Traphagen, J. and Brown, L (2002) 'Fast food and intergenerational commensality in Japan: new styles and old patterns', in Ethnology, Vol 41, No 2: 119 - 34.
Ritzer and others see McDonaldization as engage in a process of globalisation, but this article argues that McDonald's and other kinds of fast food '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' (119). Eating fast food can lead to 'intergenerational commensality, conviviality, and intimacy' (119), and this can be even a major reason in its rapid growth.
McDonald's takes its place along with other forms of fast food, some of them long available in Japan. Indeed, one fast food company (Yoshinoya) established in 1899, has become a global corporation itself and has franchises in the USA. Conveyor-belt sushi shops [also available in London] are perhaps the fastest forms. Customers are not always in a hurry, and the social atmosphere can be 'appealing' (121).
In cultural terms, the Japanese clearly vary in terms of what they consider to be fast food, as a survey of eight informants indicate. Not only do they include Japanese take out restaurants, but they can also include 'pastry shops, convenience stores, and supermarkets that sell pre-packaged foods' (123) [listed by a married woman], as well as 'stand-up food stands' [listed by her husband]. Fast food tends to be seen as something that is sold in a particular way, rather than distinctively prepared. There are generational differences too, depending on the likelihood of visiting a McDonald's or a KFC (grandmothers tend to visit with grandchildren, while middle-aged men often have never visited )
Some traditional Japanese restaurants have become fast food outlets, and some have even developed 'a distinctly American atmosphere', in terms of both decor and menu (123). Ramen (a noodle soup) is a now distinctively Japanese fast food and is still the most popular fast food, in its 'instant' form -- and so is spaghetti. McDonnell's often seen as providing snacks rather than proper meals.
It is been common for food to be introduced to Japan and then become adopted as 'standard Japanese fare' (124). There are some slight changes to the McDonald's menu in Japan, including corn soup and Teryaki Mcburgers, but apart from that the food is identical. Japanese McDonald's are even better than their American counterparts, with their extremely clean surroundings, and their quick and efficient service . However, consumption patterns are different. It is common, for example, for groups to dine together and to share food -- placing the fries in the middle of the table for all to consume, for example. [Several observed examples follow -- 126 - 7]. It is common for any mothers in the group to orchestrate the activity, in accordance with 'long-standing patterns in Japanese culture' (127), where sharing food is a part of 'asking for and receiving love and indulgence from another; e.g., one's mother' (127). Taking home food from McDonald's is also a way of bringing treats back for the family. Eating food with the hands is also traditional in Japan . McDonald's offers more chances for sharing than conveyor-belt sushi shops, where dishes are individualised and portions are too small to encourage much sharing (although it was observed).
Japanese history offers several examples of different kinds of food being absorbed into Japanese culture. For example, Chinese foods were important and modified in the early 20th century (including ramen and curry). These foods have been modified to become distinctively Japanese. This is happening with McDonald's too. The Japanese have a separate way of writing names for foreign foods, and McDonald's, KFC, and Mr Donut is still written in this special way, but so are the names for Sony and Toyota. The special writing can also indicate that a commodity is 'exotic, fresh and new' (131). It is not surprising that some Japanese believe that McDonald's and Mr Donut are Japanese companies.
Overall 'fast food and its various expressions for most Japanese can no longer be used to experience, relate to, imagine, or construct the other' (132). The success of McDonald's and other fast food chains does not reflect a high level of globalization in a simple manner. It is rather that 'fast food establishments resonate with other parts of Japanese life and culture', especially 'the emergence of a car culture' (132). McDonald's is simply an easy target for critics of American cultural hegemony. However, Japanese customers go to McDonald's 'because they are quick and cheap... [have]... toys for the children... [are]... clean... a socially safe place to meet friends... good place to see what other young people are wearing... the convenient place to please the family' (132). Eating fast food, especially fries just seems natural for the Japanese. One young woman also reported that she felt more comfortable in a McDonald's because middle-aged married men are less common there.
Japanese culture is constantly dealing with tradition and modernity and developing new ways to 'satisfy the needs and desires of contemporary people' (133) [a pretty functionalist account of the evolution of 'transnational cultures'? -- see Ram for a marxist alternative]: 'fast food is a Japanese as Honda cars, geisha and Nikon cameras' (133).
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