September 24, 2003    Humor

How to Tell a Real Japanese Restaurant

What I’m about to tell you may be very specific to New York, but there has been a trend among Chinese and Korean restaurateurs to open Japanese restaurants without paying any respect to the art of Japanese cuisine. This is obviously done solely to take advantage of the bigger profit margin associated with Japanese cuisine. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against Chinese or Korean people. And, I respect their cuisines just as much as I respect Japanese cuisine. I’m also aware of the frustration Koreans have about the Japanese people making Kimchi that does not meet the Korean standard. My problem is that I just don’t like people who disrespect the cultures of others, and do nothing but to exploit them.

Not all Chinese or Korean owned Japanese restaurants are bad. For instance, Jeollado in the East Village which serves both Japanese and Korean cuisines. To me, they are an exception to my definition of “exploitation” because the sushi they serve is good and original in their own ways, though it may not meet the standards of Japanese sushi connoisseurs. Unfortunately the vast majority of Chinese and Korean owned Japanese restaurants are exploitative. Most of them do not seem to even bother reading a book on how to make proper Japanese food. They simply mimic the way Japanese food looks, and nothing more. They put a piece of raw fish on a ball of rice and call it “sushi”, not realizing that sushi rice is made quite differently from ordinary rice. They deep-fry breaded pieces of vegetables and call them “tempura”, not realizing that tempura batter and sauce are nothing like what you use for chicken cutlet. If they pay this little attention to details, just imagine how much attention they pay to the treatment of raw fish. No matter how much cheaper these places may be, it’s not worth getting food poisoned.

For Japanese people living in New York, distinguishing real Japanese restaurants from the fake ones comes as a second nature. We can feel and smell the fakes ones from miles away. Let me clue you in on how we do it.

Firstly, don’t trust any Japanese restaurants that use the typeface called Wonton. I would guess that this type was designed by some white guy who knew nothing about the art of oriental calligraphy. He probably went by what it looked like to him, in the same way those exploitative Chinese and Korean restaurateurs mimic Japanese food. The type design looks nothing like what authentic Oriental calligraphy looks like. It is so bad that when I first saw it in this country, I didn’t realize that it was supposed to be mimicking it. I thought it was just a terrible-looking typeface. Hence it would never occur to a right-minded Japanese person to use this font for his restaurant. It is only appropriate for those whose minds are full of opportunities to exploit, that they use such a font.

Give a healthy dose of skepticism to Japanese restaurants that have neon signs. Though this is not a definitive rule, neon signs are rarely seen for restaurants that serve traditional Japanese food in Japan. Most Japanese persons would find it distasteful.

Look at the menu. If it contains a section of Chinese or Korean food, it is a good sign that it is not a real Japanese restaurant. Exploitative minds cannot let go of any moneymaking opportunities. Since the cooks they have in their kitchens are likely to be Chinese or Korean, they don’t want their real skills to go to waste. They therefore cannot resist serving Chinese or Korean food such as Chicken Chow Mein, Sweet and Sour Pork, or General Tso’s Chicken.

Look at the way the take-out menu is printed. The printing characteristics can tell you a lot about who is culturally behind it. Is it a Legal size paper folded into four vertical panels? Chinese printers in New York are constantly printing take out menus. I’m sure there are printers who do nothing but to print Chinese take-out menus. If you get in on their existing templates, it’s much cheaper. Again, an exploitative mind would not miss opportunities like this.

Is it printed with black and red inks? Chinese people seem to love red. It appears that if they are not giving too much thought to it, they end up using red. If a Japanese person were to mindlessly pick a color for a menu, it would not be red. Despite the fact that the Japanese flag is nothing but a big red dot, it is not a popular color in Japanese culture.

Does every item have a unique number? This is a little piece of Chinese wisdom. Since they deal with a massive number of delivery calls, and since many of them do not speak English well, they came up with a simple solution of assigning unique numbers to all items. Japanese restaurants do not usually deal with a large number of deliveries, so they do not think that carefully when they are printing their menus.

Does it have multiple numbers to call? Does it have a discount coupon on the cover? Again, Japanese restaurants are not as eager to make money from deliveries as Chinese restaurants are. It would not occur to Japanese restaurant owners to get multiple phone lines for delivery calls; let alone offer discount coupons.

Watch out for restaurant names that are overly pandering to the ignorance of the American public. Well-known Japanese words like “Tokyo”, “Zen”, “Sayonara”, “Kyoto”, “wasabi”, and “Fuji” sound so tacky to Japanese people that if you were a Japanese person who owns a restaurant with a name that contains any of these words, you might consider committing harakiri. Only a non-Japanese person could shamelessly adopt such words for their restaurants.

