Interview impressions: My interview with a student from Freie Universität Berlin

by Mizuki Kubo*

First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in an online interview with a student from Germany. I am very glad that I was able to participate in this project. My interviewer was Vanessa. At first, I was a little apprehensive about this interview, but she speaks Japanese very well. When I contacted her to schedule the interview, I could already tell from her messages that her Japanese is very good. So, I could relax and enjoy the conversation. I participated in the interview with another student from Seikei University. While answering questions about the kind of food we usually eat and how we think about Japanese restaurants abroad, I was surprised to find that there are differences even among Japanese people. In particular, the way we think about eating abroad was very different. That was fascinating! As I got used to the conversation, I was also able to ask Vanessa questions and expand the conversation. I found out that she was interested in Japanese anime and pop culture, and we talked a bit about anime as well. I was very happy that I could talk about Japanese culture with a foreigner for the first time. So, this interview was a valuable experience for me. I was very glad that I could exchange ideas with Vanessa, even if it was only online. I would love to talk to her again another time. Thank you very much for reading this post!

Students from Seikei University who participated in the online interviews with students from Freie Universität Berlin
Copyright © Yoko Kawamura 2023

* Mizuki Kubo is a student at Seikei University.

Interviews with students from Seikei University about washoku

by Jonas John and Zihang Yu*

In the course „Social Science Research Methods in Japanese Studies“ taught by Professor Cornelia Reiher, we learn methods and research techniques so that we can later successfully complete our master’s thesis. This includes e.g. techniques to narrow down our research topics, but also interview techniques.  We will try out these new techniques in the course on our own project about Japanese food in Berlin. To learn how to conduct interviews, we conducted interviews with students at Seikei University in Tokyo on the topics of food, Japanese restaurants in Japan and abroad, and Japanese cuisine in general. The interviews lasted about half an hour. Interviewees spoke very openly about their experiences, although in some cases it was difficult to ask follow-up questions. This was partly due to the language barrier. In what follows, we will briefly present our experiences with these interviews and some results.

Before the interview began, we introduced ourselves and explained why we wanted to ask our questions in the first place. Then we asked if we could record the interview. Zihang learned that his interviewer has a very Japanese diet. His three meals a day all consist of white rice, Japanese dishes, and sometimes side dishes. Most of the time he eats at home, and when he does eat out, he tends to choose foreign dishes, such as Korean and Chinese food. He and, in his opinion, many other Japanese are proud of Japanese cuisine and washoku. However, the exact definition of washoku is somewhat vague, and it is unclear to him what dishes are included. When Zihang asked about Japanese restaurants abroad, he replied that he has not yet been abroad and that he believes Japanese restaurants abroad should serve authentic Japanese cuisine, not inauthentic dishes prepared by foreign chefs, even if they cost more. The Japanese restaurant should ensure that Japanese food culture is not ridiculed and that foreigners feel like learning more about Japanese food culture or visiting Japan after eating.

What was particularly striking about Jonas’ interlocutor’s answers was that she prefers Western cuisine to Japanese cuisine, although or perhaps precisely because she eats rice at least once a day and therefore foreign food is something special in this respect. She thinks that most Japanese also behave in this way and usually cook Japanese food themselves in everyday life. Still, in her estimation, there are more national than foreign food options in Tokyo (unlike in cities like Berlin). She distinguishes these Japanese restaurants into family restaurants that offer a variety of inexpensive dishes and expensive high-end restaurants that specialize in one dish. While the concept of washoku plays a major role in upscale cuisine, she would like to see it in family restaurants as well, but does not usually expect washoku dishes there. Since the emphasis here is primarily on chef experience and specialization, it can be inferred that she understands washoku to mean „diligence,“ „perfection,“ and „expertise.“  When asked directly about the meaning, she said that washoku can also mean creative cuisine or dishes that are not „traditional“. She believes that many Japanese associate washoku with family meals, so it is not strictly tied to formality. However, this differs from the image of washoku in upscale kitchens presented earlier.

After we had asked our interview partners all our questions, we asked if there were still things we had not mentioned but which seemed important to them and if they might have any questions for us. We then continued to speak in German and Japanese and ended the conversation In summary, we would say that the interview was quite successful as we were able to acquire new knowledge and skills about interviewing. Due to the small age difference and the fact that we are all students, the interview was conducted in a fairly relaxed atmosphere. The language barrier was a bit of a problem in some cases, but we managed it well. We would like to thank Professor Cornelia Reiher and Professor Yoko Kawamura for giving us the opportunity to exchange with students from Seikei University and for organizing the interviews. We would also like to thank the students from Seikei University who participated in the interviews.

* Jonas John and Zihang Yu are students in the MA program in Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.

Let’s talk about Sake! Interview practice at Sake Kontor

by Cornelia Reiher

In early June, our course took its first field trip and traveled to Friedrichshain to visit a sake store in Berlin. We had made an appointment with Anselm, a sake sommelier who works at the store, for the first interview of the season. After about an hour, we arrived and were joined by another student online. Before the interview, we had thought of questions and assigned them to each of the students. Everyone was very excited to learn more about sake and test their interviewing skills.

When we arrived, Anselm was waiting for us behind the counter and we had a moment to look at the beautiful wooden interior with shelves full of sake from different parts of Japan. In the center of the store were tables with sake cups, rice samples, and brochures that Anselm and the owner of the store use for sake tastings. We took seats around the table, presented a small omiyage, and had our recording devices, questions, notebooks, and pens ready. After the students introduced themselves, they took turns asking questions. During the conversation, Anselm not only answered all of our questions, but also showed us different sake bottles, explained the rice samples, printed out information about sake, and even offered sake for tasting.

We learned a lot about the different types of sake, the store’s customers, distribution channels, certifications and Anselm’s workflow. I was particularly surprised to learn that the store even has one type of sake that is made in Europe, although this is an exception as all other sake sold in the store is made in Japan. According to Anselm, the store’s owner has visited most of the sake breweries in Japan from which they source the sake they sell. Because of the covid pandemic, Anselm has not yet had the opportunity to visit them himself. But although most of their business customers are restaurants, the store has weathered the pandemic well thanks to an online store. However, many activities such as sake tastings, customer visits, and participation in festivals and fairs resumed only last year.

After the interview, we decided to go to a Japanese restaurant. After a short walk through Friedrichshain, we visited a Vietnamese-owned Japanese restaurant that offers curry rice (also in vegan and vegetarian versions) and enjoyed a meal together. After the interview and sake tasting, we had many new insights and impressions to share and also talked about our experiences with sake in Japan, our favorite Japanese food and upcoming trips to Japan. This was not only a great opportunity to talk about Japanese food and the course, but also for the students to get to know each other better and share valuable tips about studying in Japan.