The Diversification of the Japanese Culinary Field

The decade from 2005 to 2015 witnessed a proliferation of Japanese restaurants throughout the city. In May 2016, the webpage Dianping listed 3,464 Japanese restaurants in Shanghai. About 1,702 were listed as serving fine cuisine, including kaiseki, regional nabe (stew), Japanese beef, crab, fugu (blowfish), sashimi, tempura (fine style); 689 were serving instant Japanese mainstream food, including ramen, revolving sushi, tempura (fast-food style); and 321 served grilled Japanese food, including teppanyaki (food prepared on a hot steel plate) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancake).

This growth must be attributed to supply-side as well as demand-side factors. On the supply side, a JETRO report states that the boom was driven by three types of actors: individual Japanese entrepreneurs, Japanese companies, and individual Chinese entrepreneurs.[1] Since 2010, we can add Chinese restaurant companies; now the most dynamic actors.

Individual Japanese entrepreneurs were some of the earlier entrants into the market. A survey of 30 Japanese restaurants conducted in 2005 found that 13 had Japanese owners and 17 had Chinese owners. Half of the restaurants still served a clientele that was more than 50 per cent Japanese, whereas 9 of the 30 had a customer base of less than 30 per cent Japanese.[2]

Secondly, Japanese chains in the 2000s hastened the popularization and domestication of Japanese tastes in China,[3] introducing Japanese food- ways to a far larger market segment than the small privately owned restaurants in the 1990s. Japanese chains active in Shanghai include Watami, Gatten Sushi, Ajisen Ramen, Genroku Sushi, Matsuko Japanese Restaurant, Saizeriya, Yoshinoya, Sukiya, and Matsuya.[1]

Thirdly, individual Chinese entrepreneurs have been instrumental in the spread of Japanese cuisine around the world,[5] so it should not be surprising that Chinese entrepreneurs have participated in the spread of Japanese cuisine within China. According to my interviewees, there are two broad pathways by which Chinese enter the Japanese restaurant business. One is by working in one of the restaurants managed by the Japanese in Shanghai. The other is by working in Japan. The latter pathway is particularly significant. Among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who studied in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s the most popular type of part-time work was in the food and beverage sector.[6] This experience provided the know-how for returnees to open Japanese restaurants in China, even specializing in cuisines that would be rare outside Japan, from eel restaurants to horse-sushi.

Kamon, a popular izakaya (tavern)-style restaurant on Dagu Road, is an example of a small owner-operated restaurant.[7] The manager and part-owner surnamed Cai is a migrant from Zhejiang Province, whose job in a Japanese-owned restaurant in Shanghai was her first exposure to the cuisine. It also enabled her to establish a trusting relationship with her Japanese business partner, a co-owner of the restaurant. Kamon attracts Japanese customers from the nearby offices of NHK as well as families from the nearby luxury apartment complex. It is one of hundreds of izakaya in Shanghai, a genre that in China is treated more as a Japanese restaurant serving a variety of foods rather than being primarily a drinking place. According to Dianping the average expense per person at Kamon is 107 yuan (approx. $15 USD).

Most recently, Chinese chains have become the newest and now dominant force in this market. Most of them offer a one-price all-you-can-eat menu, ranging from 180 yuan (approx. $27 USD) to 380 yuan (approx. $58 USD) per person. One of the most successful is the high-end Wandao, with four branches in the city. The Wandao branch on Wulumuqi Road is an open two-floor space with a sushi bar that can seat 40 or 50 and table seating for 200. The 380 yuan per person price includes drinks and food. The day we visited Wandao, there were dozens of staff at work, and service was quick and very efficient. A very enthusiastic young waitress from a village in remote Yunnan Province served us. She returned frequently to our table, encouraging us to order more food, puzzled about how little we consumed compared to the typical customer.38

The seafood arrives in giant bowls of ice, including large raw shrimp and sea urchin, tuna, snapper, red conch, and scallops. A lobster shell with a tail portion filled with translucent white flesh comes embedded in the serving bowl whether you ask for it or not. Some of the items seemed partly frozen, but overall the quality was good. There were also hot dishes including stir-fried cow tongue and sushi topped with Chinese foie gras. The promise of unlimited quantities of luxurious ingredients at reasonable prices has made these chains hard to beat.

Beyond the competition from chains such as Wandao, two factors are challenging all restaurant owners in Shanghai: rising rents and rising wages. Zhou at Shintori pointed out that when the 10-year lease on their building on Julu Road was renewed in 2011 it was 4.5 times higher than the rent 10 years before. In the mid-2000s, the investors could make a 50 per cent return on their investment in the company, she said. In the next few years after the US financial crash it dropped to 10 or 20 per cent. In 2015, there was nearly no profit.

