Alternative foodways of Japanese food entrepreneurs in Berlin

by Cornelia Reiher

After the 3.11 triple disaster of tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, many Japanese from northern Japan, as well as the greater Kanto area, relocated to other, often rural, areas in western Japan. Some even left the country and moved abroad. In recent years, I have met a number of Japanese women who are involved in Berlin’s Japanese foodscape and cite the Fukushima nuclear disaster as the main reason for their migration from Japan. They are particularly health conscious and interested in food safety and organic food.

Japanese food with local ingredients in reusable containers
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2021

I would like to introduce a Japanese woman who came to Berlin in 2012 because she was disappointed by the lack of opportunities for political participation in Japan after having participated in many anti-nuclear demonstrations. Although she had no previous connection to Germany, she came to Berlin because she was attracted by then-Chancellor Merkel’s decision to shut down all nuclear power plants in Germany. She started a catering service and cooked for events in the city’s hip and young start-up scene and the art world. During the pandemic, she had to turn her business into a delivery service because no events could take place. As sustainability is important to her, she tries to avoid plastic waste and does not use plastic containers for her delivery and catering service, but reusable containers. Since coming to Berlin, she has been interested in vegetarian and vegan foodways and recently became a vegan herself. She shares her thoughts and experiences with vegan food in Berlin and actively engages with Japanese vegan activists on the internet, contributing to online vegan magazines in Japan to spread her vision of veganism and sustainable food.

Enjoying farm life with chickens …
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

During our conversations, she told me about her dream of moving to the countryside and farming there for a while. And that’s what she’s done, recently joining an organic farming community in the countryside near Berlin. She describes her new life as very simple and quiet and seems to enjoy living in the middle of nature. To earn a living, she processes farm produce from this same farm and delivers it by mail to Berlin. All vegetables are fresh, organic, seasonal and unpackaged. She makes pickled vegetables, syrups, jams and pastes with Japanese ingredients. She also continues her catering business and cooks at events on the farm, in the surrounding area or in Berlin. By living and working on the farm, she discovers new tastes, recipes and edible plants and shares her discoveries with others through her cooking and social media.

… and horses in the countryside near Berlin.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

By living on the farm, which she describes as an anarchist and feminist collective with nearly 20 members, she continues her food activism. She was already politically active in Japan when she joined the anti-nuclear movement after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and continued to participate in anti-nuclear rallies in Berlin. Sustainable food and biodiversity are important to her for personal reasons, as she learned firsthand how a particular variety of corn she liked in her childhood became extinct in Japan. At the farm, she learns more about sustainable and organic agriculture, debates and activism related to land rights and commons, and participates in collective actions and food events. Moving to Berlin allowed her to connect with like-minded people, explore new issues, and participate in activities that support her ideas about good and sustainable food and foodways.

Japanese fusion food for students: Freie Universität Berlin’s new cafeteria Shokudō

by Cornelia Reiher

This blog is mostly about Japanese restaurants in Berlin, but since a Japanese-style cafeteria opened at our own university in December 2022, this post will feature Shokudō Cafeteria (shokudō means cafeteria in Japanese), which is inspired by Japan and offers fusion cuisine. It is located very close to the Institute of Japanese Studies and is in the same building as the former vegetarian cafeteria. So it still offers vegetarian and vegan dishes, but in a Japanese way. Although most Japanese dishes include dashi, a Japanese fish broth, all dishes are actually vegetarian or even vegan, according to the staff.

Koi and Mount Fuji adorn the walls of the new Shokudō cafeteria
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

When I visited the new cafeteria for the first time with my colleagues, I was surprised at how much the place had changed. The interior design is heavily based on Japanese motifs, including a mural of Mount Fuji, koi, and pine trees. In one part of the cafeteria, there is a zashiki dining area, where customers sit on cushions on a platform with a tatami-like rug and eat from low tables. In Japan, this also means taking off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami mats, and most students do this, but not all are familiar with this custom. There are also regular tables, but the zashiki dining area is very popular, and we were lucky to find a seat. People seem to enjoy this different way of eating and also use it as a place to rest, chat with friends, or do their homework.

