By Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho
October 9th, 2006
I wrote the following article about current events in the Japanese restaurant industry and recent attempts by Japanese government authorities to set “quality control” standards for Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. Some of the thinking behind these proposed controls I think are very dangerous for Japan’s standing at large on the world stage and are worth looking at closely.
There are also Japanese government sponsored organizations that dispatch Japanese Aikido instructors to other countries around the world to teach Aikido. These instructors are given a nice salary and benefit package to travel overseas to teach. It has been my experience however that these instructors are given little in the way of training in understanding the cultures and organizational structure of the martial art community they are entering. As a result, sometimes these instructors do not adjust well in their new communities; refusing sometimes to even learn the local languages or show respect for existing native instructors.
Pride in the traditions of one’s country is a good quality to keep, but for Japanese instructors teaching in a new land, I think it is important to arrive in their new environment fortified with proper understanding about local conditions, politics and the dynamics between existing local dojos. Without proper background research and a respect for new cultures and conditions what should be a positive cultural exchange can turn into a negative one. What starts out as pride in ones own background can turn into blaming others for ones own shortcomings. This ultimately can cause bitterness for these Japanese instructors and the program they represent. This is a waste of time and also a waste of the Japanese tax payer’s money that supports them.
I have lived in the United States for a long time now, and I am deeply involved with the Japanese martial art community and the Japanese restaurant community where I live. In both of these communities I have observed problems and concerns that are similar in nature and origin. In both of these Japanese communities, the root of some of the problems is the same as the problem I see in the Japanese government’s proposed plans to rank Japanese restaurants outside of Japan; a feeling of Japanese ethnocentrism and superiority; a Japan is “Number 1” syndrome.
Today outside of Japan,
There are many Japanese restaurants owned by non-Japanese owners.
There are many Japanese martial art dojos run by non-Japanese instructors.
I have heard,
Japanese chefs blaming local Japanese restaurant owners for failure in their
businesses in the same ways I have heard Japanese government-dispatched Japanese martial art instructors complain about competition from ‘non-Japanese” dojos.
I have seen,
How hard native employees work under Japanese restaurant owners.
How hard students work under Japanese martial art instructors.
Japanese government officials now wish to control Japanese restaurants outside of Japan through “authenticity and tradition” ranking. So do Japanese government sponsored organizations wish to control Japanese martial art dojos outside of Japan through the rules of federations, headquarters and boards of ranking shihan.
Japan’s society has developed to a high standard in the last century, but there are dangerous pitfalls along this road to prosperity. A most dangerous pitfall is a nationalistic sense of superiority. Too much of this thinking can lead to problems that I think are already evident in our martial art world community today.
While reading the following article I hope you will be able to see the similarities in current events involving Japanese restaurants and Japanese martial art dojos outside of Japan.
Currently I spend only about six months of the year at Nippon Kan Headquarters in Denver. The rest of the time I am traveling to teach Aikido and coordinate AHAN activity projects in countries outside of the U.S. I think my stomach too has become a good traveler and I can eat most anything in all of the countries that I visit.
Even for me however, after eating the foods of other countries for awhile, I begin to show certain travelers symptoms. The first symptom to appear is a craving for Japanese food. If this symptom cannot be satisfied, the next symptom to appear is the “Chinese food would be okay” craving. I have discovered that you can find a Chinese restaurant in most countries, and the prices are usually good, the portions large, and most importantly, there is RICE! Even if the tastes are different, soy sauce and miso are also used in Chinese cooking; ingredients used in abundance in Japanese cuisine. So even if the Chinese fare in a country far from its origin is not quite to my taste, it satisfies my travelers craving for my home foods, and for this I am grateful.
I imagine that Japanese executives traveling for business or headquartered in other countries do not experience these same cravings since their expense accounts allow them to order any kind of food they desire, regardless of where they are.
A few weeks ago I read an article in a major Japanese newspaper that really surprised me. The title of the article was, “Japanese restaurants outside of Japan examined and ranked for authenticity”. The article went on to describe how the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) had done preliminary authenticity rankings of Japanese restaurants in France.
It was not long ago that a new Prime Minister was elected in Japan, and a new cabinet was appointed. In a recent interview with the new Minister of Agriculture, he spoke on this subject. In general he stated that Japanese restaurants outside of Japan needed to be controlled for quality and “authenticity”, and that the first criterion to be used in this new “authenticating process” was to authenticate restaurants in other countries based on how many domestic Japanese products they were using.
