A Domesticated Japanese Culinary Field and Domestic Culinary Politics

Amazingly for myself, who first lived in Shanghai 25 years ago, the city has now emerged as a centre of fine Japanese cuisine. Equally amazingly, the dynamic agents pushing this change are no longer Japanese corporations and expatriates but Chinese companies and consumers with a deep, and seemingly abiding interest, in Japanese cuisine. The boom in Chinese tourism to Japan bolsters the trend as luxury tourists collect ‘Michelin Stars’ at famous Tokyo and Kyoto restaurants and bring these expectations back to Shanghai. Because wealthy Shanghainese favour Japan as a tourist destination, they seem more willing to overlook political tensions when choosing to eat Japanese cuisine. After the 2012 national demonstrations, the return to normality was quicker in Shanghai than other Chinese cities, with business reviving within three months or even a few days.[1]

The expansion of this indigenized and transnational culinary field is remarkable given the setbacks of two large anti-Japanese demonstrations in Shanghai - in 2005 and 2012 - and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which made Chinese customers nervous about Japanese food products. The development of a domestic Japanese culinary field of owner and suppliers partly explains how these crises were weathered. Local Chinese restaurateurs are able to strategically dissociate themselves from Japan when crises occur, even posting signs that claim Chinese ownership.

In the politics of food safety, domestic narratives of food-based dangers also undoubtedly shape the framing of the radiation issue. Chinese have profound anxieties about food safety, but these anxieties have centred less on the dangers of modern technology (nuclear power, GMO products, etc.), than on unscrupulous small-scale food producers. Whereas many in the West see faceless corporations as the chief culprits, in Shanghai the villains in food safety scandals are more often seen as inland producers and migrant vendors selling adulterated or even poisonous food in the city. This would include the infamous ‘gutter oil’ recycled from food waste and used to cook dishes, and often associated with foods produced by rural-to-urban migrants.[2] Imported products, including Japanese products, have been considered more reliable. Because nuclear disaster did not conform to these elitist urban narratives of food contamination from rural and migrant sources, it may have been more easily forgotten than in contexts like Europe, where food fears are often expressed in narratives of technology run amok.

Indigenization of the culinary field also complicates the politics of culinary authenticity. The localization of Japanese food at the lower end of the market in Shanghai has some Japanese observers worried. In 2015, the Japanese internet food portal Gurunabi established a ‘Japanese Cuisine Working Group’ in Shanghai. This committee aims to set standards for Japanese restaurants in China and provide educational and cultural support for spreading authentic Japanese food and food culture in China and deepening communication on food between Japan and China.[3] This is an extension of the state-centred culinary politics discussed by Stephanie Assmann in her contribution to this volume.

Based on my observations, such efforts miss the point that Chinese consumers are already rigorously enforcing standards of culinary authenticity through their online commentaries. The biggest influence may be the collective activities of ordinary diners commenting through mainstream food websites, especially Dianping. Dianping has created a list of the 150 best Japanese restaurants according to taste, environment and service. This list is often updated according to the recently received scores. Reading through the comments, it seems young Chinese are the major participants. In the comments, taste is valued most highly by customers. Environment and service are also valued, especially for high-end venues.[4]

In evaluating Japanese cuisine on Dianping, the freshness of seafood is the most prized feature in the comments, with freshly caught seafood valued most highly. Defrosted seafood (though actually quite common) is regarded as inauthentic Japanese food. The arrangement of food on the plate is also important, with the balance of colours mattering. The thickness of the cut (atsugiri) is a frequently mentioned and positively evaluated word borrowed from Japanese. Salmon is the fish that most frequently receives comments. It seems that for Shanghai diners, salmon is the familiar measuring stick of the quality of seafood in the restaurant.

In terms of service, the timing of changing used plates for clean ones and delivery of dishes to the table is closely evaluated. All of these top-ranking restaurants are seen to offer Japanese-standard service. Waitresses are expected to serve dishes with the right timing and in the right order. The ability to solve problems or answer questions during meals is also highly valued in these Dianping comments. Since Japanese seafood varieties are not well known by Chinese customers, consumers expect an explanation of each item by waiters or chefs. Consumers note attention to detail such as refilling water and providing clean towels. In terms of environment, wooden interior decoration, independent rooms, and tatami rooms for which shoes must be removed are seen as symbolic ofan authentic Japanese restaurant. Cheaper and less carefully prepared food products are also sold in Japanese eateries in Shanghai, but the sophisticated reviewers are aware of the difference. Users on Dianping roundly criticize the offerings at places like Haru Sushi, though the middle school regulars there probably do not care.

In short, the new gatekeepers of Japanese culinary authenticity in Shanghai are now Chinese consumers. Rather than Chinese consumers pushing Japanese restaurant culture towards a hybridized mish-mash of confused and lower standards, the web portals have become a place where consumers police culinary boundaries, and act as more effective agents of culinary authentification than would be possible by Japanese government and corporate groups alone. The common anthropological story of culinary glocalization may have to be revised to account for the ways in which information and also culinary authority are now dispersed in such glocalized culinary fields. Shanghai is now itself one of the major centres of Japanese culinary culture in Asia, and Chinese producers, and consumer/reviewers are now agents in a transnational and localized Japanese culinary field.

  • [1] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 11.
  • [2] Yan, ‘Food Safety and Social Risk’. I have reported on these narratives in the ‘Chinese CulinaryDreams’ Workshop on Happiness in China, Georgetown University, Washington DC, October 10-12, 2014.
  • [3] Gurunabi, ‘Nihon no inshokuten’.
  • [4] The analysis is based on a reading of the comments on this list of restaurants. http://www.dianping.com/shoplist/search/1_10_113_. JETRO mentions Dianping as the market maker inChina (JETRO, Gaishoku sangyo no doko).
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