their views with their eager counterparts from the UK and other countries in a display of real cultural exchange in action.

The events I have described testified in their own ways to the creativity and appeal of two different elements of contemporary Japanese culture.  They demonstrated that Japan, while widely revered for its traditional culture, has a vibrant and dynamic modern side which surely augurs well for the future.

Keiichi Hayashi

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