From what I have read in Japanese news media sources, the real underlying thinking surrounding this issue in Japan is that the Japanese government needs to make a separation between “authentic” Japanese restaurants owned and operated by Japanese nationals and Japanese restaurants run by “non Japanese” owners to stop them from using the “Japanese food boom” to make a profit.
This made me uneasy. It made me a little uncomfortable to think that the Japanese government was getting into the restaurant business overseas, especially in such a seemingly discriminatory way. After researching this issue, I think this whole campaign is really an attempt by the Japanese government to increase the sale of native Japanese products in overseas markets, thus appeasing Japanese producers in Japan.
The entire concept of Japanese control of Japanese restaurants overseas I disagree with. The information they are basing their analysis is biased, the plan flawed in thinking and could damage Japans reputation in the world in a great way.
This made me remember that as a Japanese restaurant owner in Denver, about six months ago, I had been sent a questionnaire by the Consul General of Japan about my business. The first question on the questionnaire was “Are you Japanese? (Only Japanese owners need to reply)”. I am Japanese, but I did not return the questionnaire. I see now how this questionnaire was related to the new proposed mandates set by the Ministry of Agriculture.
JETRO in France, the Minister of Agriculture in Japan and the Consul General in Denver all seemed to working on the same agenda; and this agenda does not agree with me.
The underlying complaint by these three top level government groups seemed to be that “non-Japanese” people like Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese were taking advantage of the popularity of Japanese food by opening Japanese restaurants in countries outside of Japan. The complaint was based on an elitist assumption in my opinion that “non Japanese” restaurant owners were producing bad quality foods, thus tarnishing the reputation of Japan.
I have lived in the United States for thirty years, and in those last thirty years, there have ALWAYS been Japanese restaurants owned and operated by people from countries other than Japan. I wondered why this issue was coming to the forefront now.
Thirty years ago, the target for complaint was the Chinese. Since then I have seen it become the Vietnamese and now, most currently it seems to be people of Korean origin.
Where I wondered was the Japanese government getting its information? Was it Japanese owners of restaurants in other countries? What was their motivation? Were they all successful, or unsuccessful? Were some of these restaurant owners looking to blame someone else for their restaurants failures? Is this information reliable?
I own a Japanese restaurant in Denver myself. The difference in my case is that I started with absolutely no restaurant experience or background; I was a complete amateur when I opened Domo Restaurant. Ten years later, business is good, and Domo has received many awards for its cuisine and atmosphere. My restaurant may be busy now, but it has not always been so; all restaurants struggle at times. Unlike JETRO or some other Japanese restaurant owners, I have never complained that my restaurant lacked business because of competition from “non Japanese” owned Japanese restaurants in Denver. I have never accused anyone of taking something that “was rightfully mine”. In the future if my business goes down, I will not fall into blaming other Japanese restaurants, whoever the owners might be. Customers choose which restaurants they want to go to. A decline in business must be a reflection of me and my operations. Any fluctuation in customer levels requires a restaurant owner to look at what they can do to change or improve their own operations.
Personally I think this is an excuse used by many Japanese restaurant owners to explain away the failure of their own businesses; blaming others instead of looking at themselves. If disgruntled Japanese restaurant owners are the source of information Japanese government officials are relying on to determine that there is a problem with non-Japanese run Japanese restaurants outside of Japan then the information itself is part of the cause for this ethnocentric behavior by Japanese officials; especially since officials in Japan do not have personal knowledge of the life conditions in other countries that define the way restaurants prepare their fare.
My research indicated that there was also another source of information relied on by Japanese government officials for this analysis; that being Japanese executives who travel for business or are relocated to branch offices in other countries. In my opinion, I do not think that Japanese executives are capable of expressing a balanced viewpoint on this subject for the following reasons.
These Japanese executives on average live a very luxurious lifestyle in Japan and are accustom to gourmet foods available to them on their generous expense accounts. If relocated to another country, this type of executive demands the same level of luxury no matter what the particular circumstances are in the country they are in. They want their foods (especially Japanese foods) to have the same ingredients, taste the same, and served the same way as at home in Japan. They do not take into consideration where they are, nor do they venture out to sample the local cuisine. Most of them just demand that things be done their way.
This type of executive has an extremely biased viewpoint based on their own spoiled expectations and experiences of luxury. Any recommendations given by these executives to Japanese government officials will lack any sensitivity or understanding of local cultures, local people or even the physical environment of the countries they might reside in. Most of these executives should not be relied on for a true picture of what is going on in the world on a real, local down to earth level.