Dining under pine trees and eating noodle soup with chopsticks
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

The food includes existing Japanese dishes such as different types of maki sushi, gyōza, rice or noodles like rāmen and udon, but also their own inventions like edamame burger or pumpkin gratin with edamame. Sometimes regular dishes are simply renamed to seem more Japanese, or an ingredient typical of Japan is added, such as pumpkin soup with soy sauce. While the salad bar is mostly unchanged except for the addition of wasabi dressing and kimchi, desserts are also inspired by Japanese food culture and often include matcha or sesame seeds, such as chocolate mousse with matcha. Because the cafeteria serves a large number of people every day and must offer vegetarian or vegan dishes at a reasonable price, the ingredients are quite different from those used for the same dishes in Japan. However, compared to the average cafeteria experience, the food was nice.

Rāmen, edamame burger and maki sushi are examples of the food served at Shokudō
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2023

More than the food itself, the experience of eating with chopsticks, sitting on the tatami-like floor, and talking about the Japanese interior was a nice change from my usual lunch break. Still, many questions remain, such as: Why was Japanese food chosen as a theme for this cafeteria over all other popular Asian cuisines? Why was the interior designed this way and what do students think of this new cafeteria? How many different dishes can this cafeteria offer in the long run, or will it mainly offer noodle soup and sushi? I am looking forward to the course in the summer semester on Berlin’s Japanese foodscape and will definitely explore these and other questions with our students.

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.

Flipbook: Japanese candy and the potential influence of Cool Japan on distribution and marketing in Berlin

In a project on „Cool Japan“, two of our students created a flipbook comic, that explores how Japanese candy is connected to Japanese pop culture. Their goal was to trace the extent to which the efforts to promote the concept of „Cool Japan“ may or may not have impacted the sweetscapes in Berlin. To do this, they have selected stores to interview owners and managers about how they choose and market the products they sell. Furthermore, they talked with customers of these stores about why they buy these candies.

Flipbook Link:

Die Japanische Foodscape in Wien als studentisches Forschungsfeld

von Hanno Jentzsch

Meine Fahrrad-Route vom Institut für Ostasienwissenschaften/Japanologie der Universität Wien bis nach Hause führt mich täglich an zahlreichen Belegen für die Popularität, die Vielfältigkeit und die Hybridität japanischer Esskultur in Wien vorbei. Ramen-Bars mit teilweise verwirrender Auswahl an Nudelsuppen „asiatischer Art“, japanische Fine-Dining-Restaurants und die Wiener Interpretation eines Izakaya – samt hölzernen Menütafeln an den Wänden – säumen den Weg: eine ideale Spielwiese für japanologische Feldforschung vor Ort! Dieser Gedanke kam mir zwar oft auf dem Rad, er stammt aber natürlich nicht von mir, wie nicht zuletzt dieser Blog belegt: In Berlin nutzt Cornelia Reiher japanische Esskultur bereits seit Jahren für studentische Forschungsprojekte und die Vermittlung von Methoden. Angelehnt an dieses Projekt haben die Studierenden des Wiener „Proseminars 2“ (ein BA-Kurs mit Schwerpunkt auf die Vermittlung von wissenschaftlichen Methoden in der Japanologie) nun im abgelaufenen Sommersemester die Vielfalt der japanischen „Foodscape“ in Wien untersucht, um anhand dieses Themas erste Forschungserfahrungen zu sammeln.

