June 19, 2019

Food for Thought

It’s hard to predict which Japanese restaurant concepts would catch on in the US. I was a bit surprised to see izakayas become so popular because it’s not about a particular type of food but about a particular style of eating and drinking. Anything that requires people to modify their behavior is usually very hard to popularize.

I suspect one of the reasons is that most Japanese restaurants these days are not owned by Japanese people. Most sushi restaurants feel like a franchise—generic and formulaic, like most pizzerias. I’m not saying Japanese restaurants must be owned by Japanese people to be good, but if they are not Japanese, they wouldn’t have much incentive to represent a foreign culture authentically. For their restaurants to be good, they must appropriate the Japanese culture and make it their own, and some do succeed at that. But I think many people do miss the authentically Japanese mood even if they cannot articulate that feeling. I think that is where izakayas came in.

After finishing high school in California, I went back to Japan for half a year and worked at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. One of the chefs liked me a lot and nicknamed me “USA” just because I lived in the US for two years. He didn’t have any kids and was living alone but he was a great father figure to me. Sometimes after work, he would take me and another kid to an izakaya. That’s how I learned to drink in Japanese style. Beer, sake, skewers, and various other small plates. Since then, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that tasted better because it wasn’t just about the food. It was like an initiation to the adult world and nothing beats the first swig of beer after a long day of physical labor.

In this sense, the key ingredient of izakaya is a friendship developed through hard work, where the formality and hierarchies of the business world are temporarily dropped. Japanese people are good at this as they believe identity to be a contextual and fluid construct. But I don’t think this type of fundamental cultural difference can be translated and reflected in the izakayas here.