Does Your Sushi Bar Make the Cut?

Tokyo ponders a rating system to reward authentic Japanese restaurants worldwide, but skeptics argue it's just a way to spice up food exports

One benefit of globalization is you no longer have to book a pricey flight to Tokyo to fill up on sushi, udon noodles, and Kobe beef. In the past decade, thousands of Japanese restaurants have sprung up in cities around the world. But don't expect ringing endorsements for every eatery from Japan's hard-core foodies. Some local interpretations just can't meet that country's high standards for cuisine.

Consider what happened when Teruo Niimura took his wife and her parents to an upscale Japanese restaurant in Shanghai. The 54-year-old businessman recalls how the visit left a bad taste in his mouth. "The food was awful but the price was more than double [what] it would be in downtown Tokyo," says Niimura, who works for a major Japanese import-export company.

Michikazu Aoi has a similar story to tell about an eatery in Vladivostok, Russia. When the Keio University professor ordered oyako-donburi, a chicken and egg dish served over rice, at a Japanese restaurant there he was served something that didn't quite make the cut. "They had no idea what real oyako-donburi was," says Aoi, who is also chairman of the Japan Society of Foodservice Studies.

Multi-Billion Dollar Business

Are all the complaints about not-so-genuine Japanese cuisine really justified? Japan's bureaucrats and top chefs think so. And it's not just on taste grounds. Another worry is that the boom in Japanese food will attract would-be chefs who are not adequately skilled in preparing potentially dangerous raw fish. "I've heard from Japanese businessmen that there have been many food poisoning cases [at sushi restaurants] in Moscow," says chef Tadashi Yamagata, who is vice-chairman of the National Joint Association of Sushi Chefs and Sushi Restaurant Owners. "There should be some way to ensure proper training of cooks in raw food preparation and restaurant hygiene."

The concerns escalate as more Japanese restaurants open overseas. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries reckons there are 24,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan, and those eateries bring in $22 billion a year. In the U.S. the number has doubled to an estimated 9,000 in just the last decade.

That led, in November, 2006, to bureaucrats in Tokyo considering a government-backed seal of approval for Japanese restaurants overseas. The agriculture minister at the time, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, even decreed a $2.5 million budget to make it happen. The plans hit a snag when critics at home and abroad lambasted the effort. (Matsuoka later committed suicide following a financial scandal.)

Sending the Expertise Overseas

But don't think Tokyo has given up. Next month a new non-profit outfit, the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, or JRO, will use public funding to open offices in Tokyo and Kyoto. The task of the chefs, food company executives, and academics who are its members: Recommend "authentic" Japanese restaurants in an effort "to avoid spreading the wrong image of Japanese food," says Keio University's Aoi, who sits on the JRO's board. Aoi says the JRO won't discriminate against restaurants that aren't owned by Japanese, which account for over 90% of the Japanese restaurants overseas.

By March, the JRO plans to set up affiliates in Shanghai, Taipei, and Bangkok. More offices in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles are expected to follow. It will compile a restaurant guide for each city, send highly trained chefs overseas to share their know-how, and offer training courses in Japan for aspiring chefs.

Other top chefs are pitching in. Yoshihiro Murata, the chef-owner of renowned Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto and head of the Japanese Culinary Academy, is in the early stages of planning a cook-off in New York next year for professional chefs who ply their trade at Japanese restaurants overseas. He's also got a cooking manual in the works, titled Kaiseki after Japan's haute cuisine.

Fueling an Export Boom

But skeptics think Tokyo's real motives are more about promoting exports than culinary excellence. One example: Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had set a target of exporting $9 billion worth of agricultural and marine products by 2013, nearly three times the $3.3 billion logged last year. The more restaurants there are that use Japan-sourced "authentic" ingredients, the more potential business for Japan's exporters. Already Japan's exports of agricultural and marine products to the U.S. have increased 60% since the mid-1990s, thanks to restaurants and the healthy image of Japanese food.

Some also see hypocrisy in the government's plans to judge what is authentic. That's because Japanese chefs are also masters at giving foreign foods, such as pasta and curry, a local twist. "Trying to define Japanese food is nonsense," says Hidetoshi Kato, former head of Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute and a former Gakushuin University professor. Kato blames the movement on "ignorance among politicians and bureaucrats."

Then again, Tokyo's efforts may only be part of a global trend to certify Japanese cuisine. On Nov. 22, Michelin released a new book rating 150 restaurants in Tokyo, the first Asian city for the prestigious guide. The restaurants received a total 191 stars—far more than New York and even Paris—making it the haute cuisine capital of the world. Over half of the eateries chosen specialize in Japanese cuisine. "The more restaurants we visited, the more stars we needed to allocate," Jean-Luc Naret, the global director of Michelin guides, told reporters. That's as good an endorsement of Japanese cuisine as any you'll find.