Food, Japan is now realising, is a great way to gain goodwill. Cars, hi-fis, toys and gee-whiz technology may have helped create the world's second largest economy in the way of exports but now the country wants to conquer the word again with intangibles such as culture, particularly its food culture. Michael Fitzpatrick reports.

Riding on the crest of a cultural tsunami that some have dubbed Cool Japan, the country's top food makers have vowed to double Japan's food experts - now at US$300bn - to $600bn by 2009.

If the effort is successful, within five years 1.2 billion people around the world will dine on sushi, tempura or other Japanese dishes at least once a year.

To ensure this goal is met, a 14-member private-sector panel led by Yuzaburo Mogi, chairman of the world's top soy sauce maker Kikkoman, has been set up. It says it is dedicated to doing the same for Japanese food as blockbusting Japanese animation films, manga (comics) and fashion did for its creative industries.

As healthy and tasty as French cuisine

"We feel Japanese food has enormous untapped potential appeal as it is perceived as healthy and attractive," says a Kikkoman spokesman. "It has worldwide appeal now and we want it to match the global spread of, say, French and Chinese food."

Already lands once perceived as impervious to the blandishments of such a seductive, if finicky cuisine, such as the UK, are increasing falling for the charms of Japanese food, though at this stage it is still often far from the original product - think: 'MacSushi', the type of tasteless over-chilled rice rolls often found in self-service cafeterias and supermarkets.

Top UK food retailer Tesco now sells more sushi than the more staid British cheese sandwich, while some sushi caterers get rated as some of the fastest expanding enterprises in the US and elsewhere.

Foodservice soaring ahead

"Demand for Japanese food is increasing hugely at about 20% growth a year, I'd say," comments chief accountant Mr Jun Ma at leading London-based Japanese food caterer Notoya. "You can see the all the signs of an extraordinary increase in interest in Japanese food with [Japanese] catering outlets springing up everywhere and sushi being served from garden fetes to weddings."

The Japanese restaurant boom in particular shows little signs of halting. A recent survey by Zagat, which uses the public to vote via its website for the best restaurants, found that 34% of Londoners prefer Thai, Japanese or Chinese food to the local cuisine and that two of Zagat's top London restaurants are Japanese - Nobu and Wagamama.

Meanwhile for retailers there has also been a sharp upturn in turnover from Japanese food products as consumers - those in the States galvanised by the Japanese chef-led super hit TV programme the Iron Chef - turn their own hands to creating Japanese dishes at home.

"Demand for Japanese food products, particularly sushi-related products, has been soaring as of late and we expect demand to grow in the UK and throughout Europe," says Mr Ogawa Koshiyuki, assistant general manager at London's biggest Japanese food importer, JFC.

'Gross National Cool'

It has taken a while for the Japanese government to realise the potential of a worldwide interest in all things Japanese and in fact took an American to crystallise for the country's leaders exactly what a huge economic and cultural impact Japan's non tangible assets were having on the world. Dubbed 'Japan's Gross National Cool' by US journalist Douglas McGray, the concept has enlightened the world as well as the Japanese themselves with his thesis that pop culture, seen as 'cool,' is not just mere entertainment but is also a new source of national power.

"There are so many examples of this boom in Japanese culture that I have seen abroad in the last ten years, particularly recently," he told a Tokyo symposium, "Cool Japan: Japan's Cultural Power" in November last year.

"Sushi is a pretty funny example. Not too long ago, it was assumed in Japan that foreigners would never like sushi. Now it's in the grocery store down the street from me, which has very little foreign food at all aside from the stuff that has been standard for a long time. It's a pretty bad grocery store but they still manage to have a sushi counter. You can buy sushi in baseball stadiums and airports," he says.

"'Japanese cool is really the result of globalisation and you look around and you can find similar cases with Hong Kong cinema or Latin American soap operas, which are some of the more popular programmes in Africa and Asia."

Conversion by stealth

Masaharu Morimoto, executive chef and owner of the popular Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia in the US and star of the influential Iron Chef cooking programme popular in the US and Japan says that it has taken the world a long while to getting around to eating Japanese food but now its time has come.

"I remember how I listed raw fish as carpaccio on the menu so that Americans would feel more comfortable eating sashimi, which they once shunned," he says.

He moved to the US in 1985 to capitalise on a sushi boom, later becoming executive chef at Nobu, the renowned Japanese restaurant in New York City.

"The global appeal of Japanese pop culture is comparable to American culture in that it fuses many influences and is accessible to everyone."

So from highly expensive and esoteric oddity, Japanese cuisine has become an Asian delicacy for Everyman, but sushi is just the tip of the iceberg, says Kikkoman's spokesman.

The dream is to have families preparing Japanese food just as they might make pasta for an evening meal or lunch.

"Our urgent task is to make a text ... which will be a Japanese version of 'Le Guide Culinaire'," he says in reference to the French recipe book published in 1902 by legendary chef Auguste Escoffier.

The group also plans to dispatch Japanese cooks abroad and offer training of foreign cooks, Kikkoman told Reuters.

However without a budget or financial support from the Japanese government, it's difficult to know how much success the project will have. Japan's PR efforts have been dismal in the past and the country seems only to have become a cultural superpower because of the efforts of a few individuals and non-Japanese fans keen to promote its pop  culture. This time could be different, with a Japanese PM keen to exploit Japanese 'cool'. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into a more aggressive push of Japanese food culture or its relegation to the sidelines as esoteric.