Orienting orientalism in a Japanese Restaurant

Kobe 2

A note before reading: This post has taken me longer to write than any other post I’ve written so far. I’ve read then re-read and made edits on top of edits. For the first time since beginning this blog, I really thought about having someone read it before I posted it to the site. When speaking about race and culture, especially one that is not my own, I believe that it is important to be politically correct when it comes to how things are phrased because 1. I don’t want to offend anyone and 2. doing so would take the attention away from the point that is being made. So, I tried my best to be very careful and considerate with the words I used and how I used them. If I made any mistakes, please charge it to me head and not my heart. I hope you enjoy.

It was my nephew’s 18th birthday a few weeks ago. In our family, this meant a special dinner out, with the restaurant choice being the birthday boy’s decision to make. His decision, unsurprisingly and a bit disappointingly on my end, was Kobe Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar. This place is like a local gem, at least it seems that way from its always packed parking lots. Lots, in plural. There are a number of these gems around town and the Central Florida area. Although initially disappointed in his choice of restaurants, my excitement slowly eased in as I remembered that 1. Although the food is probably in the negative range when it comes to health, it was still pretty good, 2. I have an awesome blog AND, 3. I was in need of an awesome post to place on said awesome blog. As I thought of how the night would play out, my mind began to fill with all of the writing possibilities this experience would most certainly offer me. My mind went crazy thinking of all the fun ways I could “spin” my night at the restaurant:

– “A taste of Japan in Orlando” or
– “Experiencing Japan in my backyard”

I envisioned myself writing the first line of the post. I imagined that it would go something like this: “Over the weekend, I took an impromptu trip to Japan, then drove home.” Cute, right? It was all thought out. The post would pretty much write itself. The comments would rain in with accolades of how I had penned such a well-written, tongue-in-cheek post. Ahhh, wishful thinking.

Instead, because I am me, this post is anything but a cheeky recount of my night in Japan, because that Saturday evening, as I watched our Japanese cook/entertainer slap yet another spoonful of butter onto the large, hot grill in front of us, I knew that we were not in Japan anymore. Even more so, I was pretty confident that our plane, with all good intentions, had veered from its destination and had simply landed where it had taken off.

I had been to Kobe (as we call it for short) a number of times before, usually with family to celebrate someone’s birthday. On one occasion, I bypassed all the pomp and circumstance and ordered my food to go. It could’ve been just my imagination, but the food tasted just as good (and maybe even a little better) without the Asian man entertaining me and holding my food hostage with my laughter and enjoyment being its only suitable ransom. You see, Kobe follows (I use this word very lightly) in an over 50-year-long tradition of the teppanyaki-style steakhouse. If you’ve been to or seen what goes down at the popular Benihana restaurant chain, you’ve probably experienced the exact same thing I did that evening. If you haven’t, here is a short synopsis:

Upon entering the Japanese themed restaurant, guests are greeted with all of the things they would assume a Japanese restaurant to have, including a koi pond – which is my favorite! Guests are then seated at a large rectangle table with only one of the longest sides and both of the shorter sides being available for seating. The other long side of the rectangle is for the chef to cook on the large, hot grill that is placed smack dab in the middle of the table, leaving only a small area for guests to eat.

After guests place their meat order, which could include one or a combination of steak, chicken, lobster, scallops, shrimp and salmon, a man comes to the large table and begins the cooking and entertaining segment. By the end of the show, he would have cooked the entire table, its entire meal – no matter the amount of guests AND said guests would have been properly entertained by singing, food throwing, friendly quips, and lots of pop culture references.

The video below will probably do a much better job at explaining this style of cooking.

 

It would be great, probably more like awesome, if the objective of this post was to outline my first-hand comparison of this (seemingly) westernized style of teppanyaki with my authentic Japanese experience, because this, of course, would mean that I had finally made my much talked about trip to Tokyo. But this is not the case. Tokyo still sits on my “Top 10 Places to Visit” list unchecked. What I have experienced, however, is grad school, where we discussed theories, and the effects of media on people’s image of themselves and the world around them, but even more relevant to this discussion is that during my time as a student, I was introduced to a man named Edward Said, whose book Orientalism would stretch my mind in such a way that, even having only read an excerpt, I could only superficially join in with the laughter and entertainment of the night. It was my experience with Said that framed my Saturday evening at the Japanese restaurant.

