'The Real of the Real'
Kyoto's Heirloom Vegetables and Articulations of Authenticity 1

  • Photograph 1: kamo eggplant selection in a basket

Imagine that you enter a restaurant in Kyoto, Japan that specializes in seasonal dishes featuring local produce. It is summer and you wish to sample a local variety of eggplant: the kamo nasu. You order broiled kamo eggplant topped with a special miso paste. At last, you think, you will get to try the real kamo nasu. Not so fast! The server returns to your table with a basket and indicates that you are to choose between three different kinds of kamo nasu. Which is the most authentic? The Kyo Brand eggplant from Kameoka City? The one with the label for Kyoto City’s seasonal vegetable program? Or the one grown by a farmer in the Kamigamo neighborhood where the variety is said to have been long cultivated?

This essay is concerned with social scientific understandings of authenticity. Using Kyoto’s heirloom vegetable industry as a case study, I argue that for social scientists, authenticity may be usefully approached as the product of a discourse. Treating authenticity as the product of a discourse acknowledges that although the “authenticity” of a tradition or object may be socially ascribed in the present, it is not an arbitrary process but in fact is ascribed according to culturally determined criteria. Based on participant observation in Kyoto as well as interviews with farmers, chefs, local government officials, food experts, and consumers, I argue that Kyoto’s food industry highlights four main criteria in its articulations of authenticity: origin, content, process, and continuity. This production of authenticity has transformed Kyoto vegetables into value-added craft foods by stimulating in consumers an appetite for the “authentic” taste of a place that has become a nostalgia-laden national touchstone. 2

Authenticity Matters

Concern for authenticity has come to permeate everyday life in ways that are becoming increasingly visible to consumers. In their business manual, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II tell the story of a Saturday shopping trip on which fictional characters Eddie and Brenda cross paths with “authentic” products such as Hanes Authentic Tagless T-shirts, Real Bacon Bits, CNN Headline News (“Real News. Real Facts”), Coors beer (“Real Rocky Mountain Beer”), Prego Hearty Meat Sauce (“Authentic Italian Sauce”), and a Barbie Volkswagen New Beetle (“Trunk really opens! Real key chain too!” (2008:32-33). Gilmore and Pine do not overlook the ways in which authenticity has become important for industries like entertainment (the rise of “reality TV”), education (its articulation is far from limited to “virtual” schools), and tourism (they cite Barbados’s slogan “experience the authentic Caribbean” (2008:34-39).

Authenticity has become one of the main criteria according to which consumers and producers distinguish between similar offerings. Consumers may be willing to pay a higher price for something they deem more authentic—a pair of designer jeans, fair trade Ethiopian coffee, or acupuncture from a certified practitioner—but consumers are only willing to pay so much more for authenticity, and it is clear that other factors matter in their decision-making. People certainly purchase knock-off designer goods, download pirated movies, and eat fruit out of season. The ultimate arbiter, the one who decides what is authentic at any given time, and how much this authenticity is worth, is the individual, mediated by the above-mentioned socially articulated criteria.

This particular surge of claims to “authenticity” may be relatively recent, but the word itself is far from new; the Oxford English Dictionary dates it as far back as 1340 CE. It has a fairly wide variety of related meanings, its list of synonyms in Roget’s Thesaurus includes “authoritative,” “convincing,” “genuine,” “good,” “original,” “real,” “true,” and “unquestionable.” The concept of authenticity resonates in the legal, ethical, commercial and philosophical realms and is core to many books in the business, self-help, and philosophy genres. 3 Authenticity is an essential concept in art, cuisine, and other fields in which experts and connoisseurs with discerning “tastes” have learned to tell the “genuine” apart from the imitation.

As a topic of study, authenticity matters to social scientists such as folklorists, anthropologists, and area studies scholars, though it has often been passed over in the pursuit of tradition and history. In the past three decades, social scientists like Richard Handler have found the concept of authenticity to be of great import to contemporary social life and to social science itself. Handler writes that “the same constellation of cultural ideas which allows a soft drink to be marketed as the ‘real thing,’ with the suggestion that those who choose it thereby gain a real or authentic existence, underlies the anthropological search for cultural authenticity” (1986:2). Scholars of culture and heritage—whether they study American Buddhism, African lineage systems, or South American indigenous musical genres—must reflect on what traditions, ideas, and things they and the people they study consider to be culturally authentic. To social scientists, also, then, authenticity matters.

