March 26, 2024 TOPICS

[Visiting Centers of Knowledge] Leveraging Food Science to Address Social Issues: Research Center for Gastronomic Arts and Sciences

Food is so familiar and commonplace that it may be hard to view it as a subject of academic inquiry. When you think about it, however, food-related social issues such as food crises, SDGs related to food and food security, food culture, food production and business, and health and nutrition, exist in diverse forms and attract the attention of many people. The Ritsumeikan University Research Center for Gastronomic Arts and Sciences is unique among food research institutes in that it pursues comprehensive research on the topic of food. We spoke with the center's director, Mariko Arata (Professor, College of Gastronomy Management), about the reason for its establishment and its research activities.

An interdisciplinary, integrated approach to food science

The predecessor of the Research Center for Gastronomic Arts and Sciences was the International Research Center for Gastronomical Science, which was established in 2014. In response to the accelerating globalization of food in a wide range of fields, including production, distribution systems, and food culture, the Center undertook activities with the aim of becoming a hub for both information on food-related activities and food research that contributes to cross-cultural understanding and food business innovation. In April 2018, the Center made a fresh start under its current moniker when the College of Gastronomy Management was opened.

One of the objectives of the Center is to “establish and promote food science as a comprehensive discipline.” Based on the idea that interdisciplinary and integrated research that transcends the boundaries of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences is necessary to understand the essence of and find solutions to the various food-related problems facing modern society, the Center conducts comprehensive research in a diverse array of fields, such as food management, food culture, and food technology, in an effort to firmly establish food science as a new discipline.

Professor Arata gave us brief overview of the specific research areas that each of these fields encompasses.

“Food management encompasses all aspects of management as it relates to food, from production to consumption, including food-related policies and management strategies. This field deals with a wide range of topics, including marketing, behavioral economics, resource recycling, and agribusiness. In the field of food culture, we study the past and future of food culture through the lenses of history, sociology, cultural anthropology, ethnography, geography and more. Meanwhile, food technology explores new possibilities for food from a wide range of aspects such as sensory evaluation, cognitive science, nutrition, and culinary science."

A place where researchers from around the world meet and influence each other

As a comprehensive, interdisciplinary research hub, the Center collaborates extensively with domestic and international researchers and institutions, government agencies, and companies that conduct advanced research in the field of food science. This is symbolized by the international symposia that the Center has held on several occasions to date.

For example, Ritsumeikan hosted two large international symposia in 2016 and 2017 in the two years leading up to the opening of the College of Gastronomy Management in 2018. In 2016, Ritsumeikan held a two-day symposium entitled “Exchange and Dynamism of Food Culture in Asia : Past, Present and Future” in cooperation with the National Museum of Ethnology. We invited the Asian Food Study Conference, an international food research body composed of scholars from China and around the world, to Biwako-Kusatsu Campus, and the symposium was a smashing success, attracting numerous presenters mainly from Asia. In 2017, under the title of “Food Studies and Higher Education in the World,” we invited speakers from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, a pioneer in the field of food science, and Cornell University in the United States to discuss the state of food science research and education in Japan and around the world.

Professor Arata recounts: “These international symposia served to raise public awareness of the need for a comprehensive study of food science as well as to make a case for the Center as a world-class hub for food research.” She views these as "epoch-making events" in terms of laying the foundation for the Center’s research network with domestic and international researchers and organizations.

In recent years, the food business has been hit hard by the global outbreak of COVID-19, and in 2021, the Center hosted an online international symposium entitled "Food and Agriculture beyond the Pandemic.” Here, participants shared information on the problems faced by the food business and the industry’s responses to the pandemic, and they discussed recommendations for building a sustainable food management system, a roadmap for future research, and ways to develop human resources. The daylong symposium featured a variety of sessions from 9:30 to 17:30, and numerous speakers and participants were in attendance. “It was an invaluable opportunity to share local wisdom across borders,” says Professor Arata.

These international symposiums show how the Center functions as a place where a diverse array of researchers meet, influence each other, and communicate and apply their research outcomes to the real world.

Thinking about the transmission of food culture centered on traditional food

In addition to possessing a broad network of researchers, another feature of the Center is its close collaboration with the local community. Research activities conducted in the form of study groups and research projects also attract a diverse array of members from industry, government, and academia, and the results of this research are being practically implemented as initiatives for regional revitalization and other purposes.

