Japanese Artists in Berlin’s Japanese Foodscape

by Cornelia Reiher

Over the years I have interviewed many people who work in Berlin’s Japanese foodscape. Most of them are Japanese and many did not come to Berlin to open a Japanese eatery or to work in one. The reasons for moving to Berlin and the life stories of Japanese men and women who own, cook or serve in Japanese eateries in Berlin are diverse. Few are trained chefs and even fewer had originally planned to work in or open a Japanese restaurant in Germany. What struck me is that many of my research participants came to Berlin to study art, work as artists or pursue a career in fashion or the music industry. Another interesting observation is that Berlin was often not their first place of residence abroad, but many had lived in other places like London, Paris or New York before coming to Berlin. In this post, I will introduce people who moved to Berlin to study or perform art and began to work in Berlin’s Japanese foodscape for various reasons, with diverse goals and for different periods of time.

Many of the Japanese cooks, restaurant owners, pastry chefs or service staff in Berlin’s Japanese eateries are (former) musicians, painters, dancers, designers, make-up artists or tailors. A Japanese waitress I interviewed this year came to Berlin to take dance lessons and look for a job as a dancer. She was interested in the work of Japanese artists living in Berlin and visited the city for a week in 2017 before moving here on a working holiday visa in 2022. She had previously lived in London, then returned to Japan during the covid pandemic, and when she finally decided to move to Berlin, the Japanese artists she already knew helped her find a place to live. To earn a living, she works as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. She found the job through MixB (Mix Board Classified), a Japanese-language classifieds website in Germany that many Japanese restaurants use to post jobs. She had already worked in restaurants in Japan and the UK and perceives her job as a way to earn money, but also enjoys working and socializing with other Japanese people and learning more about Japanese cuisine.

A Japanese man I interviewed this year cooks in a popular Japanese restaurant. He is a painter and attended an art school in Japan.  When he came to Berlin in 2019, it was his first time living abroad and he didn’t know German. His motivation to live in Europe was his interest in art. He wanted to visit museums and exhibitions and would have preferred to go to France or the United Kingdom, but the cost of living in Germany was lower. He applied for a working holiday visa, and when he arrived in Germany, he first took a language course. He also found a job and a shared apartment through MixB and began working in a restaurant on a working holiday visa although he had no previous experience working in a restaurant. But he was trained on the job and after two years now trains others. After the visa expired, his boss applied for a work visa and he now works five days a week, but wishes he had more time to paint. Working in a Japanese restaurant pays the bills, but he would rather have more time for his art.

While the two people I have introduced above try to find a balance between their jobs in the Japanese foodscape and their own artistic ambitions, there are also Japanese artists who have found a new profession in gastronomy. After a career as a musician or dancer, they have opened a restaurant or café and run it full-time. Some of these artists have completed additional training as chefs or pastry chefs in Japan, France or Germany. The different careers of Japanese artists in Berlin who work in a restaurant to finance their studies or artistic ambitions vary in terms of duration and outcome. While some stay in Berlin for only six months and then return to Japan, others stay permanently and a part-time job in a restaurant becomes a full-time job, while others give up art as a profession and start their own restaurants or cafes. In summary, the experiences of Japanese working in Berlin’s Japanese food landscape are diverse, and examining the relationship between the life course of Japanese migrants in Berlin and the city’s Japanese foodscape is an interesting endeavor to understand the city’s culinary dynamics.