Participant observation at a Japanese restaurant

by Cornelia Reiher

While group visits to restaurants were difficult last summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year we were able to do our annual field trip to a Japanese restaurant again to practice participant observation. After an introduction to participant observation in the classroom, we traveled from campus to one of the many Japanese restaurants in Berlin to have lunch together. I asked students to observe interactions between staff and customers, work processes and division of labor in the restaurant and the interaction of the employees with each other, how Japaneseness is staged in the restaurant and what hygiene measures against Corona are still in place and how they are implemented by employees and guests.

When we entered the restaurant, we saw hand sanitizers and a perspex partition wall at the counter and waitresses wearing masks. However, since wearing masks is not mandatory in restaurants anymore, most of the guests did not wear masks when they entered the restaurant. In addition, self-services like hot water refills and soy sauce on restaurant tables were finally back. During the pandemic, the restaurant started a bustling take-out business and when we visited the restaurant, many people came in to pick up food. In addition, the restaurant recently began working with one of the many food delivery services in town, so delivery service employees would come in and out of the restaurant to pick up deliveries.

After a delicious lunch, students began to observe, wander around the restaurant and take notes and photographs. They also documented observations relevant to their individual research projects. The food labeling group took pictures of the menu and paid attention to the labeling of vegan and vegetarian dishes. The group working on Japanese sweets in Berlin ordered mochi and discovered a separate mochi menu. And the group working on Japanese alcohol and izakaya in Berlin checked the menu for alcoholic beverages offered at the restaurant.

The field trip was a great experience because students did not only practice observing and taking field notes but also had the chance to socialize with each other. Many courses at FUB had just moved back to onsite teaching this semester and some of the students did not have the chance to get to know their peers on campus and to meet outside of the university. I hope that this course will not only help students master qualitative research methods and put them into practice, but also create social and enjoyable experiences for them.

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