So, as I sat there watching as the Asian man cooked and entertained, entertained and cooked, an experience that I had come to watch several times before, I wondered – how does he feel about this? I watched as he put on a show, at one point doing a rendition of the “I Like to Move It” song from the Madagascar movie while wiggling a shrimp tail in the air. Was he okay with this? I wondered. At one point, I looked around at the other tables that surrounded ours and watched as other guests were also being entertained by Asian men doing and saying funny things in their Asian accents. My skepticism of the sincerity of their happy faces as they served and entertained guests was nothing new. I had wondered these same things on other occasions. It’s just this time, I had Said. What’s interesting is that it took me a few days to put a finger on the discomfort I felt that night. Actually, once I did, it took a response email from a past professor to remind me of Said’s Orientalism. Yes, exactly! I let out a pretty loud scream at my desk the moment I read her email.

Coming up with a one-sentence definition of orientalism (which is both a term and the title of Said’s book) is not the easiest thing to do. There is so much to it, including a lot of historical baggage to go along with it. But after doing a bit of research and doing a quick review of Said’s explanation, here is what I came up with:

Orientalism is the misappropriation and misrepresentation of the Orient by the Occident or the Western World. It is what happens when Eastern cultures are re-imagined or recreated through the eyes, ideas, and experiences of Westerners.

Such large words, for such a simple experience, right?

A quick Google search for “examples of Orientalism” will give a number of places it has appeared and continues to appear in US society, especially in pop culture. A blog post from Jennifer of Mixed Race America a few years ago gave some really great, every-day examples of orientalism. Here are a few:

  • “Madonna’s ‘Indian’ phase”
  • “Chinese Chicken Salad”
  • “…lamps that either feature Asian people (usually in classical Chinese or Japanese clothing, and by classical I mean, ancient Chinese or ancient Japanese clothing) at its base.”
  • “Or Buddha, depictions of which are on t-shirts and soap and action figures.”

My favorite example comes from my professor who wrote a paper titled “Bloopers of a Geisha: Male Orientalism and Colonization of Women’s Language” in relation to the book Memoirs of a Geisha, which would later be turned into a movie. Historically, geishas are esteemed artisans, entertainers, and conversationalists who painstakingly study and craft their artistic talents, yet in the hands of 1. a male and 2. a westerner, both readers and viewers experienced geishas reimagined as “highly erotic creatures,” which brings me back to my Saturday evening.

While sitting at the table watching the scene all around me, I saw a petite Asian woman in a suit walking down the main aisle of the restaurant. She had a very stern look on her face as she looked around; I’m assuming making sure everything was running smoothly. It was easy to see that she was in charge. Good, I thought. An Asian person or family probably owns the place. I hoped that this new finding (or assumption) would dim the light bulbs that were clicking on in my head. But, it didn’t. So, I went home and did some research. It was important to start at the beginning, to understand the history of this style of cooking, because from there I could gain a better understanding of where things had gone awry, because my instincts were telling me that what I had experienced had been remanufactured somewhere down the line. Even if the place was Japanese or Asian-owned, isn’t it possible to orientalize one’s own culture?

While researching, I found that the teppanyaki cooking style, which is done on a large, hot, iron plate called a teppan, was created in 1945 by Shigeji Fujioka who is also credited with being the creator of the first teppanyaki-style restaurant, Misono located in Kobe, Japan. In addition to the original restaurant, there are 4 other locations in various cities around the country. Scanning the Misono website, the differences between a Misono experience and a Kobe experience were pretty obvious. It was clear that at Misono, the food was the star. Large pictures of the famed Kobe beef were on several pages with descriptions of the delicacy taking up large amounts of page space. Although both restaurants featured chefs who cooked diners’ food tableside, it was clear that while the Kobe chef’s main objective was to entertain, the Misono chef focused on making an exquisite meal, which would by default put his culinary skills on display. On the Misono website, there were no pictures of chefs giving the thumbs up, showcasing how happy they were for the opportunity to entertain their guests. Actually, there weren’t any pictures of the chef or chefs at all. Not one. Instead, there were pictures of the beautiful, simple, yet very luxurious dining areas with the teppan on full display and chairs surrounding it. Under each picture, the description always included some form of the sentence: A chef carefully grills right in front of you. There was not even the slightest suggestion that this was meant to be an entertaining experience. It was very evident that the attention was placed on the food and the talent of the chef… as a chef.

