“Saizeriya, tapioca or Niku Sushi?” – a plea for the culinary-focused auto-ethnography

12. March 2020

As Shmuel Eisenstadt notes in his work Japanese Civilization, the Land of the Rising Sun has a special attraction for comparative sociology. For Japanese society combines an – from a Western point of view – exotic culture and a highly technological civilization that has made and continues to make its own way into modernity. We in subproject B04 also succumbed to this attraction when the project leader, Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer, and I, the author, included Tokyo in our research plan. In addition to cultural exoticism, our decision was based on Japan’s (and especially Tokyo’s) reputation as a technologically pioneering society.

Our research focuses on locative media and their potential to change the perception and appropriation of public places. Locative media is a collective term for apps that access the location functions of mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, tablet computers) to provide their users with location-based information from the Internet. A common example are navigation apps that guide their users in real time through unknown spaces and, if necessary, help them to avoid places with heavy traffic. Another example is mobile recommendation services that help users find restaurants, shops or other places. In addition to digital maps and lists pointing to nearby places, recommendation services provide access to various information such as ratings, comments or photos left by other users in these places. Users can also upload information themselves or document their location via “check-in” to let their friends know where they are.

Why Japan?

The spread of locative media in Western societies went hand in hand with the rising mobility of the Internet and the spread of smartphones. In this country, local media are regarded as a prime example of a cultural break – triggered by the market launch of the first iPhone (2007) and the mobile operating system Android (2008). Our cooperation partner Hidenori Tomita from Kansai University in Osaka, however, says that talk of this very break in Japan only causes a shrug of the shoulders. Since the late 1990s, a successful forerunner of the mobile Internet, the i-mode portal service, has been in existence there. Based on i-mode, software for mobile phones, which we would call locative media today, was already established in Japan twenty years ago. In 1998, for example, Lovegety helped its Japanese users to find flirt partners nearby, long before Grindr and Tinder launched similar services in North America. Tomita therefore describes Japan as a society that has arrived in a state of “second offline”.  With this he wants to express that the linguistic separation between online and offline has lost its meaning in the everyday life of the Japanese, because the use of digital media is now smoothly integrated into countless everyday practices.

Given this pioneering technological status, it seemed interesting to learn more about how young people in Tokyo use location-based recommendation services. Our research trip in fall 2019 had been long prepared and was mainly planned as a qualitative interview study. The research trip was preceded by two intensive data workshops that we had conducted in Berlin together with various members of Tomita’s research group. Thanks to the active help of two Japanese colleagues, Keita Matsushita (Jissen University) and Yonnie Kim (Kanda University), we were able to obtain a heterogeneous sample of twenty students. The students were of different sexes, studied different subjects and were partly of Japanese and partly of Chinese nationality. In preparation for the interview, we had divided the students into two groups, each of which was to focus on one recommendation service. We had selected two apps popular in Japan:

a) Tabelog is a mobile recommendation service for restaurants, which is comparable to Foursquare City Guide, Yelp or Tripadvisor.

b) LineSteps is a location-based extension of the Line social network, which is widely used in Japan, and is similar in functionality to FacebookPlaces or Instagram.

All study participants* were given the task of recording their use of Tabelog or LineSteps over a period of one month and to report their experiences to us in the form of short diary entries. These diary entries were written in English and served as preparation for the interviews. During the interviews we received additional support from an excellent translator, who had been arranged for us by the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, so that the students could report in their native language. Without the help of Franziska Schultz, whom we would like to thank once again at this point, we would have returned to Berlin with considerably less, especially with less extensive data material.

The intensive preparations had paid off: We learned quite quickly that the study participants mainly used the above-mentioned apps for leisure planning and followed a similar pattern. At first, the students determined the rough framework of a leisure activity, e.g. Korean food followed by karaoke singing, with a time frame of a few days or weeks in advance. In this preparatory phase, many were inspired by photos on social networks and used Messenger to arrange the time and place of the meeting. Often the participants chose one of Tokyo’s large central train stations as the meeting point, which was easily accessible for all participants – usually Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa or Harajuku. The exits of subway stations are generally very popular among Tokyo residents as meeting points, since the – not only from a Western point of view – unclear address system does not seem to be very suitable for this purpose. The large central stations also have the advantage that they are hotspots of cultural life, and numerous leisure activities are offered in their surroundings: bars, clubs, cinemas, shopping, amusement arcades, sports, theatre and much more. For this reason, many of the participants in the study did not agree in advance where they would be stopping by on the agreed date. Instead, once having arrived at the train station, the smartphones were pulled out in order to 

(a) either to look for localities around the station that met the requirements of the agreed framework 

(b) or drift through the streets and, before entering a location, consult digital ratings and comments to get a quick idea of what was waiting for them behind the doors.

Although the students made a sincere effort to answer all our questions, many answers still seemed colorless and not very concrete. We understood that a visit to a tapioca bar or an izakaya, the typical Japanese pubs (easily recognizable by the usual red lantern), was part of a successful leisure activity. 

Figure 1: Queue in front of an izakaya (Source: Own photo)

However, the interviews only gave us a pale idea of what the respondents meant when they described elaborately prepared food as “insuta-bae” – suitable for Instagram. We were also left puzzled as to what made an Italian restaurant chain called Saizeriya or an Izakaya that offered Niku Sushi so appealing. So we quickly made it a rule to try one of the dishes that were the subject of the interviews during the day every evening of our stay in Tokyo. In the following, some special findings from this culinary-focused auto-ethnography will be considered.

