Analysing Japanese National Identity Abroad: Diaspora, Identity, and Food

It has already become clear that food is one of the central aspects for analysing the meaning of Shirokiya for Hawai’i’s Japanese groups. It is striking that for most of them Japanese food plays an important role in their lives. Yet, the reasons for attaching relevance to Japanese food in everyday life vary significantly.

The connection between food and ethnic, national as well as cultural identity has already been addressed in several academic works. In his enlightening essay on symbolic ethnicity, Herbert Gans points out that consumer goods in general, and food in particular, are an essential source of ethnic symbols and, therefore, constitute a strong base for ethnic identity construction.[1] While he stresses symbolic ethnicity, it is well acknowledged that food plays a crucial role in constructing and maintaining ethnic identity. In ‘Food, Self and Identity’, Claude Fischler underscores this significance by stating, ‘Food is central to our sense of identity’.[2] He further argues that culinary practices help to give the eaters a place in the world and, upon that, a meaning.[3] Food habits of certain ethnic groups still remain intact when other indications of identity, such as language, have already become obsolete.[4] [5]

That washoku, traditional Japanese food, is heavily involved in the construction of Japanese identity and a sense of belonging has scarcely been questioned over the decades and centuries. However, this relationship was officially recognized when washoku became part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. Several recent publications have dealt with practices of Japanese national identity formation on the basis of one particular food product. In ‘Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice’ (2013), Kristin Surak analyses the meaning of the tea ceremony for Japan’s ‘nation-work’.11 In this, she shows how the making and practising of the tea ceremony are involved in the processes of constructing Japanese national identity. In ‘Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of RAMEN - Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup’ (2012), Barak Kushner explains the meaning of this popular dish in Japan in the light of the Sino-Japanese relationship. Already in 1993, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney wrote in ‘Rice as Self - Japanese Identities Through Time’ about the significance of this staple food in the formation of Japanese national identity both in the past and up to the present day. She argues that, in contrast to the West, rice in Japan is much more than a staple food: ‘As a metaphor for the self of the Japanese, rice is necessarily involved when the Japanese situate themselves in their interaction with the rest of the world.’[6] Rice serves as symbol of wealth, power relationships, and, beyond that, a good life in Japan.[7] Interestingly, Shirokiya’s senior vice president Eddie Wakida stresses that especially the rice has to be imported from Japan and that rice from other countries should never be used. Therefore, even today the symbolism of rice, deeply enrooted in Japanese history, can still be helpful in gaining a proper understanding of the construction of national identity. Though of little nutritional value, the perceived high value of white Japanese rice is still embedded in the heads of many Japanese people. Rice is seen as a key ingredient that is even planted by the emperor within the Imperial Palace - not because he grows all the grain he needs. Indeed, by publicly planting as a ritual, the aim was to strengthen the idea that rice is valuable for the Japanese nation. In ‘Cuisine and Identity in Contemporary Japan’

(2011), Theodore C. Bestor describes cuisine as ‘a product of cultural imagination [... ][which] is thought to include the range of practices and preferences that are shared broadly across the members of a society as they prepare and partake of the food’.[8] He continues that the basis for such imagination must be an agreement, which can be (more or less) defined and (more or less) distinguished from the other. He points out that for Japan this basic element is fresh ingredients.[9] One further aspect of freshness is a certain seasonality for food in Japan. Culinary calendars are especially important for festivities.[10] This seasonality is also highly visible at Shirokiya where, depending on the festivities and seasons, the appropriate kind of washoku is presented, promoted, and offered throughout the year. This means that Shirokiya preserves the key aspect, commonly rated as typical for good Japanese food by the Japanese themselves: freshness. Given that food is the key element of Shirokiya’s product spectrum, being highly visible all over the store and marketed perfectly, this store offers a treasure trove of telling results about the connection between Japanese national identity and food.

But why is it necessary to take a look at Japanese people living outside Japan when considering the construction of Japanese national identity by means of food? Diasporas, or nationals from a certain country living abroad, have long since been subject to various kinds of investigations. Literature examining the connection between food, migration, and identity has, however, been scarce. At a workshop on food and migration in London, staged in 2009, British researchers criticized that ‘the complex, and multidimensional relationship between food and migration remains both under researched and under theorized’.[11] However, many persisting questions regarding identity and food can be answered by analysing the food habits of nationals of a certain country living abroad. Investigating these practices abroad offers the opportunity to isolate factors such as the importance of ancestry and family, the will to uphold traditions by means of food or tendencies towards nationalism in a rather separated setting. From the behaviour of migrants, and ancestors of migrants abroad, it is much easier to deconstruct the value and meaning of their original ethnic food. After all, they have to go to considerable lengths to obtain this food, while at home everyone just eats it without further ado, making it harder to explore the reasons and consequences of this everyday practice. Finally, since food in Japan is of obvious significance in constructing ethnic and national identity, it is useful to take a look at the eating habits of Japanese people living abroad.

In this sense, it is not surprising that Shirokiya and its Japanese food are essentially involved in helping the Japanese maintain and construct their national identity in Hawai’i. While Japanese food has always been one of the core products at Shirokiya, it has become highly visible as the heart of the store since the latter’s recent refurbishment.

  • [1] See Gans, ‘Symbolic Ethnicity’, 10.
  • [2] Fischler, ‘Food, Self and Identity’, 275.
  • [3] See ibid., 288.
  • [4] See Scholliers, ‘Meals’, 8.
  • [5] Surak, Making Tea, 3.
  • [6] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 8. For rice in Japan see also articles by Paul O’Shea and HannoJentzsch in this volume.
  • [7] See Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 63ff.
  • [8] Bestor, ‘Cuisine and Identity’, 13.
  • [9] See ibid., 13.
  • [10] See ibid., 14.
  • [11] Quoted after Flitsch, ‘Hesitant Hands’, 975.
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