Shirokiya: A Place of History, Relations, and Identity

When I first walked into Shirokiya, I felt as though I had just passed a hidden borderline between here and there - between Hawai’i and Japan. Right at the entrance I passed a tiny, somewhat separate bakery, offering melonpan and thick-sliced white bread, as is popular in Japan. It smelled deliciously sweet, like freshly baked anpan. Accompanied by fine Koto music (string instrument), I approached the centre of the first level, where a small selection of kimonos, fine handkerchiefs, and other Japanese goods caught my attention. Behind the desks, women were speaking Japanese, bowing slightly from time to time. I followed the narrow walk heading towards what looked like a Hello-Kitty-and-other-cute-little-things-base, spotting the huge placards hanging from the ceiling, reading about a ‘Kyushu-fair’ and a ramen festival. Surprised by a mechanical sound, I looked to my left and saw a small showroom with eight quite expensive massage chairs - ready to be tested by the customers. Soon I entered a small separate room, loaded with Japanese books, movies, and other media, hardly hearing anyone speaking English, but only Japanese. Back in the main showroom, I made out a row of heavy, yet filigree glass-topped tables such as I have never seen outside Japan before. They presented finely arranged, astonishingly realistic imitations of wagashi (Japanese confectionary) and fine cakes. Summer-season sweets, for example, with strawberries, were offered and embellished with pretty floral decorations.

Judging by the aroma of soy sauce, I expected to find more upstairs, so I took the escalator to the second floor. Before seeing anything, I could already hear the bustle of a food court such as I had experienced in Osaka. Upstairs, beneath some short shelves filled with Japanese pickles, noodles, and other groceries, I saw the full width of this food court. With the exception of the atmospheric seating area called Yataimura Beer Garden right in the centre and some more rather modest tables at the sides, the whole level was crammed with booths offering freshly made food like ramen, sushi, tempura as well as bento boxes. Passing the oden-stand, a Japanese woman rushed around, saying ‘Irasshaimase!’ and placed a fresh stack of onigiri on the tables in front of me. One obento looked more delicious than the other. The cooking demonstrations, accompanied by some explanations in Japanese, invited the customers to approach the tiny booths and to take away some of the items on display or to order freshly made ramen or takoyaki. This finally convinced me to enjoy my first obento at Shirokiya.

Sitting in the Yataimura Beer Garden, finishing my delicious obento, I reflected on what I had just experienced. Still, I could hardly believe it. Never before, neither in Dusseldorf, with the third largest Japanese community in Europe, nor elsewhere in the world outside Japan, had I experienced something that reminded me so deeply of Japan. And finally, I had found it here in the centre of a huge shopping mall in Hawai’i - little Japan. Those feelings I had when visiting Shirokiya for the first time may seem irrelevant to my study. And yet, I insist on including them because they give rise to some broader questions: If this place reminded me of Japan and from that day onwards encouraged me to return on a regular basis, how would it impact on the Japanese population living here? Would this place not be of utmost importance to them, given that it ultimately connected them with their homeland or that of their ancestors? It appeared to me that this place was much more than just an analogue cultural container, as the simplest explication of space in intercultural contexts. This place did not seem to be just a conglomeration of various Japanese goods and elements to which no one could ever forge a connection. It rather seemed to be relational in that it left room for social processes of perceiving, using, and adopting it for individual and group identity activities and considerations.[1] If this were true, then it seemed appropriate to consider this location as an anthropological place. That is, when space[2] is concretely and symbolically constructed, serving to create identity, it becomes a place.[3] It appears that Shirokiya allows local groups and individuals to deal with all the identity relations that Auge describes. Firstly, shared identity: this symbolizes those components a whole group has in common. Secondly, particular identity: this is how groups and individuals understand their identity in relation to each other. Finally, singular identity: this gives information about the differences between groups and/or individuals.[4] While Auge does not use the term ‘national identity’, it is evident that the three identity relations described are strongly entangled with the formation of a Japanese national identity. His differentiation also shows that the Japanese national identity displayed at Shirokiya is not constructed just as a single homogeneous complex. It rather takes place on various concurrent and more or less entangled levels within the Japanese groups of Hawai’i. As a place, Shirokiya, thus, already incorporates the three basic characteristics that Auge assigns to all anthropological places: identity, relations, and history.[5]

  • [1] See Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns, 292.
  • [2] While Auge rather refers to open public space, for me applying the notion to buildings andinstitutions likewise seems to be appropriate. See Auge, Non-places, 42ff.
  • [3] See ibid., 51.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., 52.
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