The Authenticity of Food

Because of the powerful symbolic significance of food, its ability to affect an individual’s state of being, and because its frequent consumption is necessary if one is to stay alive, food has become one of those consumer goods for which authenticity is most articulated. Indeed, “[a]uthenticity signals reliability and quality from a consumer’s perspective” (Tellstrom, Gustafsson, and Mossberg 2006:136). But because not all foods resonate symbolically or are perceived as having transformative potential, authenticity is not equally important for all foods in any given society. In her research on Appalachian foodways and the “foodscape” of Asheville, North Carolina, Lucy Long notes that because of moonshine’s hillbilly associations and illegal status, culinary tourists have not sought it out as much as they have local wine, despite moonshine’s deeper local history (2010:17).

In order for something to be perceived as authentic it must be recognizably different from other like things. It must possess what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls the “value of difference” (1995). Indeed, Gilmore and Pine state that “nothing kills authenticity like ubiquity”; the Starbucks franchise, for instance, has grown so much—with multiple branches, sometimes on the same city block, selling not only Starbucks coffee, but also Starbucks music and Starbucks candy—that its image as purveyor of “real” quality coffee has suffered (Gilmore and Pine 2008:2). In Japan, authenticity matters when it comes to certain products: Hokkaido melons, which are far from ubiquitous as each plant only produces one melon; rice, because it has long been imbued with the capacity to stand for “Japaneseness” (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993); and vegetables, which can transmit diseases, chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers, and also radioactive substances like cesium. When it comes to other foods, however, authenticity is less of a concern: in my experience, few Japanese people are concerned about whether the hamburgers they bite into are “authentically American,” and many may not have criteria for evaluating cheese in terms of authenticity.

Consumers, not without the encouragement of marketers, often look to origin as a determiner of authenticity. This is nothing new; sausages and cheese have been marketed by origin since medieval times (Tellstrom, Gustafsson, and Mossberg 2006:132). One modern example of a place that we associate with “authentic” origins is Fiji, which, having “capitalized on its image as a ‘virgin ecosystem’ far from polluting civilization, now sells over US$90 million worth of water a year” (Wilk 2006:306). Bottlers of Fijian water have identified ways in which water from Fiji seems “authentic” and have highlighted this authenticity in their marketing with great success.

Approaching “Authenticity”

The approach of Western philosophers has heavily influenced social views of authenticity, both academic and otherwise. Significantly, philosophers have largely dealt with authenticity by delineating what is inauthentic. One of greatest contributors to the Western understanding of authenticity is Rousseau, who believed that civilization was antithetical to authenticity, and that the latter could still be discovered in “simpler cultures” (Lindholm 2008:9). Lionel Trilling also defined the authentic by opposition: with the social (like Rousseau), and in particular social norms; with the mechanical; and with the monetary (like Sartre) (Gilmore and Pine 2007:88). In his seminal work, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin opposed authenticity with reproduction (1968). The idea that authenticity may be identified by contrast and opposition will be a recurring theme.

The social science literature contains several approaches to the study of authenticity. The first is what I call the “essentialist” approach, which views authenticity as an innate quality that changes little over time. Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin trace the essentialist (or “naturalistic”) approach in anthropology back though Shils, Kroeber, Sapir, Durkheim, and Maine, at least as far back as Edmund Burke (Handler and Linnekin 1984:274). For essentialist scholars, authenticity is either inherently present or completely lacking, and it becomes important to distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic. Edward Shils, for example, proclaims that while societies are continuously changing, “each society remains the same society. Its members do not wake up one morning and discover they are no longer living in, let us say, British society” (1981:163). Tradition is that core that maintains a sense of unity over time. Because of this, Shils feels able to distinguish between authentic and fictitious traditionality. In different language, Eric Hobsbawm places traditions into one of two categories: either genuine or invented (1983:8).

Behind historian Robert Hewison’s critique of what he terms the UK’s “heritage industry” lies a similar view of “tradition” and “authenticity.” One characteristic passage reads: “The look back in nostalgia has become an economic enterprise, as the commercial interests of manufacturers and advertising have recognized. This nostalgia is in part one for a lost sense of authenticity, a nostalgia that consumes ploughman’s lunches and campaigns for real ale” (1987:29). Hewison takes issue with the promiscuous use of the term “heritage”—generally used for economic and political purposes—because he believes that this word promotes sham history, affirms values out of line with twentieth-century democratic progress, and paralyzes society by enchanting it with visions of a phantasmagoric past (1987:10). This perspective is essentialist, setting up, as it does, a contrast between on the one hand what is true, authentic, traditional, and historically accurate, and on the other hand, what is inauthentic, historically inaccurate, and untraditional.