Rāmen sind in Berlin und Wien gleichermaßen beliebt.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Während ich diesen Beitrag schreibe, feilen die Studierenden alleine oder in Zweier-Teams vermutlich (hoffentlich!) an ihren bald fälligen Seminararbeiten. In Mittelpunkt des Proseminars stand eine erste Heranführung an qualitative Forschungsmethoden – besonders Interviews und (teilnehmende) Beobachtung. Die Themen mussten die Studierenden dabei selber bestimmen. Viele Projektideen kreisen um den Themenkomplex „Authentizität“ und die Hybridisierung von japanischer Esskultur im Wiener Kontext. Wie werden zum Beispiel „Regionalität“ und „Saisonalität“ in japanischen Kaiseki-Restaurants in Wien umgesetzt? Wie passt das Angebot von veganen Alternativen mit dem Anspruch von „authentischen“ Ramen zusammen? Passend zu diesem Schwerpunkt hatten wir die Auseinandersetzung mit der japanischen Foodscape im Unterricht unter anderem in den Kontext der Forschungsliteratur zu „culinary mobilities“ gestellt. Im zweiten Teil des Kurses lag der Fokus dann auf der Praxis: Beobachtungsübung, Interview-Vorbereitung, Interview-Übung, Analyse. Einzeln oder in Zweierteams haben die sich Studierenden an ihre Forschungsinteressen herangetastet, passiv oder aktiv beobachtet, Interviewleitfäden erstellt und Pilotinterviews geführt. Natürlich wollten wir dabei auch wissen, was unsere Vorbilder in Berlin machen. Ende April haben Berliner und Wiener Studierende ihre Forschungsideen und erste Ergebnisse in einem Online-Workshop miteinander geteilt. Ihre Erfahrungsberichte kann man auf diesem Blog und hier nachlesen. Für die Zukunft schlummert in diesem Austausch sicher noch viel mehr Potential für eine vergleichende Perspektive auf japanische Foodscapes in Europa. Welche Elemente im „Glokalisierungsprozess“ japanischer Esskultur ähneln sich, wo und wie wirkt sich der spezifische lokale Kontext der zwei Metropolen aus? Während die unterschiedliche Zeiteinteilung des Studienjahres in Berlin und Wien ein Hindernis darstellte, bietet der Ausbau der digitalen Lern- und Forschungsinfrastruktur neue Möglichkeiten zur Vertiefung solcher Fragen. In Zeiten eingeschränkter Mobilität und einer immer schwereren Energie- und Klimakrise wird es ohnehin weiterhin wichtig sein, japanologische Forschung und Methodenlehre vor Ort (also nicht in Japan) zu gestalten, ohne dabei die Praxis aus den Augen zu verlieren. Japanische Foodscapes in Europa bilden für diese Herausforderung eine machbare und faszinierende Lösung.    


Hanno Jentzsch ist Politikwissenschaftler und Universitätsassistent (postdoc) am Institut für Ostasienwissenschaften/Japanologie der Universität Wien. Er forscht zu den Themen ländliche Revitalisierung, local governance und Staat-Zivilgesellschaft-Beziehungen im ländlichen Japan sowie Landwirtschaftspolitik und soziale Wohlfahrt. Veröffentlichungen u.a. Harvesting State Support (University of Toronto Press, 2021) und Rethinking Locality in Japan (Routledge, 2021, mit Sonja Ganseforth).

Coming soon! Looking forward to student videos and project results

by Cornelia Reiher

While hopefully enjoying their semester break, participants of this course are currently working on their projects on various aspects of Berlin’s Japanese foodscapes. During the course, we did not only practice different methods of making and analyzing qualitative data, but students also created and planned their own research projects. Three teams work on projects about the labeling of Japanese food in Asia supermarkets and Japanese restaurants, the promotion of sake in Berlin’s izakaya and the impact of Japanese pop culture on the consumption of Japanese sweets in Berlin respectively.

Impression from one of the Go Asia supermarket branches in Berlin
Copyright © Ivan Kaira 2022

The project team exploring the labeling of Japanese food in Asia supermarkets and Japanese restaurants focuses on the labeling of vegan food and ingredients. Students will compare different types of labels and the availability of vegan options in Asian supermarkets and Japanese restaurants in different parts of Berlin to find out how retailers and restaurateurs deal with the growing demand for vegan Japanese food and dishes in Berlin. This group will present their findings in a video that will contain footage from interviews and visits to restaurants and supermarkets.

