Eating Up Homesickness

During my research, I experienced that Shirokiya’s food sections are especially important to Japanese-born and recent immigrants, who still prefer to eat Japanese food. Moreover, they tend to prefer Japanese food at Shirokiya over other local alternatives. One of my respondents is Haruto, whom I met every Saturday during the Qi Guong sessions in the park by the sea and afterwards in Makai Market, close to Shirokiya, where one was allowed to bring one’s own food. He arrived in Hawai’i several years ago and yet he still prefers the Japanese food over local cuisine. And he likes it best at Shirokiya. He goes to Shirokiya several times a week to buy a bento box. He explains his choice:

Ethnic food can only be really good and you know, real, when cook a person from that ethnicity. Only German cook can cook real German food, right? And only Japanese cook can cook real Japanese food. And Shirokiya, I taste it is Japanese cook. When I go eat Japanese here, I want Japanese, not some food just look Japanese!


Haruto is better integrated into the local community than most of the other Hawai’i Senior Life Enrichment Association (HSLEA) group members and speaks some English.[1] Some of those who more recently came to Hawai’i seem to be dissatisfied with their new environment - especially regarding the food. Takeshi is one such person, too. At the age of 40, he is one of the youngest members of the group and just came from Tokyo some months ago. Talking about food, I asked him if he had already been to Shirokiya. He responded in English: ‘Yes, I go there every day! I am fed of Hawai’i food. Can you eat the junk food? I hate the junk food!’[2]

It appears that the Japanese tend to stick to or prefer to eat Japanese food at Shirokiya, the less integrated they are in the Hawai’ian community and the more recently they have come to Hawai’i. Haruto’s, but especially Takeshi’s reactions to what they perceive as ‘not-real’ Japanese and local food are highly emotional. The importance of ethnic food for foreign nationals, who still have strong bonds with their homeland has likewise been stressed by Vallianatos and Raine in their work on Arabic and South Asian immigrant women in Edmonton:

Food also connects across time and place, and for many migrants, food is an essential component of maintaining connections to home. How and what kinds of food are consumed recall families and friends left behind, and by continuing to consume both everyday and celebratory foods migrants preserve these transnational relationships and enact their companionship with those back home.[3]

As the interview with Takeshi has shown, it seems that Shirokiya to some extent serves to maintain their psychological well-being. The fact that his English and that of many other Japanese nationals is still poor and they spend most of their time solely with other Japanese nationals indicates that they are not entirely comfortable in their new environment. But eating Japanese food helps them to overcome these feelings of homesickness. Feelings of home and belonging are not only present in the human mind as abstract thoughts. They are also highly charged with sensual memories that go back as far as childhood, and even before language acquisition. Accordingly, the imagined home not only consists of visual pictures, but is even more so a construct of all the other senses, including taste.[4] As a result, food choices reflect eating habits that have developed in early childhood as part of a socialization process. Therefore, childhood eating habits are quite stable and generally remain so.[5] Upholding and indulging in Japanese national identity serves as a safe haven within an unfamiliar environment. Thus, eating Japanese food at Shirokiya helps Japanese nationals uphold their Japanese national identity, which they are not willing to lose, living in Hawai’i. Food at Shirokiya can indeed be referred to as ‘entangled objects’[6]:

Its nuances of class, ethnicity, gender and sensory embodiment produce a memorable moment for identity, of ‘floating’ and dreaming, of entanglement and constraint - a moment shaped by specific convergences of power in time and place.

By means of certain foods, it is possible to recall family and friends who have been left behind and to foster transnational relationships.[7] In doing so, the Japanese uphold their Japanese national identity. One example of how Shirokiya serves to revive memories of home for first-generation immigrants is Hideko. Now living on the Big Island of Hawai’i, she came from Sapporo 58 years ago. It has been a long time since she last saw Japan, so her memories of Japan are much more the memories of her childhood and youth: knowing that she was from

Sapporo and seeing her eat the Sapporo-ramen from the current ‘ramen festival’, I asked Hideko what kind of ramen she was eating:

Actually, these are Sapporo-ramen! Now it’s Sapporo festival and today they serve Sapporo-ramen! Unbelievable, I can eat the food of my hometown here! After all these years I still love Japanese food, but this is so special today!

Still today, eating the Sapporo-ramen reminds her of her childhood in Japan and serves as a bridge, and an opportunity to travel there again - albeit only in her mind. Belasco describes this simple logic of food advertisement, in which only short phrases or even words are enough to transport the customer back home.[8] In this case, just the word ‘Sapporo’ conjures up childhood associations and then, smelling the food, seeing and tasting it brings back all the memories she did not even know she still had. In her dissertation on Hawai’ian ethnogastronomy, Kirkendall sums up this phenomenon illustrated by Hideko perfectly: ‘[... ] we seem to retain precise, eidetic memory of tastes and smells through which we can revive experiences of childhood through the flavour of something long ago tasted [... ].’[9] Given its Chinese origin, ramen is not added to washoku, but still belongs to nihon ryori, therefore ‘Japanese food’. Kushner explains how ramen pushes the borderlines of Japanese national cuisine in this way.[10] Ramen plays a strong role in Japanese food tourism in several respects: first, local regions try to retain their uniqueness through certain local foods. Often, this is achieved through ramen.[11] Beyond that, ramen is an essential element of Japanese food tourism. It is exported to the USA and all over the world, and is also circulated by means of popular culture products such as manga and anime.[12] Finally, ramen is even influential in increasing Japan’s soft power, as it attracts national and international attention to Japan and its regions simply through one dish.

Interestingly, although ramen does not belong to washoku, it is highly visible all over Shirokiya. Generally, various ramen-dishes are offered every day and beyond that, ramen-festivals take place regularly. While the store offers washoku in their traditional representations, the amount of ramen offered is surprisingly high. This can be led back to the fact that the ramen and the ramen-festivals are highly attractive for consumers, as ramen, more than other nihon ryori, significantly plays with the construction of local Japanese identities, particularly appealing to consumers with roots in certain geographical areas. Beyond that, local customers who like to indulge in prevalent Japanese food tourism can do so just by going to the department store. Of the many foods offered at Shirokiya, ramen is especially involved in constructing Japanese national identity, where local identities play a major role.

  • [1] With most other members of HSLEA I spoke only Japanese, while I switched between Englishand Japanese with Haruto.
  • [2] He said this in English. As for talking about everyday life, he had the vocabulary and tried tospeak in simple sentences.
  • [3] Raine and Vallianatos, ‘Consuming Food’, 356.
  • [4] See Morse, ‘Home’, 63.
  • [5] See Raine and Vallianatos, ‘Consuming Food’, 357.
  • [6] Crang 1996, quoted after Duruz, ‘Floating Food: Eating “Asia” in Kitchens of the Diaspora’, 47.
  • [7] See Raine and Vallianatos, ‘Consuming Food’, 356.
  • [8] See Belasco, Food, 31.
  • [9] Kirkendall, Hawaiian Ethnogastronomy, 9.
  • [10] See Kushner, Slurp!, 11.
  • [11] See ibid., 220.
  • [12] See ibid., 235.
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