George Ritzer argues from a largely essentialist perspective as well. In The Globalization of Nothing, he contrasts those people, things, places, and services that have “something” (i.e. have distinctive substance) with those that have “nothing” (i.e. are centrally controlled and lack distinctive content). Thus community banks are contrasted with credit card companies, personal bankers with telemarketers, and personal loans with credit card loans (Ritzer 2004:10). The village pub is something; McDonald’s is nothing.

Ritzer admits that authenticity is hard to pin down: “a natural site like Mt. Everest might be considered clearly authentic, but in fact it has been profoundly affected by pollution… and by the now quite large number of people who have attempted to climb it” (2004: 203). Litter, corpses, and a base camp with plans for a cyber café: none of these seem in line with what the “authentic” Everest should look like. Ritzer comments that “even something as remote as Mt. Everest is no longer unequivocally authentic and if Mt. Everest cannot be considered authentic then what can?” (2004:203). Ritzer suggests that we think of authenticity as one end of a continuum, with inauthenticity at the other pole. Thus we can make sense of both Paris, France and the Paris casino-hotel in Las Vegas, neither of which may be entirely authentic or inauthentic. In conceptualizing authenticity and inauthenticity as poles on a continuum, Ritzer diverges from the essentialist tenet that authenticity is either wholly present or entirely absent. Nonetheless, I characterize him as an essentialist because he presents himself as an expert with the authority to characterize things according to their authenticity or inauthenticity, relative though it may be. His book, after all, is premised upon the idea that the difference between things with “nothing” and things with “something” may be discerned with certainty.

Essentialist definitions of “authenticity” and “tradition” are very much anchored in Western common sense (Handler and Linnekin 1984:273). I would not disagree with Ritzer or Hewison that people treat things as though they had immutably authentic or inauthentic essences. Though commonsense definitions may serve quite well as shorthand in everyday speech, scholars examining such social phenomena should not take them for granted. It is useful, rather, to question commonsense assumptions and examine the alternatives.

Handler and Linnekin propose what I term the “symbolic constructionist” approach as a superior alternative to the essentialist approach. They find that “traditions thought to be preserved are created out of the conceptual needs of the present. Tradition is not handed down from the past, as a thing or a collection of things; it is symbolically reinvented in an ongoing present” (1984:280). Ironically enough, in their study of food culture and authenticity Tellstrom, Gustafsson, and Mossberg conclude that although the image of local tradition can significantly enhance the market appeal of food products, this need not be a “real and indisputable” authenticity, since experiential authenticity is what consumers seek (Tellstrom, Gustafsson, and Mossberg 2006). Gilmore and Pine take this idea even further, arguing that nothing is ontologically authentic, but that anything can be experientially so (Gilmore and Pine 2007).

Let us consider how this is possible. Handler and Linnekin’s examination of Hawaiian culture leads them to the understanding that “The varying definitions of authenticity that have resulted from this pursuit [of Hawaiian tradition and cultural identity] reveal that ‘traditional’ is not an objective attribute of cultural practices, but a designation that is always assigned in the present” (Handler and Linnekin 1984:282) Hawaii’s food culture features as a prime example, in particular luau dishes, which are linked to past practices in the popular imagination. Even discontinuities may be framed as continuities: instead of eating the kumu (red fish), participants in today’s luaus feast on lomi-lomi salmon, imported red salted salmon handled with one’s fingers and eaten with tomatoes, crushed ice, and scallions. Handler and Linnekin observe that “Very few modern Hawaiians are aware that lomi salmon is probably a surrogate for the kumu fish; indeed, for Hawaiians today this historical relationship is irrelevant, and lomi salmon is just as traditional, just as meaningful, as kulolo or laulaus” (1984:282). Similarly, a luau is not a luau without slack-key guitar and ukulele playing, and it matters little to their Hawaiianness that these instruments were at one time imported. Indeed the value of such items as “traditional symbols does not depend upon an objective relation the past” (Handler and Linnekin 1984: 286).