There is a scene in the 1998 version of Godzilla, where Matthew Broderick is holding a can of food that is supposed to be Japanese. Any Chinese, Korean, or Japanese person could tell that the label is not printed in Japanese but in Korean. I can imagine the prop master of the film sending his assistant to pick up a bunch of canned foods from a Japanese grocery store. The assistant probably went to a Korean store because he saw no difference. He bought a bunch of them and showed them to the prop master, and the latter probably took one and said, “This is cool. It looks Japanese to me.”

When I need to deal with a culture that is foreign to me, I treat it with utmost respect. When I had to create a type treatment for a TV commercial in Spanish and French, I did not pretend to know what capitalization, line breaking, or connotations of colors meant in these languages. So, I insisted that native speakers approve all these aspects of my design. This scene in Godzilla is especially ironic because Godzilla is a creation of Japanese pop culture. Obviously the creators had nothing in mind except for exploiting the popularity of Godzilla. It is perfectly understandable that you may not appreciate a certain culture, but if that is the case, you should not exploit it either. When you exploit a culture, it is perceived as an insult, like you are making fun of that culture.

Counter Point by Mark Dong

While I agree that most Chinese and Korean pseudo Japanese restaurants aren’t as good as Japanese restaurants your arguments are kind of condescending to Korean and Chinese people. You get so angry that they seem to be “stealing” Japanese culture and ideas but didn’t the Japanese “borrow” many things from the Koreans and almost all Sino Asian countries have appropriated some form of language, food items, grammar, clothing, martial arts, etc. from the Chinese. I mean isn’t the Japanese Kanji Chinese? What would happen if Chinese people were angry that Japanese stole their calligraphy and say they are angry that they are trying to pass it off as Japanese? Hell, The Italians stole noodles from China! But all these countries did trade and exchanged and borrowed ideas and customs from another.

I think your argument is that these people shouldn’t portray themselves as Japanese to sell food when they are not. But when you say “real” Japanese food I get confused as to the definitions. What is “real” Japanese food anyway? What’s real Chinese food? Is it only real if a Japanese person prepares it instead of a Chinese or Korean person? Is there a Uniform way of making sushi in all Japanese restaurants? I think the way you used the terms “They” is pretty racist even though you don’t mean it or don’t mean it that harshly.

I’ve been to a lot of Japanese owned restaurants that are really bad and you are right I have been to a lot of Chinese and Korean ones that were goddamn awful. Since you live in New York you know that a lot of the Japanese restaurants on St. Marks Place are owned by Japanese and a lot of them aren’t that good. There is one restaurant that is called “ZEN” one of the words that you say a Japanese person would not use, but I know the owner is Japanese. As well as a convenience store that is owned by a Japanese person called “FUJI” on Sullivan Street and I do believe there is a restaurant called “Tokyo” but I don’t know what the ethnicity of the owner is but it does look like it is owned by Japanese according to the rest of your requirements.

I also do not know of your definitions for Exploitation but since you work in advertising it’s kind of hypocritical for you to get on your high horse when many advertising firms use overtly racist stereotyping to sell ideas. I remember when the movie MULAN from Disney came out and they had a special sesame seed sauce for McDonald’s chicken nuggets and the advert actually used the words “it’s Chinamite!” to sell the ethnicity and exoticism of a chicken nugget dipping sauce. Imagine if they said “It’s Blacktacular!” or “it’s Jewlicious!”

Also I don’t understand the qualifications for real Japanese food. What if the restaurant is owned by Japanese but since I’m sure Chinese workers are cheaper some are hired and prepare the dishes? There is a Japanese styled restaurant that is mediocre on Centre street that is owned by a Chinese person and even though the food isn’t as great as the best Japanese restaurant the decor isn’t half bad and they have none of those cheap exploitive gimmicks in your White Paper.

I think what you are mad at is that there is a lot of bad Japanese takeout/restaurants but the same could be said of Chinese and Korean places. I say the main problem is basically quality. But in this day and age, people forget their identities. People eat in the olive garden which isn’t really Italian but is a stereotype of an Italian kitchen and it isn’t half bad. I mean there is the outback steakhouse which promises “Australian” food, whatever that means. I mean Burger king - Hamburgers are German aren’t they? McDonalds? Supposed to be Irish right? Is pizza hut supposed to be Sicilian? Taco Bell? ‘Nuff said.

