Japanese-American Food

Toru does not have to count his pennies when deciding whether to choose Shirokiya or cheaper alternatives. When asked whether he liked to go to Shirokiya when he arrived in Hawai’i 15 years ago, he answered:

Oh, yes! Because Shirokiya is very special in selling good Japanese quality stuff, products. Regarding fresh food products. Yeah. Shirokiya, the price is a little bit higher than other Japanese stores, like [the store] Don Quijote. And ah, there is another big Japanese store, called Marukai. And Shirokiya’s price is a little higher, but the quality of the products is better. Particularly the people from Japan, they prefer to buy food at Shirokiya. Because the quality is much better at the Shirokiya.

Toru’s explanation indicates an inconsistency between the Japanese food at Shirokiya and what many local Japanese think that Japanese food is. Especially those who are familiar with Japanese food from Japan prefer Shirokiya. However, the situation is different for other groups who have not been to Japan or who do not yearn for food that is closest to that in

Japan. These groups do not particularly care about the batter of the tempura, whether it is thick or not. Nor do they care about where the rice and azuki beans come from and whether they are all the same size, and the dorayaki (red bean pancake) is therefore equally soft in every bite.

Unfamiliar with original Japanese food, they prefer local Japanese food, opting for reasonable prices rather than buying more Japan-like quality for higher prices. This inconsistency was reflected in my interview with Eddie Wakida, senior vice-president of Shirokiya:

You know, what we try to keep is maintaining our quality and to give the local people something very similar to Japan taste. So on certain part we really cannot compromise. For instance, some of the basic ingredients are very essential, so we have to bring them from Japan. Then it comes a little bit expensive, but for the quality of it, we really believe that the quality is very good. It is kind of hard but we are trying to keep the best price as we can. So, about if they feel that the price is very high, we hope the customers understand that we try to bring the quality standard.

Here, Wakida is in line with the Japanese agrarian ideology that Japanese rice is better than Chinese rice or any other rice in the world.[1] He imports rice only from Japan, although it is particularly expensive, especially due to the long distance to Hawai’i. As explained above, if ‘the customers’ are local Japanese people, like Nisei and Sansei, they disappoint Eddie Wakida’s hope, because they literally do not understand. They do not support Shirokiya in striving to match the quality offered in Japan. They simply do not appreciate it. It should be stressed, however, that this does not mean they do not care about Japanese food. In fact, there is a difference between their definition of Japanese food and what is offered at Shirokiya under the same label. Their Japanese food is Japanese-American food. It is the food that is common in local restaurants and that they have been eating at home with their families, cooked by their parents and grandparents. It would be naive to expect


that the Issei would maintain their traditional Japanese diet on the plantations under the given conditions and that their children and grandchildren would preserve this heritage. It would be equally naive to assume that the eating habits of around 1900 were still the same today in Japan.[2] Of course, the immigrants adjusted to the new conditions and their children, growing up in an American environment, internalized the habit of eating American food.[3] While for the Issei, eating Japanese food still had traditional status value, the Nisei interpreted eating American food as an improvement in status.[4] Therefore, what has evolved into the food eaten by Japanese American families today is not Japanese food as it is consumed in Japan, nor is it local food without Japanese influence. In the majority of cases, it is something inbetween, united under the term ‘Japanese-American food’.

The role of Japanese American food in everyday life is best illustrated by my dinner with the Tanaka family. I was glad that Charlie and Nora, both Sansei, invited me to dinner with Charlie’s parents Hannah and James. She cooked and served dinner in their living room. The dinner was described as ‘Japanese’, but when Hannah placed it on the table she explained:

Well, this is a kind of fusion food, you know. Since we are living in Hawai’i, we eat a lot of local things as well; I do not cook Japanese like you probably know it from Japan. But we still say it’s Japanese food. There are Japanese elements and also local elements... and I don’t know what other elements. [Laughing] But this is the way we usually eat.

And finally, she presented a truly Japanese-American dinner: on the one hand, we had chirashi sushi (slices of fish on a bowl of rice) with local vegetables and oden, on the other, there were hot chicken wings with soy sauce and tiny burger patties, finally mochi (rice cake) ice cream for dessert. The dinner encapsulated Japanese-American culture in

Hawai’i and illustrated that it should not be confused with Japanese culture. Obviously, Hannah and James do not insist on cultivating a Japanese national identity that is as original as possible, but they do maintain a Japanese-American culture and lifestyle. At the same time, they are not particularly interested in any of the Japanese products offered at Shirokiya. It follows that the majority of local Japanese people, who have no bonds to present-day Japan, do not strive for original Japanese quality and are not prepared to pay the high prices at Shirokiya. As for their Japanese-American cuisine, local products are deemed to be either as good, or even better than the more expensive products at Shirokiya.

Indeed, the two Nisei, Hannah and James, have truly different opinions from the Sansei Charlie and Nora when it comes to Japanese food, resulting from different aspirations towards Japanese food. Hannah and James do not care where they buy their Japanese food and ingredients because they are not striving for ‘authentic’[5] Japanese cuisine. The crucial point is that they do not wish for Japanese food, but for Japanese-American food. They have travelled to Japan only once, together with Charlie and Nora to visit their grandson. This was quite a while ago and they can hardly remember anything about their journey. Ultimately, Hannah and James do not associate cooking and eating Japanese-American food with the country of Japan. Conversely, they cultivate eating habits that relate to Japanese-American culture and to their family life both past and present, maintaining their Japanese- American identity.

In contrast to Charlie’s parents, Charlie and Nora insist that Shirokiya is the best option for Japanese food. This is due to the fact that they are not striving for Japanese American food, but Japanese food as it is in Japan. When asked about the quality of Shirokiya’s food products, Nora answered:

They’re very good! I think their rice is still different quality of rice, so if you eat a plate lunch at a local drive-in or Marukai versus eating rice at

Shirokiya, it’s a different quality. So, at Shirokiya the quality is really good. Yeah, it’s the closest thing to Japan you can get in Hawai’i.

It becomes visible, that especially second- and third-generation Japanese people are caught between two stools. On the one hand, they like original Japanese food and washoku, as it is also presented at Shirokiya. On the other, they preserve the food habits of their parents in their new home, which is Hawai’i. Flitsch accordingly concludes:

The second diaspora generation often stands between enculturation and integration of their parents’ generation. They are faced with the consequences of a dual socialization. Often enough, this is configurated on tastes and the food culture of both - host and parents’ home cultures - and their particular skill is the ability to stand in between, both to master and to challenge tastes and dining patterns on both sides.[6]

Those who do have vivid bonds with Japan - be it because it is their place of birth and childhood or because of their travels - appreciate the difference in quality, that Shirokiya offers. In this way, Nisei and Sansei use the food at Shirokiya to maintain a specific Japanese national identity, referring to the country of Japan today in order to create feelings of belonging.

  • [1] See Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time, 102.
  • [2] In this context, it appears as though I was assigning these naive ideas to Eddie Wakida, but thisis not the case. It rather reflects the impression one might have about issues of Japanese food inHawai’i, without knowing much about the background.
  • [3] See Masuoka, ‘Changing Food Habits’, 763.
  • [4] See Wenkam, ‘A Half Century’, 30.
  • [5] For the discussion of this difficult notion, see Assmann in this volume, Cameron, ‘UNESCOand Cultural Heritage’, 323—336 and DeSoucey, ‘Gastronationalism’, 432—455.
  • [6] Flitsch, ‘Hesitant Hands’, 980.
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