The symbolic constructionist approach, then, is based on the tenet that distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic traditions is disingenuous because authenticity is not a verifiable essence, but rather a symbolic attribute established in the present. The story of Camembert cheese illustrates this well. It was the mythic story of its inventor that transformed this French cheese into a national symbol. In the eighteenth-century, the story goes, Marie Harel, a farmwoman from the town of Camembert, was taught how to make the famous Brie cheese by a priest who sought refuge with her family. She followed his recipe, but using a mold for Livarot cheese, and sold her newfangled cheese in neighboring villages. Enter Emperor Napoleon III, who sampled this “Camembert” in a train station and thereafter made it part of the royal diet, even gracing Mme Harel’s grandson with an invitation to his palace at the Tuileries (Boisard 1992:22). So what are we to do when scholars reveal that most of this story is unverifiable and that Camembert probably existed before Mme Harel? Perhaps what matters is the symbolic significance of Camembert and the myth of its origin, not whether the legends behind its creation are true. Linnekin correctly argues that “Symbolically constructed traditions are … not inauthentic; rather, all traditions—Western and indigenous—are invented, in that they are symbolically constructed in the present and reflect contemporary concerns and purposes rather than a passively inherited legacy” (Linnekin 1991:447). Indeed, Boisard’s account tells us more about the twentieth-century France that elevated Camembert to a national symbol than it does about the “authentic” story of the cheese.

Here we glimpse another problem with essentialism: it omits the voices of those for whom authenticity and tradition matter, those who argue about whether a particular thing should be seen as authentic, and it ignores the meaning that people attribute to things. If, as essentialists assume, authenticity is something that professional “experts” can gauge, then those who are inside the culture—for whom authenticity cannot be “objective”—are sidelined.

Take the extreme example of Allan Hanson, who has argued that two Maori traditions, the Io cult and Great Fleet, were fabricated by European anthropologists eager to find similarities between Europeans and pre-contact Maori and thereby reinforce their theoretical leanings, particularly those related to diffusionism and great migrations. Because of his research, Hanson has been accused of being the prototypical Western (essentialist) scholar who patronizingly dismisses indigenous beliefs and traditions as inaccurate and inauthentic.

Hanson protests, however, that he does not believe in an essence of tradition or authenticity. Authenticity cannot be discovered or proven – only articulated, debated, and contested. Authenticity, then, far from being an innate characteristic, is socially ascribed. Thus if the Maori claim the Io cult and Great Fleet as meaningful Maori traditions, then those traditions are not inauthentic. As Hanson tells us, “the fact that culture is an invention, and anthropology one of its creative agents, should not engender suspicion or despair that anthropological accounts do not qualify as knowledge of cultural reality” (Hanson 1989:898). Whereas an essentialist like Hobsbawm separates genuine traditions from invented ones, Hanson views all traditions as invented.

Handler and Linnekin similarly reject the “false dichotomy between tradition and modernity as fixed and mutually exclusive states,” instead defining tradition as “an interpretive process that embodies both continuity and discontinuity” (Handler and Linnekin 1984:273). They aver that

Traditions are neither genuine nor spurious, for if genuine tradition refers to the pristine and immutable heritage of the past, then all genuine traditions are spurious. But if… tradition is always defined in the present, then all spurious traditions are genuine. Genuine and spurious—terms that have been used to distinguish objective reality from hocus-pocus—are inappropriate when applied to social phenomena, which never exist apart from our interpretations of them (1984: 288)

Indeed, Handler and Linnekin shed light on the problematic elements of perspectives such as Hewison’s. Their research on “tradition” in Quebec and Hawaii, like the examples of the Camembert and the Io cult, also illustrate how what any society counts as “tradition” is socially created.

The symbolic constructionist approach allows us to include the perspectives of the actors themselves. It fails, however, insofar as it treats claims of tradition or authenticity as though they emerged arbitrarily and spontaneously from nothing. In symbolic constructionism it seems as though anything can be perceived as authentic or traditional in a given culture, and little attention is paid to the difference between what the actors themselves see as authentic and inauthentic. By approaching authenticity as a discourse, however, we can place disparate claims to authenticity in relief, contrasting them with each other, while acknowledging their historico-cultural context. By doing so we maintain the symbolic constructionist understanding that authenticity is a value attributed in the present, while gaining a stronger grasp of how authenticity is articulated and contested in a given situation.

Discourse and essence are intrinsically opposed to each other, an understanding we can glean from Foucault:

We must not imagine that there is a great unsaid or a great unthought which runs throughout the world and intertwines with all its forms and all its events, and which we would have to articulate or to think at last. Discourses must be treated as discontinuous practices, which cross each other, are sometimes juxtaposed with one another, but can just as well exclude or be unaware of each other (Foucault 1981:67)

Cultural theorists follow Foucault in using the term “discourse” as “an amalgam of the meanings derived from the term’s Latin and French origins and influences (a speech/conversation) and a more specific theoretical meaning which sees discourse as the general domain of the production and circulation of rule-governed statements” (Mills 2004:8-9; italics mine). The importance of rules/norms will be relevant to our analysis, although in the case of authenticity the word “criteria” seems more appropriate. Sara Mills points out that Foucault views discourse as productive (2004:17). Among other things, a discourse may produce concepts and effects. We may think of authenticity, then, as the product of discourse, both as a general concept and in terms of particular claims that are accepted, rejected, modified, and even co-opted.

