Eating Japanese, Being Japanese
Up to this point, I have described the extent to which Japanese food contributes to the various ways in which the different Japanese groups in Hawai’i deal with Japanese national identity. While for one group it serves as remembrance to the homeland, for others food becomes a way of maintaining their ancestors’ heritage. Finally, some perceive the country of Japan and the memories they associate with it as a central part of their lives and on that basis, they celebrate Japanese food. It appears that eating Japanese food can even serve to convince oneself that one is Japanese, although this often appeared to be rather an empty expression. I had this impression, meeting a Nisei and her daughter at the Yataimura Beer Garden at Shirokiya, whose statements about being Japanese (as opposed to Japanese-American or American) only referred to their ancestry. I became curious about these two when I perceived how embarrassed they were to admit that I knew more about Shirokiya than they did. Initially, I was confused when they introduced themselves to me as Japanese. In the past, I have rarely heard Nisei or Sansei say this as they would not usually comment on their nationality and if they did, they would rather speak about their Japanese family or tell me that their parents or grandparents were Japanese (in that they had immigrated from Japan). Most common was a comment such as ‘I am Sansei’.
Never having seen oden (different ingredients stewed in soy-flavoured fish stock), they curiously asked me what I was eating. When the mother guessed that the white chunks were probably tofu, I told her it was fishcake. She reacted surprised and said that she had never eaten it. So I explained to her the concept of preparing oden. This encounter is quite telling: while some people come to Shirokiya to learn about the country of their ancestors, others dwell there, seemingly trying to become Japanese by incorporating Japanese food into their diets. In front of me, two women tried to uphold the illusion of Japanese national identity just by eating Japanese food. They were not even interested in what they were eating, it just had to be labelled Japanese, and in so doing recreate a Japanese identity. In this sense, Brillant-Savarin’s famous quote, ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’ is turned around: if you do not want to be what you are, eat to become what you want to be.
However, even where the motives vary significantly among the (local) Japanese customers, who visit Shirokiya regularly, they all have one central aspect in common: at Shirokiya, it is Japanese food that serves best to fulfil their hopes, wishes and aspirations. It helps them deal with homesickness and to indulge in memories of Japan. It is the only place in
Hawai’i where Japanese and Japanese-American food is separated and where a seemingly ‘authentic Japanese environment’ is created. In Honolulu, Shirokiya plays a key role in constructing Japanese national identity by means of Japanese food. Even so, the ways in which the different groups construct, deal with, and maintain this Japanese national identity in Hawai’i differ greatly.
-  Belasco, Food, 1.