There are Japanese restaurants in the world that serve food that is not delicious. That goes without saying, and is true in any country INCLUDING Japan!
What I have a problem with is that, although not directly addressed, the Japanese government seems to be correlating a problem with the quality of food served in Japanese restaurants overseas and the nationality and race of the owners. This worries me. I have traveled to many parts of the world, and yes I have been to bad Japanese restaurants but the quality of the food of any restaurant should not be judged by the nationality or race of the owner or staff of any restaurant. Even Japanese restaurants with Japanese owners are not all good. Bad is bad, but don’t confuse this with nationality or race.
Most concerning in the articles I had read about JETRO and the Minister of Agriculture is that this campaign for authenticity has such an undertone of discrimination. There seemed to be a sense of inferiority assigned by these Japanese government officials to the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Pilipino citizens who owned Japanese restaurants. I do not like this kind of judgment, and think it is especially dangerous on a government level. This kind of thinking in today’s world will leave Japan isolated from its neighbors in Asia, and leave Japanese citizens living outside of Japan isolated from their surrounding communities.
In the United States for example the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Pilipino immigrant populations now far outnumber the Japanese immigrant population. I still think the underlying motivation for this entire discussion is to boost sales of Japanese domestic products in overseas markets. This method “authenticating” alienates vast numbers of people and their cultures and will ultimately not result in the desired increase in market share.
Even in Denver today, the Asian grocery market is dominated by giant Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese supermarkets. These markets are known for their buying power. Their prices are low and their produce is abundant and fresh. These giant supermarkets have already closed down small Japanese markets in the Denver area. How can the Japanese government ever think of being successful in increasing sales of Japanese domestic products (if that is the true intention of this campaign) if they alienate and ignore these growing, powerful sections of the marketplace. The Korean population is large enough in Denver for Korean owned Japanese restaurants to be totally supported by Korean customers. This is not a market share to alienate or ignore.
I question the very definition of “authentic Japanese food” that JETRO, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and even some Japanese owned Japanese restaurants are trying to impose by discriminating against non-Japanese restaurant owners. In today’s world, an American man named Tom, a Chinese man named Chin, a Korean man named Bok, a Vietnamese man named Bui and a Mexican man named Jose can all make the same sushi rolls.
It is a common complaint by Japanese sushi chefs that even if all these people can make sushi that looks and tastes the same as the sushi they make, that their sushi “does not have the same Japanese spirit.”
A customer exclaims “Wow! The tempura is delicious at your restaurant!” In the kitchen behind the front counter a young Pilipino man give the “thumbs up” sign, acknowledging his accomplishment. These are the times we live in. World communities have become much more integrated and to insist that any culinary skill must remain the propriety of any one nationality is not realistic in today’s world.
Many Japanese restaurant owners that I have met spend any time they have off playing golf or other recreational activities with their peers; few use their time to eat at other restaurants, develop new ideas or spend the time to learn from others. Those that do study on a continual basis are few and far between. It is a common line used by Japanese chefs to say “Japanese cooking is my life, and my life is only my way of Japanese cooking.” This might impress some as a statement of great dedication. I tend to see it as a sign of arrogance and narrow mindedness which ultimately is not good for the success of their restaurant. In my opinion, the owner of any business must constantly be thinking of new ways to make their customers and employees happy.
While writing this article I was referred by a friend to a Japanese blog on the internet that was discussing this topic of Japanese restaurant authenticity ranking. Out of all of the comments I read, there were only a few opinions that seemed calm and educated in the ways of the world. Most bloggers echoed the complaints of the Japanese officials and were harassing in tone. The information these complaints were based on was very one-sided and reflected the opinions of the Japanese executives and disgruntled Japanese restaurant owners I have referred to.
Even most Japanese tourists who travel to other countries learn little about the true lifestyle and culture of the countries they visit. Japanese tours are infamous for being group events where participant’s exposure to local interaction is very limited and controlled. Tours consist of daily itineraries of shuffling tourists from Japanese hotels to tour buses to tourist sites and back to the Japanese hotels. There is little or no time for actual interaction between the tourists and the people actually living in the countries they are visiting. Even Japanese exchange students tend to isolate themselves into groups of like Japanese and rarely venture out to participate in local events or activities.