Approaching authenticity as a discourse rather than as an essence does not condemn us to viewing authenticity as arbitrary, insignificant or meaningless. On the contrary, approaching it as a discourse requires the recognition that authenticity matters greatly and differently to various actors. Hence the demand for advice from experts on the discourse of authenticity such as Gilmore and Pine, AuthenticityConsulting, and BusinessWeek contributor Sohrab Vossoughi. Linnekin writes that “However effectively scholars deconstruct authenticity and reveal it to be an intellectual red herring, the concept remains nonetheless entrenched in popular thought and is an emotional, political issue for indigenous peoples, particularly for those who are engaged in a struggle for sovereignty” (Linnekin 1991:446). If authenticity matters culturally, then it is worth examining, and the analytic of discourse enables us to do so while including multiple voices and paying attention to cultural values.

Kyoto’s Vegetable Industry

All of the different brands of kamo eggplant—each with producers, retailers, and marketers that claim to have authentic produce—are considered to fall into the larger category of kyō yasai. Kyō yasai is an undefined term that simply means “Kyoto vegetables” and encompasses everything from the shishigatani squash to the newfangled kyō temari tomato. Since it remains undefined, legally speaking, it could arguably be applied to any vegetable grown in Kyoto. Despite the term’s fluidity, kyō yasai are attributed an aura of elegance and mystique that is linked to their mythico-historic origins in the Heian era (794-1185 CE), when Kyoto was the imperial capital and traditional Japanese culture began to flourish.

After World War II, as the global circulation of food and agriculture became more pronounced, standardized vegetable varieties—particularly inexpensive foreign imports—became increasingly common and several of Kyoto’s heirloom varieties became extinct. In response to this, and what was perceived as a local agricultural industry under assault, Kyoto Prefecture created an official definition for “traditional Kyoto vegetables” or kyō no dentō yasai in 1988. This term refers only to varieties that have a local history dating to the Meiji era (1868-1912 CE) or prior. 4 Kyoto’s Prefectural government has also assisted with the creation of a prefectural brand for produce that was originally limited to vegetables. Kyoto City, in an attempt to assist those farmers within the city who do not participate in the Kyo Brand, has instituted the Kyoto seasonal vegetable program (kyō no shun yasai purogurammu), a smaller project that supports farmers who grow varieties that range from the manganji sweet pepper to broccoli and sweet potatoes.

On the whole, “traditional” vegetables from Kyoto now fetch much higher prices than similar varieties from other prefectures. At a wholesale vegetable market in Tokyo, I saw four cartons of sweet peppers that illustrate this trend. Whereas peppers from Yamagata Prefecture were selling for 600 yen, and peppers from Kumamoto for 800, a case of slightly misshapen Kyoto manganji peppers went for 1500 yen, and a better-looking bunch 3000 yen. The retailer explained that in Japanese cuisine the highest grade vegetables come from Kyoto. “These peppers are totally delicious. The sweetness really comes out. They’re not at all like bell peppers,” he told me. The price difference he attributed to the strength of the Kyoto Brand and its effective advertising.


Although the label “Kyoto vegetable” appears to set up place of origin as the defining trait of this group of vegetables, the term “Kyoto” signifies different places to different people. The word “Kyoto” means capital and its use in branding and marketing nostalgically references the imperial capital of Heian times. The logic of nostalgia in Japan and how it links urban and rural areas is worth examining. In Japan, nostalgia for one’s hometown (furusato)—whether this means one’s place of birth, where one grew up, or a place of one’s choosing—creates a demand for products and services that may regularly satisfy and sustain that longing. Furusatokai (“old village associations”) that sell self-consciously “local” produce to urban consumers via parcel post is one example of this, as John Knight shows (1998). The village, a member of a furusatokai tells Knight, is seen by urbanites as “the real home, the place of ‘real tastes’” (Knight 1998:164). It might seem peculiar that Kyoto, then, associated as it is with urban culture, could tap into this market for agricultural products that temporarily satisfy pangs of nostalgia. Kyoto, however, is seen as the birthplace of Japan’s cultural heritage, including traditional cuisines (see Hosking 1996) and is known within Japan as Nihon no kokoro no furusato (Brumann 2009:278). Kyoto marshals its cultural capital and markets itself as the ultimate furusato, thereby whetting appetites for products—and produce—redolent of tradition. Indeed, this is what makes Kyoto one of the most recognizable place-based brands in all of Japan (see Nikkei Research 2011 and Brand Research Institute, Inc. 2010, for example).