Decoration, menu and tonkatsu in different izakaya in Berlin
Copyright © Ioanna Moka, Olha Tkachuk, Leonie Uhl and Richard Weber 2022

Another team will investigate representations of and marketing strategies for sake in Berlin’s izakaya. The group has selected different izakaya with owners of different nationalities to interview to find out how they are promoting sake to their customers in Berlin. This also includes visits to izakaya to observe the drinking culture and atmosphere in these very popular places. The group plans to create a video to present their findings that will contain a general introduction to izakaya in Japan and Germany as well as footage from interviews and observation.

Japanese sweets in a Manga shop in Berlin and the two students in front of one of many places that sell Manga in Berlin
Copyright © Deniz Meral Ardic and Galina Khoikhina

The third team will inquire how Japanese sweets are linked to Japanese popular culture. As shops selling manga and other pop culture from Japan increasingly offer sweets and snacks from Japan, students have selected shops to interview owners and managers about how they select and market the products they are selling and to talk to customers about why they buy these sweets. This team will create a flipbook comic with their own artwork to present their results. This is a new format, so please stay tuned to check out the videos and the flipbook comic on this blog in October.

Summer in the city: Japanese food and drink as refreshment in hot Berlin

by Cornelia Reiher

Berlin is experiencing an unusually hot summer right now, but there are plenty of ways to cool off. One of them is refreshment at one of the capital’s Japanese cafes and eateries. In July, I took a friend, a food journalist from the U.S., on a little tour of Berlin’s Japanese food culture. We started with iced matcha latte and matcha tiramisu at a Japanese bakery in the afternoon. A group of Japanese customers enjoyed the lazy afternoon in the shaded plaza in front of the bakery. The store had also set up a tanabata decoration. The Tanabata festival celebrates the coming together of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, two lovers separated by the Milky Way, in July. In modern Japan, people generally celebrate Tanabata by writing wishes, sometimes in the form of poems, on small pieces of paper (tanzaku) and hanging them on bamboo. We were surprised by the multilingual tanzaku and touched because many of them expressed the wish for peace against the background of the war in Ukraine.

Tanzaku in multiple languages hanging from an improvised wish tree in a Japanese bakery in Berlin.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

As we sat outside talking about how much Japanese restaurants in Berlin have changed over the past two decades, my friend told me how surprised she was at the wide selection of Japanese food now available in Japanese and Asian supermarkets. I took the cue and we visited a travel agency that now sells Japanese food, sweets, spices and sake. The Japanese staff enthusiastically introduced different types of sake and even shared recipes with us, telling us about their favorite foods and their way of cooking. This conversation about sake made us want a drink, and after passing several Japanese restaurants where customers were sitting outside enjoying a cold Japanese beer, we stopped at an izakaya and ordered drinks. The menu offered not only a wide selection of alcoholic beverages from Japan, but also cocktails and a haiku by Matsuo Bashō on each page. We ordered cocktails with yuzu and shiso leaves and enjoyed the creativity of fusion cuisine.

Iced matcha latte, matcha tiramisu and yuzu collin.
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Looking for a place to eat dinner, we passed a number of Japanese restaurants that were closed for the summer vacations. But others were also closed due to lack of staff. Many of the Japanese restaurants rely on part-time staff who come to Germany on working holiday visas and often return to Japan in the summer, so summer was a difficult time even before the pandemic. But the Covid 19 pandemic made travel more difficult and added to restaurants‘ problems finding staff. But after a short walk, we found a Japanese restaurant that was open, and we were able to not only enjoy a delicious dinner, but also end our culinary expedition with cool azuki and matcha ice cream and goma purin.

Azuki and matcha icecream and goma purin
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Student exchange and beyond

by Galina Khoikhina and Deniz Meral Ardic

The integration of online technology into the learning environment is an amazing opportunity for the exchange of information and to develop new and exciting ideas. As a part of our course “Research methods in Japan studies” we recently had the opportunity to meet with students from the University of Vienna via Zoom to discuss our projects.

