Academic journal article Ethnology

Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns (1)

Article excerpt

The introduction of McDonald's and indigenous fast-food restaurants reflects changes in the Japanese diet, eating behaviors, and social patterns. But these changes are not the expression of urban anomie and social fragmentation often attributed to postmodern society and symbolically represented by the ubiquity of these restaurants. Indeed, eating and social patterns within such establishments suggest that they provide opportunities for intergenerational commensality, conviviality, and intimacy that are less evident in some of the traditional Japanese fast-food establishments, where snacks and meals likewise are quickly served and quickly consumed. The proliferation in Japan today of these fast-food establishments reflects changes in Japan as part of global processes, rather than Westernization per se; such eating venues are used in ways that are consistent with patterns long established in Japanese culture. (Japan, family, globalization, fast food, McDonald's)

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Fast foods have a long history in Japan, and continue today with new and old forms, each having its own meaning and place in this fast-paced, hard-working society. The introduction of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and domestic restaurants like MOS Burger have clearly effected, and reflect, changes in the Japanese diet and eating behaviors (Watson 1997:6). (2) One might expect that such changes associated with globalization would be the expression of urban anomie, impersonal and mechanical social relations, alienation and social fragmentation, symptoms often attributed to postmodern society, symbolically represented in the ubiquity of these gustatory venues (cf. Clammer 2001). McDonald's frequently is portrayed as the central icon of the evils of globalization. Ritzer (2000:6), for example, sees the company and its golden arches as a "global icon"; indeed, as "the ultimate icon of Americana," with its emphasis on efficiency, uniformity, and mass production.

This article presents an entirely different perspective, and argues that McDonald's and some other new styles of fast food in Japan express long-standing Japanese cultural patterns, and facilitate human intimacy and warmth not possible with some other, more traditional styles of inexpensive and rapidly served food in Japan. Ethnographic observation of eating patterns within recently introduced fast-food restaurants suggests that these establishments provide opportunities for intergenerational commensality, conviviality, and intimacy that are less evident in more traditional establishments where people go for food that likewise is quickly served and quickly consumed. The opportunities for these intimate occasions of sharing indeed may well be a major factor in their rapid growth in the past several decades. (3) Ethnographic observation also underscores the importance of avoiding simplistic conclusions that things global necessarily lead to common interpretations and uses and that a particular mode of production is inherently endowed with normative values that transcend cultural boundaries.

What qualifies in the minds of the Japanese as fast food? Under what circumstances do people eat it? How are eating patterns and attitudes toward fast food different from or similar to those directed toward more traditional forms of Japanese cuisine? This article provides an ethnographic description of eating patterns within fast-food restaurants and explores the culturally circumscribed meanings people attach to fast food in Japan. The basic points the essay makes are that: 1) styles of usage of McDonald's and other new fast-food establishments in Japan express, facilitate, and strengthen traditional patterns of intergenerational commensality; 2) the proliferation of these fast-food establishments in Japan today reflects changes in Japan as part of global and modernizing processes (e.g., the great convenience of private automobiles in societies where large numbers of people can afford them) rather than Westernization per se; 3) whether these establishments are of foreign or Japanese origin, the menus and other matters of operation have adjusted to Japanese cultural patterns; 4) many Japanese, and especially younger Japanese, are unaware that McDonald's is not a Japanese company; and therefore, 5) McDonald's and other fastfood establishments, rather than providing a symbol of the exotic foreign or non-Japanese other, have become ubiquitous establishments that serve important needs and tastes of the Japanese within their own culture. …

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