For chefs and food experts, origin also contributes to the “taste of place” or “terroir,” especially the positive influence of its temperature variations and the quality of Kyoto’s soil and water. One of my interviewees, an agricultural researcher who has also worked for a vegetable distributor, claims that Kyō yasai are high quality vegetables that were brought to the imperial capital for the emperor and thereafter developed into unique varieties as they were grown in conditions eminently favorable for agricultural production. Other sources, including agronomist Takashima (2003) similarly identify climate, soil, and water as key factors that make Kyoto’s produce particularly tasty, though as I explain later, the issue of taste is a complicated and as of yet relatively unarticulated one.

Kyoto Prefecture promotes the Kyoto Brand using Kyoto as shorthand for the prefecture, differentiating its produce from that grown in other Japanese prefectures and abroad. The prefectural government publishes recipes and information on the nutritional value of kyō yasai in pamphlets and on the Internet. The prefectural newsletter, delivered monthly to all households, always includes a recipe in which the main ingredient or secret ingredient is a Kyo Brand vegetable. During seasonal campaigns, samples of dishes made with Kyoto vegetables are given out in local supermarkets and Tokyo’s upscale department stores.

Kyoto City assigns origin to specific neighborhoods of Kyoto City and supports farmers from those neighborhoods who cultivate designated vegetable varieties. Many of these vegetables’ names are derived from the place they are purported to have first been cultivated. The kamo eggplant, for instance, is said to have been grown in the Kamigamo neighborhood longer than other places. For Kyoto City, the next best alternative to assigning origin to a neighborhood is designating the city as a whole as the origin of kyō yasai. Thus the shōgoin cucumber may be seen as authentic even though the only farmer I know who grows it does so in Kamigamo and not Shōgoin. Kyoto City encourages the local consumption of locally grown produce by publishing information and advertisements and by running vegetable stands throughout the city—most notably in subway stations.

The Kamigamo Heirloom Vegetable Research Organization is a group of about 20 farmers who take turns growing and harvesting seeds for the kamo eggplant. One member, Y-san, explained that the kamo eggplant they grow is “the real of the real” because it comes from the right neighborhood (the one with the longest history of growing it), as do the seeds and the farmers themselves.

The discourse in which these articulations of authenticity are produced is attuned to the taste consumers have developed for place-based authenticity. According to a recent poll, one of the most appealing characteristics of kyō yasai for consumers in Kyoto is the fact that they are locally produced, a possible indication of the effectiveness of Kyoto’s marketing and educational efforts (Kyoto Prefectural Agricultural Research Institute 2007). Local chefs also discriminate according to place of origin. One chef at a renowned local restaurant told me that authenticity mattered to his boss and his customers and that a “real kyō yasai” was grown in the “right place” from seeds “from long ago.”


Seeds hold the genetic material that supposedly carries the “essence” of the varieties themselves. But seeds are not enough to ensure authenticity based on content. The story of the momoyama daikon illustrates this. Though farmers stopped growing this local variety of Japanese radish decades ago, researchers at Kyoto Prefectural Agricultural Research Institute continued to cultivate it in order to ensure that its genetic material would not be lost. One city farmer whose family had never grown it became interested in growing it and was able to get seeds from the Institute. When he presented his radishes at one of the local agricultural fairs, however, he was criticized because his radishes looked unlike the “prototypical” momoyama radish. He then received assistance from another farmer who knew what the radish variety had looked like in the past. For several years they planted these radishes, picking out only those that were close to the ideal until they were able to harvest an entire crop of radishes that resembled “authentic” momoyama radishes.

Farmers understand that over time a vegetable variety will change and they take precautions to minimize the degree to which this happens. Many farmers in Kyoto City’s Kamigamo area harvest seeds from their own superior specimens. But cross-pollination, changes in local climate, and changes in consumer tastes have resulted in vegetables that deviate from the “ideal” form. The karami daikon, for instance, does not possess the intensely sharp taste once characteristic of this variety and for which it was named (Nakamura 2007).

