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.