I have lived in the United States for over thirty years, and I have met many Japanese people who have also come to Denver. Some have stayed and even changed citizenship, but most have just been passing through. Even if they stay in Denver for two to three years on business internships, most do not set down any emotional roots in the United States. For this kind of visitor, events and issues that are important to those in the local community where they are living are really of no importance to them. What is important is maintaining ties back to Japan, constantly comparing between their host country and their country of Japan back home. For this kind of visitor, Japan and Japanese things are always better. It keeps their sense of isolation at bay for not integrating themselves in their new environment. It keeps their psychological identity intact to cling to the notion that everything is better in Japan and should be done the Japanese way.
I think that before a system of Japanese authenticity for Japanese restaurants overseas is instituted abroad it should be tested first domestically in Japan. One of the first criteria for authenticity is suppose to be the exclusive use of domestic Japanese products and ingredients.
This I think might be hard to find even in Japan.
Japanese restaurants in Japan today use vegetables imported from China, tuna from Mexico bay and beef from Venezuela. So by these new standards, are these restaurants even in Japan authentic?
A student of mine once asked me about an upcoming trip he was taking to Japan, “When I go to Japan, I want to eat Japanese sushi, but I don’t speak Japanese.” I answered jokingly, “Don’t worry about not being able to speak Japanese. In a Japanese sushi bar, most of the fish are from waters outside of Japan so the fish don’t speak Japanese either!”
Most Japanese restaurants in Japan today use food products imported from outside of Japan. These imported products are better or more economical than their Japanese counterparts, and for domestic businesses to stay competitive they too rely on imported goods.
This is the fact and the true underlying reason Japanese government officials are trying to control Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. It is hoped that the plan to increase the sale of Japanese domestic products overseas might alleviate ailing economic conditions at home in Japan. This is not a good plan in my opinion and serves just as a camouflage for more serious internal problems and the potential for more serious problems in the future. This plan “sounds good” as a way to appease Japanese producers, but is based on ignorance and ultimately discrimination against the foreign markets they are trying to attract.
This focus on “authenticity” in Japan is a resurrection of a “Japan is #1” nationalistic attitude of the past. Anything can be labeled unauthentic or not traditional if it is deemed a threat to some sense of Japanese identity. This is a very right wing attitude and quite condescending to judge and label with a ruler of Japanese authenticity. Blaming the nationality of Japanese restaurant owners in other countries is a very dangerous reflection on this re-emerging Japanese nationalistic attitude.
The authenticity ranking suggested by JETRO and Japanese government officials could cause serious damage to the relationship between Japan and the people living in these countries abroad. One test for any nation in today’s world is their ability to assimilate the cultures of people from many different countries into their own. Successful societies of today have emerged as countries that respect others and make a place for new cultures in their own. Countries today that try to isolate and capsulate will not be successful in the long term. Understanding this truth I think is important for the future co-existence of Japanese culture with other cultures of the world.
Food is part of all of our cultures, and has changed throughout human history. Food and culture is affected by many different human and environmental conditions including sociology, religion, economy, weather and climate. To try to control the “authenticity” of Japanese food in all of these varied conditions around the world would be a very difficult and in my opinion futile task.
It really is not the business of the Ministry of Agriculture, any other government agency or group to judge the authenticity of Japanese food in other countries; the consequences could be quite damaging.
I am a Japanese martial art instructor first, and I see many similarities in the way that Japanese government organizations control how martial arts are practiced in other countries by the way their instructors are trained and educated and the rules that are imposed on them.
I find similarities in the way distinctions are made by these Japanese government sponsored organizations between Japanese and non-Japanese instructors and their dojos.
I feel these attempts to control either by instituting extensive affiliation and procedural requirements or by default through their lack of training on cultural integration and understanding have a damaging effect on the relationship between dojos in other countries and Japan; the same kind of effect that Japanese government intervention on the Japanese food industry can have long term.
All of the issues that relate to native Japanese restaurant owners in countries outside of Japan also relate to martial art dojos that are operated by native people in other countries. This article is an observation on the dynamics between Japanese officials in both fields and “mom and pop” dojosor restaurants that are doing their best to practice an expression of both of these arts in a manner that has been adapted to fit with the culture and peoples of their own countries. Both of these art forms, Japanese cooking and Japanese martial arts now belong to the world, not only to Japan.
This article is only a reflection of my opinion, the opinion of one person who has lived outside of Japan for many decades; one person who has experienced first-hand the evolution of food cultures and the practice of martial arts in many countries around the world.