Local agricultural fairs provide an opportunity for circulating knowledge of authentic appearance and evaluating local produce accordingly. Kyō yasai are held to particularly rigid standards. At one fair I attended, a farmer won a prize because his takagamine peppers were closer to the ideal than those of his peers, whose specimens appeared to have mixed with the manganji pepper.

  • Photograph 2: The head judge at a local agricultural fair examining a takagamine pepper.

Appearance—and especially shape—is a key criteria for evaluating the authenticity of kyō yasai based on content. Indeed, appearance is what gives kyō yasai varieties their rarity value. When vegetable varieties are selected for the Kyo Brand, they are judged according to the degree to which they reflect Kyoto’s “mysteriousness.” For this reason, the shishigatani squash passed with flying colors. Though farmers and agricultural experts widely admit that it is far from tasty, the scaly brown hourglass-shaped squash is marketable because of its history and its distinct appearance. Indeed, this squash is often placed with other vegetables outside restaurants that serve local cuisine even when their menus include no dishes featuring the squash.

Taste is relied upon to a lesser degree in determining authenticity. The kamo eggplant, for instance, is touted as having tough skin and firm flesh. One chef said it has an applelike flavor for her. On the whole, however, those I interviewed—even experts—were inconsistent as to what specific varieties of kyō yasai taste like and why they are so delicious. Perhaps this is due to a lack of a ready vocabulary for differentiating between the taste of similar varieties. This also indicates that Kyoto’s food industry seems to have been less successful in circulating knowledge of taste than it has in articulating the authenticity of local produce. If anything, interviewees seemed to think that save for exceptions like the shishigatani squash, authentic kyō yasai would inevitably be more delicious than their counterparts from other prefectures.


Process may be the criteria according to which Kyoto vegetables have changed the most, particularly over the course of the past century. Even those farmers whose families have cultivated these vegetable varieties on the same land for centuries, who harvest and plant their own seeds, and who seek to reproduce vegetables that have an appearance close to the “ideal,” are without doubt modern farmers. Indeed, the very appeal and designation of these vegetable varieties as “traditional” is a modern (or postmodern) phenomenon. Only in recent times have once tasty but “ordinary” local varieties become rare enough that a nostalgic eater may even consider them “exotic.”

Freshness, safety, and purity contribute to a sense of natural authenticity. Kyoto’s seasonal vegetable program advertises all of these things. Its directory of shun yasai farmers even contains several pages of graphs and charts that reveal the extent to which vegetables possess greater amounts of vitamins and minerals when they are in season. 5

One farmer I spoke to who is by all appearances a “traditional” farmer is K-san. He grows rare vegetable varieties not because there is a financial incentive to do so, but in order to keep them in existence. He harvests his own seeds, even for the kamo eggplant. And yet he too employs modern farming methods. Like most farmers, he grafts the kamo eggplant onto a sturdier variety. He explains, “My farming is not 100% organic. That would be impossible.”


Running down the middle of a Kyoto Brand poster is a list of “past customers,” including historical figures of national importance such as Ono Komachi and Sakamoto Ryōma. The text ends with an ellipsis, implying that those who eat Kyoto vegetables today may also join the elite list. This sense of continuity (of origin, content, and process) is a key ingredient to the authenticity of kyō yasai; the further back in time the continuity of one of these criteria may be traced, the more authentic it is said to be.

  • Photograph 3: Kyo Brand vegetable poster

Continuity is very meaningful to small-scale farmers whose ancestors grew some of the same varieties on the same land. Several farmers I spoke to grow varieties of cucumber, eggplant, and beans that at most one other farmer grows. They choose to continue cultivating these varieties despite the marginal profits involved because these vegetables might go extinct otherwise. Thus many of these farmers have additional sources of income, such as real estate. It is also common for women farmers to take up the distribution routes their foremothers used to sell their produce to regular customers (see, for instance, Tamura 2006).

Despite the historical impetus for continuity, however, the way a vegetable is cultivated is reflective of the present. Farming practices have changed with the availability of chemical fertilizers and insecticides as well as novel organic techniques. These vegetables are also used in innovative ways: consider kamo eggplant jam, horikawa burdock root stuffed with wild boar, and mizuna salad, which has established itself as a common dish, though mizuna was traditionally added to hot pots, not eaten raw.

