Talking About Prices
Japanese pensioners who have not been in Hawai’i for very long generally receive a high pension and therefore do not have to be as concerned about their money as the local Japanese with their local pensions. This means that the comparatively high prices of the food products at Shirokiya constitute a serious issue. I first encountered this, meeting an elderly Japanese couple in Makai Market close to Shirokiya who had come to Hawai’i more than 50 years ago. After talking extensively about food, they mentioned their frustration at the food at Shirokiya being so expensive. They would go there every day, they said, if only they could afford to. This was only the beginning of a whole series of complaints regarding the prices at Shirokiya. I also spoke about the prices with Sakura, who came from Japan in 1963. She still did not speak English properly and therefore only communicated in very short sentences, or rather fragments ofsentences and words. When I asked her if she sometimes goes to Shirokiya, she just responded: ‘Yeah. But too expensive! But every Wednesday!’ When I asked her why she went on Wednesdays she answered: ‘Seniors’ day!’ That Shirokiya offers a seniors’ discount on Wednesdays is well known among the elderly Japanese. Since they only offer 10% off, I presume that most customers who shop there every Wednesday, like Sakura, would still go there even if they did not receive that special discount. The discount does not greatly affect the high prices. The reason for going there on Wednesdays may be that seniors feel acknowledged through this special day and therefore participate. Conversely, this means that someone who avoids Shirokiya because of the high prices will probably not be convinced by the small discount. This is illustrated by an excerpt from my conversation with Satsuki and Takeo, an elderly second-generation Japanese couple I interviewed several times: talking about Shirokiya, Satsuki said they loved Japanese food, but that ‘in fact, we haven’t been at Shirokiya for some years. For us local people it’s much too expensive. Really good - but that doesn’t change that we just cannot afford it.’ Satsuki and Takeo display a reaction towards Shirokiya that reveals which role especially Japanese food at Shirokiya can play for those people of Hawai’i with a direct connection to Japan. In fact, Satsuki and Takeo love Japanese food and they like it best at Shirokiya. If it were cheaper, they would prefer it to other Japanese alternatives. Moreover, it is not as though they do not go there to eat what they like most - they do not go there at all. It seems that the frustration oflooking at the desirable foods at Shirokiya is greater than the pleasure one could derive from strolling through and looking at the offers, without buying anything. The couple passes Shirokiya almost every day when heading towards Makai Market. They seem to have resigned themselves to Shirokiya being out of their reach and prefer not to have it in their lives than feel excluded from something valuable as a result of extortionate prices.
In her enlightening essay ‘Hesitant Hands on Changing Tables: Negotiating Dining Patterns in Diaspora Food Culture Transfer’ (2011), Flitsch explains how the culinary patterns of migrants are changed when living abroad and how the old and new dining patterns, coming together in everyday life, alter how they deal with their national identity. One of her central aspects is autonomy over food, which means that the desired food can be accessed more or less easily. Seen in the context of Shirokiya, host communities or host institutions can challenge individual autonomy over food. While most local Japanese people are not poor per definition, their pensions are still particularly
low so that they cannot afford the food at Shirokiya. Flitsch explains the consequences of the lack of autonomy over food choices: ‘A particular form of crisis is destitution, not to mention falling into destitution, under diaspora conditions. This is a critical issue in the topic of the transfer of food culture.’ And she continues: ‘In destitution and lack of food autonomy, orders are disrupted, identity is disturbed, and feelings of insecurity and disorientation may easily develop into serious illness and dislocation.’ The local Japanese who cannot afford the food at Shirokiya are particularly disturbed in dealing with their Japanese national identity. While the food they desire is so close at hand, they still cannot afford it and are excluded from connecting with their Japanese heritage.