The culinary-focused auto-ethnography

Tokyo’s constantly changing culinary offerings are an excellent example of how the innovation imperative of modern societies, i.e. the social appreciation of novelty, is increasingly conquering everyday life. Our interview partners were also very interested in getting to know new dishes. Tokyo’s gastronomy responds to this expectation with three strategies that we use to categorize our finds.

Figure 2: The culinary-focused auto-ethnography in action (Source: Own photos)

The first strategy is to pick up culinary trends from cultures that Japanese palates find new and exciting. From a Berlin perspective, for example, it is striking that doner kebab is offered on numerous street corners. The Baumkuchen is a popular sweet, but usually without a chocolate coating – perhaps because chocolate would melt too quickly in the hot and humid climate. Taiwanese tapioca teas, a colourful mixture of milk with green or black teas as well as various pellets (bobas) of cornstarch, are so common in Japan that “drinking tapioca” is now used as a synonym for meeting people. 

Korean restaurants, in which visitors grill their own meat, are also very popular. It goes without saying that these culinary imports are adapted to the cultural standards of the Japanese clientele. This means that strong spices are used rather frugally in order not to cover up fine taste nuances. The size of the portions is also adapted. While it is certainly a sign of quality for a Berlin kebab that the bread bag is generously filled with meat, salad and various sauces, the counterpart offered in Tokyo is hardly the size of a palm and eaten with just a few bites. The same applies to our Korean grill plate, which consists of a few thinly sliced, finely grained and precisely placed pieces of fillet – with a little wasabi, freshly grated from the tuber. These examples of cultural adaptation make it comprehensible that the aestheticization of food staged on social media platforms (above all Instagram) is taken up by young Japanese with particular enthusiasm: “You eat with your eyes first!” was and is the motto of Japanese cuisine. The decorative display of (plastic) food as a supplement or substitute for a menu has a long tradition in Japan – long before the advent of social media. 

Figure 3: Korean-style barbecue (source: own photo)

At best we could observe exceptions in the cultural tendency towards frugal portioning: In social gatherings, as they regularly take place after work in the Izakayas, the Tokyo* people sometimes consume large quantities of alcoholic drinks, i.e. sake or beer, in combination with yakitori (meat skewers) and green soy beans, whereby the palatable Japanese beer is often diluted with ice cubes on hot days.

Figure 4: Drinking beer in an izakaya (Source: Own photo)

A second strategy is to enhance the quality of the experience by adding other attractions to the process of eating or drinking. A well-known example, where eating even becomes a secondary matter, is the numerous Tokyo cat cafés. At these places, stressed-out city dwellers who rarely can or want to keep pets in their small apartments will find an oasis of peace and relaxation, which is further enhanced by animal caresses. However, this concept, which is now also being copied in Europe, no longer seems innovative enough. In any case, cat cafés are now competing with hedgehog cafés, which attract attention with loud advertising campaigns in the streets. A more technical attraction is the ordering and paying of lunch menus at vending machines, as it is practiced in many Japanese soup kitchens – but it could be that this innovation is only perceived as an attraction by backwoods Europeans like the author of this blog and his companion, while the Japanese simply find this process efficient, given the short lunch break.

Strategies of recombining different dishes or ingredients fall under the third category. In this process, different eating cultures can merge, as in the case of the Saizeriya restaurant chain. The Saizeriya branches create an Italian flair which apparently catches on especially with female students. Here, for example, reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings adorn the walls, which themselves are painted in Mediterranean hues. Otherwise, Saizeriya is more reminiscent of a US-American fast-food restaurant. After signing the guest list at the entrance and waiting a while for admission, the bustling waiters place their guests in padded seating areas. After reading the menu, the waiters are summoned silently – at the push of a button. As you would expect, the menu includes pizza and pasta, but also unusual flavours such as Pizza Tarako or Spaghetti Tarako, which are served with a typical Japanese fish sauce and seaweed. In addition to fusion cuisine in the style of Saizeriya, we could also observe new combinations of dishes, each of which is at home in Japanese cuisine. These include Niku Sushi, which combines sushi rice with raw meat instead of fish. Niku Sushi is offered in specialized restaurants and bars, whose menus mainly feature horse and beef, but also poultry or pork. As recognizable foreigners we were pointed out several times when entering a Niku Sushi bar that only raw meat and no fish is consumed here. However, the staff’s concern that we might not like it proved to be unfounded. In particular, the tender slices of beef and horse meat served on Nigri balls were reminiscent of European ham in terms of taste.

 Figure 5: Pizza Tarako (source: own photo)

The search for a Niku Sushi Bar is, by the way, another small auto-ethnographic lesson, which leads us back to our research question of spatial orientation by means of local recommendation services. After an interview session of several hours at Jissen University, which is located in the heart of one of Tokyo’s main business centers – in Shibuya – we also let ourselves drift through the brightly lit streets one evening. On GoogleMaps we had found a Niku Sushi Bar, which was only a few hundred meters away and had excellent ratings. However, it was going to take us considerable time to find this place, even after we had reached our destination, according to GoogleMaps. Due to our own cultural imprint – through the architecture of European cities – we had assumed the corresponding bar to be at ground level on the street, but it was located above our heads – more precisely: on the third floor of a glazed skyscraper, which we thought was a pure office tower according to the design of the entrance hall. The sterile hallway on the ground floor, illuminated by halogen light, was in stark contrast to the loud and darkened bar, which welcomed us with the smell of cigarettes and barbecue fumes after the elevator doors opened, and with upside-down beer crates that served as seats … To be continued after the next research trip to Tokyo, which is expected to take place in spring 2021!