I mean all these restaurants are just machines of the American psyche and diet. Americans like to define food as people and I guess your argument is that if people make bad Japanese food then it sheds bad light on Japanese people. But I’d like to add that most of these Chinese/Korean places are priced pretty cheap and that wasn’t on your list of how to differentiate a Japanese restaurant. It’s basically fast food, you know. Real Japanese just like Real Chinese and Real Korean food that is exquisitely prepared in authentic environments are always notoriously expensive. I mean Yama’s prices are okay but the wait for a table is expensive in itself.

The thing is, even bad Japanese food owned by Japanese people is expensive. That’s why I don’t like to try new Japanese places owned by Japanese until someone recommends me. I once had to pay a dollar for some soy sauce packets. With Chinese/Korean places you know the food will be edible but it won’t make a dent in your wallet. Besides Japanese food there is an even bigger explosion of Mexican themed takeout/restaurants that are owned by Chinese people. You would assume since Mexicans are the cheapest labor force in the states you would see them working in a Mexican restaurant but no, almost all Chinese. I see all these Chinese/Korean Japanese restaurants like little teriyaki boys franchises. I don’t think Teriyaki boy is Japanese at all but it’s portrayed to be. Does anyone think when biting into a taco bell burrito that it’s authentic Mexican food. I hope I wasn’t disrespecting Mexican culture when I bought that quesadilla and put mild picante sauce on it.

I really love your website but I don’t agree with your whole “Chinese people love red and most of THEM are cheap and exploitative and “the printing characteristics can tell you who is culturally behind It”. The tone of your piece sounds like “Chinese/Korean people are tacky and vulgar” and “Japanese have style and wouldn’t be so crass” and that’s why I take umbrage.

I’m Vietnamese and I can also definitely tell if it’s a Chinese or Japanese owned restaurant. But you forgot the most important clue. The prepareres usually speak to each other in Japanese or Chinese. I think Chinese/Korean people are only following the American Business model. Today it’s Japanese, tomorrow It’s Indian (very Hot right now). But you have to give all us true gourmets credit that we can spot them and you know what? I still eat at taco bell even though it ain’t Mexican.

I should also delved more into “are the Chinese trying to pose as Japanese?” question. Because I don’t think they are. As I wrote before they have opened a lot of Mexican takeout/restaurants and they clearly are not trying to pose as Mexicans. It’s just that Japanese food is in vogue and it’s simple supply and demand.

And there is another issue I need to address which in my mind is the bigger problem: Chinoiserie and Japonism. The whole wonton font is really a western interpretation of Eastern culture. For some reason, the west likes to change eastern customs and integrate them into their own. If you ever order food in a Chinese restaurant and they put water chestnuts in it, it’s not for eastern tastes but for western aesthetics. And some forms of sweet and sour pork have been totally modified (butchered) for the western (mid-western, bible belt, gun-toting?) diet. I think it’s done to sell so called exotic foreign foods to the mainstream.

I remember I once went to a Japanese restaurant with my friend and his younger brother who were Caucasians from the Midwest and his younger brother said non-jokingly “YOU eat Raw fish?” I laughed my ass off at his authentic ignorance. A person in Kansas will probably go to a Japanese restaurant in Kansas and probably ask for egg rolls. And, he’d probably get one. It’s mascot atmospheres that scare me the most. The themed restaurants are the devil incarnate. Chuck E. cheese must be stopped cause you never know when they’ll open a Charlie Chan’s.

In New York I noticed a lot of Japanese restaurants experimenting with new dishes. Like the dish called dynamite. I think it’s absolutely disgusting but a lot of my Asian friends love the stuff. But getting back to the point, what happens if a western taste is acquired for dynamite? Does that dish become some sort of link towards assimilation of a culture or if it does not is it a question of genetics that I read somewhere where Asians have different tastes (sweet, sour, bitter) than other people so that when they introduce certain staples of their diet into western society that they must customize them to western tastes but at a loss of quality and distinctness.

Even though I’m ragging on the west for trivializing a culture’s food the East is also guilty and at times worse. When I was in Hong Kong some of the fast food chains served macaroni and cheese with eggs for breakfast, which is totally weird when you see the other things on the menus. I am pretty sure in Japan there are western themed restaurants with cowboys as waiters and a romanticized atmosphere of bull riding and living on the ranch. I also know that there are Nazi themed restaurants in Taiwan and Tokyo where the waiters are dressed like the SS! Is it sarcastic art or is it ignorance? Either way, I hear they are doing very well. In Thailand they have waiters dressed as SPIDERMAN who would serve you and have now moved on to being Neo from the matrix. So I guess culture assassination isn’t just a western thing. It’s universal.