Continuity does not always wholly appeal to everyone. Not only are Japanese consumers known to have an appetite for trends and goods only available for a limited time, but consumer demand inevitably changes over time. 6 Dr. Nakamura Yasushi has argued that changes in consumer preferences over the last half-century have resulted in Kyoto vegetables that are on the whole less flavorful than they used to be (Nakamura 2007). Similarly, the women who give out samples of Kyoto vegetable dishes in Tokyo’s upscale department stores may proclaim, “These are fine specimens of Kyoto’s traditional summer vegetables!” or “Introducing the taste of Kyoto!” but their recipes are adjusted to suit the palates of Tokyo residents, who are accustomed to more strongly-flavored home cooking.


The Kyoto vegetable case study I presented illustrates the usefulness of treating authenticity as the product of a discourse. There is no divide that separates with certainty things that are “authentic” from others that are “inauthentic” because authenticity is socially ascribed and culturally specific. Nonetheless, I argue that authenticity is neither randomly attributed nor without social significance. On the contrary, it is the product of a discourse based on criteria that are commonly accepted as socially meaningful. Claims of authenticity for Kyoto vegetables—the collectivity, individual varieties, and those specific crops grown by certain farmers—touch upon origin, process, content, and continuity as important criteria for evaluating authenticity.

present that has recourse to the past” and “a ‘value added’ industry” (1995:369). The case study of kyō yasai illustrates both of these points; by whetting consumers’ appetites for authenticity and tapping into national images of Kyoto as the nostalgia-laden imperial capital, Kyoto’s vegetable industry has made kyō yasai into value-added craft foods. These strategies have been economically successful. In the context of a Japan that has opened its doors to cheap imports of produce from abroad, it is significant that unlike most of the other prefectures in the Kinki region, Kyoto’s vegetable production has increased over the past 30 years (Kyoto Prefectural Agricultural Research Institute 2007). 7

The success of kyō yasai has spurred the creation of other prefectural brands for produce. It has also prompted farmers in other prefectures and even other countries to grow kyō yasai varieties. Though the varieties themselves are usually consistent with traditional Kyoto varieties, and the farming methods are consistent with traditional Kyoto farming methods, kyō yasai varieties grown outside of Kyoto cannot duplicate the authentic taste of Kyoto – a taste rich in history and nostalgia. It is the perceived authenticity of the Kyoto vegetables as marketed through various channels —posters, food samples in Tokyo, and culinary tourism in Kyoto—that has turned kyō yasai into value-added craft foods. As one farmer succinctly puts it, “If you grow a Kyoto vegetable in California, it’s not a Kyoto vegetable anymore.”

This is neither to say that authenticity has been established once and for all nor that Kyoto’s farmers will prosper hereafter. Since authenticity is not an immutable essence to be discovered but a socially determined value that is the product of a discourse, it is not clear that authenticity will always be an important factor Japanese consumers take into account when they buy vegetables, nor is it certain that any of the varieties of kyō yasai —much less the collectivity as a whole—will still be considered authentic vis-à-vis similar vegetable varieties in years to come.

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  • 1. The author would like to thank Sarah Womack, Theresa Miller, Keith Brown, and Richard Scaglion for their comments and proofreading of various manifestations of this research. Thank you also to Caitlin Bethune and Diane Tye for their very thorough reading of this manuscript and their editorial suggestions.
  • 2. I use the term “value-added” to refer to those products or services to which the value of “pastness, exhibition, difference, and where possible indigeneity” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1995:370) is emphasized and for which consumers are expected to pay more. In the category of “craft foods,” meanwhile, I include those foods that are produced, marketed, sold, and consumed as possessing rarity value (especially in comparison to mass produced foods) because of distinctive production methods, provenance, ingredients, and the like.
  • 3. In addition to those texts I discuss in this essay, other examples are Brenner and Letich 2003; Barker and Taylor 2007; and Eversley 2004.
  • 4. This group consists of 37 vegetable varieties and three additional varieties that almost make the list.
  • 5. Kujō scallions possess over two times the zinc, and spinach and shungiku almost three times the vitamin C, for instance.
  • 6. On Japanese consumers’ appreciation of trends and limited edition items see, for instance, Businessweek.com 2007 article “Fad Marketing’s Balancing Act.”
  • 7. 52 tons of kyō yasai were Brand certified in 1989. By 2008 that number had grown to 2, 313 tons (Kyo no furusato sanpin kyōkai 2010). According to farmers I have interviewed, this is true for non-Brand produce in Kyoto City as well; whereas the kamo and yamashina eggplants were on the decline forty years ago, now it is relatively easy to get a hold of both varieties. One should note that though Brand sales remain strong, the past five years have shown a decline in Kyoto Prefecture’s gross agricultural product.