Wages have risen even faster, she said. Fifteen years ago you paid 400 yuan a month for a waitress, now it is 4,000 yuan. It has become difficult to find good staff. Fifteen years ago, it was easy to recruit Shanghainese staff from local tourism polytechnics. However, as Shanghai families become wealthier, they want their children to go to college, and the city has closed down most of the tourism polytechnics that trained food and beverage staff. Now restaurants such as Wandao recruit their staff from the far corners of China, even distant Yunnan, not only saving money, but insuring a labour supply.

The demand side is equally important in explaining the changing nature of the Japanese culinary field. First of all, Japanese expatriates were a mainstay of expansion through the early 2000s. According to the Japanese consulate there were 48,255 Japanese in Shanghai in 2010.[8] By the mid-2000s a second key customer base was the large number of non-Japanese expatriates residing in the city, numbering over 120,000 by 20 1 0.[9] Finally, in the 2010s, the dominant market became the well-travelled and highly educated young Chinese urbanites, many of whom visited Japan on short shopping trips and vacations. As in Hong Kong a decade earlier, Japanese food has now become a form of urban fashion closely paired with tourism.[10]

With growing competition, restaurant owners are developing new markets for Japanese cuisine through novel restaurant concepts. One trendsetter is a small two-floor ramen shop on Shaanxi Road called ‘The Ramen Shop’, owned by a trio of Shanghai natives.[11] Ramen was popularized as a Japanese product in China by Japanese chains, despite having its ultimate origins in China.[12] The owners of ‘The Ramen Shop’ aimed to create a ‘Shanghai-style’ ramen shop that would distinguish itself from the corporate chains, but not be regarded as a Chinese noodle shop. Interestingly, the localization strategy they pursued was to create a more international style of interior with an English name and menu boards in English. The motif appeals to Western expatriates, but also fits with the Western-oriented cosmopolitan identity of the owners from Shanghai. They also hired a Japanese cook named Yuki, who had been working in an izakaya in Hongqiao. He is a professional guitarist. Making ramen behind the glass-enclosed counter, he looks the part of a bohemian Tokyoite with long grey hair and a signature Tyrolean hat. According to Yuki, the style of ramen is still Japanese, but there are some personal touches including a generous mound of vegetable toppings. An average bill is 73 yuan (approx. $11 USD) according to Dianping, quite pricey for noodles in Shanghai.

Other eateries have created a niche at the lower end of the market. For example, Haru Sushi is a small hole-in-the wall take-out eatery located on the first floor of a residential block on Kongjiang Road in Yangpu District, outside the fashionable city centre.44 The owner is a 20-something chain-smoking nightclub aficionado with long bleached hair who sees sushi as a way to earn a living in the competitive city. The tiny shop, with one table for eating in, sells sushi rolls to the neighbourhood’s youths and families. Other mainstays are young nurses who take a box of sushi home after work, or order in to the hospital. His father delivers.

The young owner learned sushi-making by working a few days in a Japanese restaurant. Sushi is easy’, he said. ‘But to do business in Shanghai you need a trick, something different.’ His trick is the sauces, he said. For the rolls, he uses copious mayonnaise, ketchup, and thousand-island dressing. ‘People in Shanghai like sweet flavours’, he pointed out. Many of the fillings are cooked (e.g. fried shrimp), but there is also raw salmon, the most popular fish in inexpensive Shanghai sushi shops. One-third of the customers are pupils from the nearby middle school, so he also sells French fries and fried shrimp to children. The average bill is 37 yuan (approx. $5.6 USD) according to Dianping, but an afternoon snack would be less than 10 yuan (approx. $1.5 USD).

This discussion shows that the culinary field in Shanghai is increasingly diverse and stratified. We can see a simultaneous indigenization and transnationalization of the Japanese culinary field. There are more local Chinese actors, including owners, chefs, and consumers, and at the same time more influences drawing not only upon Japanese inspirations but culinary design concepts from the USA and Europe. To conclude the ethnographic discussion, I will end with a longer description of one of these newest entrants to the culinary field, and use this example to talk about the importance of diners as not only consumers but active gatekeepers within the culinary field.

  • [1] JETRO, ‘Gaishoku sangyo no doko’.
  • [2] Asahi Research Center, ‘Shanghai ryOriten chOsa hokoku’.
  • [3] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 5.
  • [4] JETRO, ‘Gaishoku sangyo no doko’.
  • [5] Wank and Farrer, ‘Chinese Immigrants and Japanese Cuisine’.
  • [6] Liu-Farrer, Labor Migration from China, 67.
  • [7] Interview and field notes, March 28, 2016.
  • [8] JETRO, ‘Gaishoku sangyo no doko’. In 2010, Beijing at the time had only 10,416 Japaneseresidents. Beijing had 819 Japanese restaurants compared to 1,434 in Shanghai.
  • [9] Farrer, ‘Shanghai’s Western Restaurants’, 119.
  • [10] Nakano, ‘Eating One’s Way’.
  • [11] Interview and field notes April 7, 2016.
  • [12] Aoki, ‘Domestication of Chinese Foodways’.
 
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