You have heard it before: Their diet endows Japanese people with centennially long lives, slender figures, and generally good health. The designation of washoku (Japanese cuisine) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Food Heritages as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013 has put the subject of the traditional Japanese diet and the effect of food globalization in Japan in the spotlight.
Food globalization is often viewed as McDonaldization—a homogeneous process with corresponding outcomes. It’s generally discussed in mainstream media through a bipolar lens, the theme being how the foreign invasion of food culture threatens local food traditions and ingredients.
Yet, walking around any major street in Tokyo, you will find American fast-food chains peacefully co-existing next to soba, tempura and sushi restaurants.
Is this the perfect dream of convenience and culture come true? And is there more room for foreign foods to enter the market?
Even Intangible Heritage is Subject to Outside Influence
UNESCO states that its designation of Intangible Cultural Heritage is not to set “any standard of excellence or exclusivity” but to ensure the protection of “the wealth of knowledge and skills” transmitted by culture over generations. Yet, even UNESCO stresses that intangible heritage is “constantly changing and evolving.”
The general assumption in Japan and abroad is that the introduction of Western fast-food chains threatens washoku food culture. Reports of increasing obesity amongst children and fears that a change in the Japanese diet will disrupt the long-hailed longevity of the Japanese life span have been raised.
In fact, there is a general concern that traditional Japanese washoku culture will be lost with the new generations. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has even created downloadable guidebooks of Japanese food culture for teachers, families, and communities to try and keep Japanese traditional culinary arts alive for future generations.
How People Eat Changes with How People Live
But ethnographic studies of the introduction of Western fast food establishments in Japan have introduced broader lenses to look through. They suggest that we look beyond what people in Japan eat today and examine how people in Japan eat today. How people eat in 2019 modern Japan is different than it was 60 years ago. There is a myriad of cultural complexities that are more related to modern times and changing work culture than to foreign influences.
Historically, traditional eating in all countries has been dictated by eating at specific times during the day and depended on what local and seasonal ingredients were available. When people gathered to eat was determined by their schedule, which depended upon the social work culture of their era. In a modern work culture, snacking and quick eating is a phenomenon that was born more from necessity due to the modern work schedule than the appropriation of foreign ingredients.
Fast Food is Authentically Japanese
While in America, fast food may symbolize a departure from communal dining, in Japan, individual quick eat venues have already been a long-standing option for hard workers with limited time. What many people fail to recognize is that fast food is a Japanese tradition that goes way back.
Nigiri Sushi (the standard type of sushi now beloved around the globe) carts can be traced back to the 1820s along the Sumida river which spread across Tokyo in the hundreds by the 1920s. Yataimise (roadside food and drink stalls), and yakitori (chicken skewers) and yaki imo (roasted sweet potatoes) sold on the go have long been a part of this hard-working culture. The term tachigui (立ち食い) (stand up noodle shops) is derived from the kanji 立 (to stand) and 食 (to eat.) The first notable instance of its use was in the Yoshinaga years of the Edo period (1848-1851). So this contradicts blaming Western fast food for wolfing-down-your-food habits in Japan.
The idea that Western fast food chains threaten the Japanese tradition of communal dining is somewhat erroneous. In fact, rather than disrupting the commensality of community gathering for meals, the Japanese have incorporated Western style chains into their culture. The proliferation in Japan today of these fast-food chains are more of a reflection of changes in Japan as part of overall global processes rather than Westernization. The Japanese incorporate Western-style eating venues in ways that are consistent with patterns long established in Japanese culture.
Fast Food Means Different Things to Different People
Fuasuto Fudo, the Japanese term adopted from the English ”fast food,” can mean different things to different people in Japan today. While older generations might apply it to Western-style fast food establishments that they consider foreign, to many younger and middle-aged Japanese, establishments like McDonald’s and KFC are considered Japanese. Thus, fast food can mean western style chains, a beef bowl at Japanese fast-food chain Yoshinoya, an onigiri from the convenience store, kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, or tachigui, depending on who you talk to. Far from being an exclusively Western thing.
For the Japanese, fast food has more to do with the style of selling to the consumer rather than the actual food itself. Yoshinoya, one of the oldest fast-food chains in Japan has been in business since 1899. The first Yoshinoya opened in the fish market of Tsukiji. As a chain, it now has over 1,200 stores in Japan and has spread across Asia and California. In Japan, Yoshinoya, Sukiya, and Matsuya are designed for the individual customer to grab a quick meal at the counter (kaunta seki). They are not considered by the Japanese as places to go when you want to socialize with friends or family.
When Does a Food Become Japanese?
Rice, a prevailing symbol of Japanese identity was introduced into Japan around 400 B.C. and appropriated into the local Japanese culture by creating the distinction between first-rate domestic rice (naichimai) and foreign rice (gaimai). Ramen is another food that was completely adopted and is considered today to be native. But the most iconic example of Japanese appropriation is the tale of Japan’s KFC Christmas tradition which began in 1970 with the manager of the first KFC in Japan, Takeshi Okawara.
Okawara had overheard some foreigners in his store talking about how they missed turkey for Christmas dinner and thought that promoting a party bucket of fried chicken for Christmas might be a good marketing technique. The resulting campaign Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (On Christmas Day, it is Kentucky!) exploded by the mid-1970s and is now here to stay. If you tried to convince any Japanese teenager that KFC at Christmas isn’t Japanese, you would be surprised.
Consumer rituals spread to other countries and become appropriated in different ways. It has been so since the beginning of human history. This fact has simply been duly noted by UNESCO.
Do Noodle Shops Threaten Washoku?
So, if the idea of fast food in Japan is not directly tied to the invasion of Western chains, what opportunities are there in a world of washoku for Western food?
Washoku is an art form which involves much more than fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. It’s also about the structure of the menu, the principal of ichi ju san sai (one soup, three side dishes) accompanied by a bowl of rice, the aesthetic plating of the meal, the use of traditional Japanese lacquerware, and exceptional omotenashi (hospitality).
The notion that washoku is being replaced in the typical Japanese family home in daily life because of foreign fast food alternatives is a huge stretch. Most typical dual-income Japanese families are simply too busy for full-on washoku. Washoku is special — something to be enjoyed at a ryokan on vacation, or as osechi-ryori on New Year’s with family — very much like Americans might stuff a turkey and make cranberry sauce; not every day but once a year.
In short, to make the accusation that Western fast food is threatening the art of washoku, you must also make the accusation that tachigui is threatening the art of washoku. That fact is, reliance on convenience foods in general will continue to grow as more women enter the workforce and more busy young people opt to eat out. Ultimately, the types of convenience foods chosen are left up to the consumer.
Make it Japanese for the Japanese
One of the beauties of Japanese food culture is that while it isn’t exclusive it remains Japanese. Like other industries, the Japanese are masters at appropriating foreign goods and concepts and making them their own. We see this distinctly in how the Japanese auto industry used technology to make critical changes to U.S. procedures and concepts in mass production which led them to dominate the market from and threaten U.S. automakers.
There is plenty of room in Japan for even more foreign food adoption. Just don’t expect foreign food to taste the same as it does in its country of origin. Present your products in a way that align with Japanese culture and taste, and you have a good chance of the Japanese embracing them as something that can turn native.
As one of four Japanese societal macro trends monitored regularly by CarterJMRN (along with Women Power, Generational Dynamics, and the Changing World of Work ), Internationalization impacts consumer behavior across many age groups as attitudes toward work continue to evolve in relation to lifestyle, including availability and use of personal and leisure time.
Image Source: Satake 5 on pixabay.com