But a website can only tell you so much, right? Knowing this, I went to TripAdvisor for some first hand experiences from both Misono and Kobe diners. The differences jumped out immediately. I will spare you the details and just share a few of the titles from the reviews I found:

Kobe:

“Great fun and family entertainment, really enjoyed ourselves.”

“large family entertainment”

“Fun night at dinner”

“FUN and YUM!”

Misono:

“Amazing Kobe Beef”

“Kobe beef prepared in front of you”

“Perfect”

“original Kobe beef”

Just to make sure I covered all of my research bases, I reached out to a friend. We’ll call him Dane. Like me, Dane loves to travel and experience other cultures. He has also dined at the Kobe restaurant. Unlike me, Dane has had the opportunity to visit Japan and actually experience an authentic teppanyaki-style restaurant. We discussed his experience at the “expensive as hell” (his words, not mine) restaurant he visited. It wasn’t one of the Misono branches, but his experience definitely mirrored the Misono website and those of the happy Misono customers on TripAdvisor. It was about the food. So, where had the kink occurred in such a chain of tradition?

Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki of Tokyo, Japan introduced the teppanyaki-cooking style to US diners in 1964 with his first Benihana restaurant, which would eventually turn into 100s of restaurants worldwide. The Benihana website states that Aoki’s “highly trained chefs delighted customers with intricate knife work and theatrics.” Theatrics. There it was. The kink that I had been searching for, and I had found it in such an unexpected place. From the very beginning, I was on a quest to prove my assumptions right, which was that a rich, Caucasian male had visited Japan, experienced teppanyaki, and had the bright idea to take the experience to the States… with a little bit of added spice of course. After proving myself right, I would wrap it up and put an orientalism cherry on top. But my findings did the opposite. So, instead of being able to chop this up to Westerners taking a foreign culture and mixing it up to placate their palates, I leave you with a question, Carrie style:

Is the misappropriation of a culture from the people within that culture considered to be misappropriated or are they simply telling their side, a different side of the story?

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  • Mia

    Hey there Nicole. Just found your blog and this post after going to the Kobe Steakhouse in Orlando this weekend for my daughter’s birthday. It was the second year in a row we had gone there, because she liked it so much the first time. And maybe it was just that I’d seen the same exact routine before (including the “move it move it” dancing shrimp), that I started to feel a little uncomfortable, or at least questioning. I too wondered how the people who worked there actually felt about what they were doing…how much of it was an act put on for culturally inexperienced Americans. Did the manager, who told us his name was “Jimmy” (and sounded an awful lot like “Jimmy” the Vietnamese bar owner in Good Morning, Vietnam), smiling the entire time while saying things like “yummy yummy!!” in a heavy accent, maybe go into the back of the kitchen right after and suddenly switch to his actual, real American accent while asking the score of the Cavs/Raptors game? I don’t know. But it did get me wondering. 🙂

    I don’t know about labeling it “misappropriating” their culture. For one, as you point out, it wasn’t an ignorant egotistical outsider who hardcore stereotyped what he saw and tried to make a buck off it. Furthermore, while it’s obviously not in any way a realistic reenactment of what you would find in Japan, neither is American life accurately represented by a loud cowgirl in sparkly fringed clothing and a giant cowboy hat yelling “YeeHaw!!” every other sentence. At the end of the day, all cultures stereotype each other to a certain degree. I think what’s key is the widespread understanding that it isn’t a realistic representation of their actual society.

    That being said, maybe it’s just me, but I think most Americans are more culturally sensitive and aware now than they were in the 1970s and 80s…maybe we’re ready to start moving past the constant grinning “Yummy, Yummy” character performance, and more towards an authentic Japanese dining experience based on mutual respect and qualify of food and presentation. I know I am.

    • Mia, thank you for your comment. Rereading my post and remembering the recent misappropriation fails in the news lately, I agree with you. Misappropriation is definitely the wrong word to use in this situation. I also agree that most Americans would and are ready to welcome authentic experiences of different cultures with open arms. I’m thinking, though, that it’s a two-way street. While I believe that Americans are open to these new experiences, restauranteurs/businesses have to trust that their authenticity will pay off. I’m pretty sure Kobe will not be changing anytime soon. The bevy of cars I see in their parking lot on a daily basis means that there are people who are okay with the character performances. I just hope that other restaurants and places of business don’t jump on the bandwagon.