Ethnographic “Schnitzeljagd”: Observing at Japanese restaurants

by Sungmi Kim, Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu), Tim Pantenburg and Antonia Vesting*

On Friday June 11, an especially hot day, we went to three Japanese eateries located around Kantstraße in Berlin Charlottenburg. Our general assignment was to observe the restaurants, talk to either customers or staff, take notes and pictures, and buy some food to try. We also had to hand in our field notes afterwards.

Enjoying food in front of a Japanese bakery (Copyright © Frank Tu 2021)

While observing we had to pay attention to many things. Quickly drawing maps or pictures can be a challenge especially to novel researchers. This is also true for taking pictures of the locations. Other customers or staff could get in the way and it is better to ask first before taking photos. By doing so, we realized that most people were rather kind and gave their permission. For our future projects on Japanese restaurants, it will be important to take enough time and to go to the location at different weekdays and times of the day. We also learned that participant observation can be a good way to obtain information that we otherwise would not get from interviews easily. In particular, among the three places we visited, at one place card payments was not accepted. Based on this observation, we wondered how payment options may affect the number of customers.

Decoration outside of a Japanese restaurant (Copyright © Antonia Vesting 2021)

It was interesting to observe how restaurateurs presented the food and other information and how the restaurants were decorated. For example, in Korean restaurants the names of the food are usually written both, in Korean and in German, but the three Japanese restaurants we visited, offered only menus written in rōmaji. To decorate the menu, at one place hand-drawn cartoons were used. At another restaurant there was a big puppet with the menu around the neck, it’s face decorated with the Japanese letters.

We also paid attention to the kitchens and their respective menus. For example, Kame is mainly be a bakery, but it was interesting that they have added things like karaage to their menu. A small look at their kitchen in the back revealed that they don’t make use of many automated tasks and most dishes seemed to be handmade. We had the impression that adding new dishes to the menu seems to be easy and that owners and customers alike are very flexible when trying new things.

One eatery only offers take-out food (Copyright © Tim Pantenburg 2021)

By visiting the restaurants, we were also able to collect information about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Japanese restaurateurs. On the one hand, the owner of one eatery told us that his place did not suffer much from the pandemic, since it exclusively offers takeaway options and that he had already used delivery services before the pandemic. Therefore, there was not much to change. During Berlin’s two lockdowns, the income had even increased slightly. On the other hand, an employee at one of the other restaurants stated that they did not have many customers during the lockdown.

Impressions of a Japanese bakery (Copyright © Sungmi Kim 2021)

We hope we could give some insights on how Japanese restaurants in Berlin operate and present their uniqueness and what kind of data field research can bring to the table.

*Sungmi Kim, Tim Pantenburg and Antonia Vesting are students at Freie Universität Berlin’s Japanese Studies MA Program. Ngo Tu Thanh (Frank Tu) is a research assistant in the research project “Urban-rural migration and rural revitalization in Japan” at Freie Universität Berlin.

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