Domesticating the Japanese Culinary Field in Shanghai

James Farrer

Culinary Politics and the Japanese Culinary Field in Shanghai

Three days after the March 11, 2011 earthquake triggered a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, I flew to Shanghai with my family, partly for fieldwork and partly to escape the nuclear anxiety pervading Tokyo. The welcome in Shanghai was not altogether open-armed. Some Chinese acquaintances expressed concern about the radiation we might carry on our bodies and clothing. Worrying about nuclear fallout from Japan, others avoided letting their children play in the open air. Iodized salt sold out all over the city, as residents sought protection from radiation presumed to be drifting over the East China Sea.[1]

Table 1 Number of Japanese restaurants in major cities according to popular food pages (March 2017)

Resource

City

Total

Japanese

Italian

French

Chinese

Dianping

Shanghai

163,348

3,182

417

127

-

Yelp

New York

48,631

1,609

3,435

428

4,455

Yelp

London

27,850

700

2,255

502

1,469

Hungrygowhere

Singapore

22,523

1,686

849

368

8,330

Instead of escaping nuclear anxiety in Tokyo, we found a nuclear panic in Shanghai, albeit a short lived one.

At the time I foresaw a mortal blow to Japanese culinary culture in Shanghai, and for a while it seemed so. Chinese consumers began avoiding Japanese food products, and the PRC banned all agricultural imports from 10 prefectures near the disaster area (in comparison, Taiwan and Hong Kong banned foods from only five prefectures). The PRC further required radiation-level certification from products from 37 prefectures, many more than other countries.[2] Japanese restaurants in Shanghai - the subject of this chapter - also suffered, some losing customers for months. But within half a year, the impact was negligible.[3] Instead, between 2010 and 2017 the number of Japanese eateries in Shanghai, as listed on the most popular food website, shot up from 1,434 to 3,182.[4] This total is considerably more than those found on the most popular restaurant review websites in New York, London, or Singapore (see Table 1). The focus of this chapter is on this culinary boom rather than the politics of the nuclear issue per se, but the story of the burgeoning Japanese culinary field must also include a consideration of how food safety - along with culinary politics and questions of culinary authenticity - has been framed by domestic narratives and narrators within China.[5]

Using the same international website, tripadvisor, as a basis for comparison, Shanghai had more entries for Japanese cuisine than

Table 2 Number of Japanese restaurants in major cities according to tripadvisor

Resource

City

Total

Japanese

Italian

French

Chinese

tripadvisor

Shanghai

15,944

1,359

411

174

-

tripadvisor

New York

9,064

505

1,439

266

399

tripadvisor

London

17,909

585

1,859

502

539

tripadvisor

Singapore

8,952

613

352

152

1,005

these cities in March 2017 (see Table 2). The extraordinary popularity of Japanese food in Shanghai requires some explanation.

The politics of food safety is one puzzle requiring explanation in this ongoing boom. Another is the relation of culinary politics to geopolitics. Sino-Japanese relations have been in a state of high tension since at least 2005, when Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, right-wing revisions of history textbooks, and Japan’s push to join the UN Security Council, prompted mass demonstrations all over China, including riots in Shanghai. Japanese restaurants became targets of rock-throwing mobs, and several were severely damaged by intruders.[6] Further demonstrations occurred in 2012. Following both of these large- scale demonstrations, business at Japanese restaurants fell, but recovered even more quickly than after the nuclear accident.[3] As will be discussed below, one key to understanding this recovery may be the changing domestic context, including the Chinese understandings of food risks, but also growing Chinese dominance of the Japanese culinary field.

A culinary field comprises a social field of tasters, things tasted, producers of tastes, and other actors with a stake in determining these tastes.[8] While a Japanese culinary field has indeed developed in China, it is one now dominated by Chinese actors, who increasingly determine the direction of its development. In other words, the argument here will focus on the indigenization of this culinary field, which partly insulates it from geopolitical frictions, serving to frame issues such as food safety within Chinese narratives. These narratives will be discussed more generally in the concluding discussion. The main body of this chapter traces the development of this transnational Japanese culinary field. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Shanghai over the past five years, part of a larger project on international cuisine in that city.[9] I have interviewed 15 chefs or owners of Japanese restaurants, conducting in-depth interviews in either Japanese or Chinese. Further data include publications by other researchers, online reviews (in Chinese), and interviews of food critics, bloggers, ordinary consumers, and other culinary professionals. I use this data - though limited in many respects - to trace out the development of a Japanese culinary field in Shanghai.

  • [1] The salt was supposed to provide iodine to protect from cesium poisoning, a spurious idea from ascientific perspective. Guardian, ‘Chinese Panic-Buy Salt’. J. Farrer (*) Sophia University, Tokyo, Japane-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 287 A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_11
  • [2] Legco, ‘Food Control Measures’.
  • [3] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 11.
  • [4] JETRO, ‘Gaishoku sangyo no doko’, and dianping.com.
  • [5] Yan, ‘Food Safety and Social Risk’. See my discussion in the conclusion of this chapter.
  • [6] Farrer, ‘Multiple Contexts of Protest’.
  • [7] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 11.
  • [8] Ibid., 4-7.
  • [9] See Farrer, ‘Shanghai’s Western Restaurants’.
 
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