An important topic for the Center is "traditional food," which it has been continuously researching from a variety of perspectives since the time of its predecessor. For example, one keyword in this research is miketsukuni, or the system by which the provinces would bring tributes of food to Kyoto back in the days when it was the capital of Japan. In a project that investigates the origins of this system and the evolution of food processing techniques with a particular focus on Wakasa Obama kodai sasa-zuke (pickled young sea bream), the primary specialty of Wakasa Province (now part of modern day Fukui Prefecture), the Center conducts joint research with counterparts in Obama City in Fukui Prefecture and the Nishiki Market in Kyoto. The aim of this research is to promote regional revitalization and preserve traditional techniques.

Another ongoing project actively aims to continue and expand upon the tradition of eating freshwater fish from Lake Biwa and its surrounding waters. This project takes a comprehensive approach to freshwater fish cuisine, which is less well known than saltwater fish in Japan, by working to improve the profitability of the Lake Biwa fishing industry, expand sales channels and markets, and increase consumption by adopting elements of Asian food culture.

Professor Arata explained the direction for this traditional food research as follows.
“When we talk about food culture, people tend to think of it as a traditional culture that has been preserved for a long time, but I believe that just because something is traditional doesn't mean that it will always remain the same. All culture, not only food culture, develops, is refined, and changes by way of various combinations throughout history. The Japanese food culture of today can be thought of as just a passing point in this trend. In our research on traditional foods, we place more emphasis on how to develop them with an eye on the future, rather than on just preserving something traditional. I believe that by connecting with industry, government, academia, and various other partners, the possibilities for development will expand even further.”

College of Gastronomy Management Professor Mariko Arata, Director of the Ritsumeikan University Research Center for Gastronomic Arts and Sciences

Using a wealth of video content to disseminate research outcomes

It is fair to say that one of the Center’s unique features is its emphasis on the dissemination of its research outcomes. Its official website offers a wide array of video content summarizing the results of its research. The Center has been collaborating with faculty and students of the College of Image Arts and Sciences for some time now, having them record and edit videos of its research projects, and having them hold training sessions on filming and editing techniques. Professor Arata believes that video is a powerful tool for communicating the Center’s research to the general public in an easy-to-understand manner and for sparking interest. Going forward, the Center plans to further enhance its use of video content.

Videos of research outcomes on the official website of the Research Center for Gastronomic Arts and Sciences

What is also interesting is that many of these videos propose new ways of providing food science education by making use of ICT. The videos, which extract the essence of the research and express it in a fast-paced manner, serve to excite viewers about the significant future potential of food science education.
For example, "GAstroEdu" is a program offered to students at affiliated schools that utilizes the university's global food network and cutting-edge technology to provide learning via live experiences that directly connect them to people in foreign countries. Because food is so familiar to us, it is easy to understand that there are many social problems associated with it that exist in complex and intertwined ways, making it easier to see these problems as our own. This program aims to develop talent who can understand the essence of these problems from many perspectives, including not only science and technology, but also culture and history, by having them gain experience with identifying their own solutions using familiar ingredients such as tomatoes, potatoes, and beef. In addition, the College of Gastronomy Management releases the outcomes of its research exploring the possibility of using ICT in practical classes and fieldwork to provide richer and deeper experiences than actually going into the field.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we tried many things to see what we could do with all kinds of ICT. In the future, remote technology will be used for fieldwork as well, so that one person can travel to places that are not accessible to everyone and share their experiences with everyone else, and students can easily ask questions while viewing live video without ever having to go to the site themselves. The advantage of this is that, in addition to indirect learning through books, this kind of direct connection allows for deeper and more developed learning. This applies to research as well as learning. If a researcher wants to do additional research after concluding their fieldwork, they can immediately connect with the site remotely," says Professor Arata, who emphasizes that using ICT can deepen education and research and hopes to further pursue the use of ICT going forward.

Many undergraduate and graduate students, most of whom belong to the College and Graduate School of Gastronomy Management, participate in the Center's research activities. This is because the Center’s leaders believe that “cultivating human resources who can put the results of food science into practice in the real world will lead to the future development of food science and expand the circle of cooperation between industry, government, and academia.” Professor Arata has a big dream for the Center:

“I believe that this Center will serve as a base for research on how to create food businesses and food culture that make the most of each region's unique characteristics. Thinking about the future 30, 50, or 100 years from now, we would like to conduct activities so that people will look back and say that their excellent dietary life today is possible because of the College of Gastronomy Management and this Center.”

When you think about it again, the range of topics covered by food is truly broad, from the health and preferences of each individual to regional revitalization, primary industry, and even international relations. The importance of comprehensive research on food will only increase going forward, and expectations for the Center's activities are sure to grow in step with this. All eyes will remain on the Center to see what kind of solutions it will come up with for social problems and how they will communicate these to transform society.

Related information


March 18, 2024 TOPICS

Reviving Local Small Hydropower Plants