During this informal meeting between students, everyone’s passion and creativity soon made us forget that we were in a digital meeting. This is why we often fell into a more natural rhythm of speaking without actively using features such as “raising hands” or other online tools. Therefore, we all were more dependent on verbal cues, which supported a positive atmosphere. Each of the four groups presented their project on Japanese food in Vienna and in Berlin. Detailed explanations and presentations enabled insights into how the students in Vienna are working on their interesting research topics. These include the marketing of Japanese products in Austria as well as the local representation of washoku in Vienna’s Japanese Foodscape. Other projects deal with anime and Japanese food and female management in Vienna and hierarchical structures in Japanese restaurants in Vienna. We, in turn, presented a project about Japanese sweets in Berlin and the effects Cool Japan might have had on their consumption.

After each presentation, we asked each other questions about the respective project. Some questions were concerned with research methods, sometimes we gave feedback or just talked about general ideas related to the projects. This was incredibly useful and introduced new angles from where to look at our research. Through this exchange, we were able to overcome our rather single-minded approach and perspectives that might have restricted our creative output and research. We also made great progress with our project because we had to summarize and visualize our general ideas as effectively as possible in order to present them during the meeting. When we prepared for the meeting we realized that some aspects of our project were too abstract and unclear for an audience unfamiliar with our topic, so we changed our research project quite a bit. Questions from the students from Vienna also made us think about certain aspects, especially practical issues and feasibility. Due to the valuable comments, all participants started to rethink certain aspects of their projects and look for ways to overcome the limitations and difficulties we identified during the discussion.

In summary, the feedback we received motivated us to move forward with our project. We were also very impressed by the Vienna students’ presentations and their unique topics and learned many new things. We would like to thank the students from the University of Vienna for their cooperation and the incredibly positive experience. We are looking forward to seeing the results of their work soon and to more collaborations!

Studying authentic vegan ramen in Berlin and Vienna

by Felix Fischer, Ivan Kaira and Fabian Reuter

Are you vegan and do you love Japanese ramen? Then you might wonder how you can get information about supreme ramen shops with regional ingredients in Berlin or Vienna. Japanese Studies students from Berlin and Vienna can help you out. On Thursday, June 23, 2022, four students from Vienna University and three students from Freie Universität Berlin met online for a student conference on regional and vegan Japanese food in Berlin and Vienna. And here are the results.

Maja Schachner and Vivien Überfellner presented their research on “authenticity and regionality in Viennese Ramen bars” (“Authentizität und Regionalität in Wiener Ramen-Bars“). They looked at interior design, staff, service, and menu in order to decipher ways to create authenticity in ramen bars.  They also considered management and customer expectations using participant observation, expert interviews, and secondary literature. They discovered certain strategies to introduce vegan options as “inauthentic” while importing products from Japan was read as authentic.

Referring to kaiseki, a Japanese cuisine often featured in Japanese restaurants, David Wurz talked about the „significance of regionality for Japanese food in Vienna” (“Bedeutung von Regionalität für japanisches Essen in Wien“ ). Since regionality and seasonality play an important role in this type of Japanese cuisine, he was interested in how restaurants in Vienna met these standards. Using qualitative interviews with chefs and staff from restaurants, David was able to discover the frequent use of mushrooms and asparagus as seasonal products in Vienna’s Japanese restaurants.

Another take on customer experience took the group “Vegan ramen options in Vienna” („Vegane Ramenangebote in Wien“). Bridging the gap between authentic Japanese cuisine and demands for vegan alternatives is important for restaurateurs. Patrizia Stromberger found some insightful answers to this problem in the Viennese gastro scene. She used interviews with a mix of Austrian, Japanese and Chinese restaurant owners in order to analyze the influence of cultural background on adopting authentic or vegan options. Patrizia found out that one restaurant owner referred to taste as the relevant marker of authenticity. However inclusive this might seem, only Japanese customers’ taste seems to be relevant to authentic taste, thereby impeding the adaption of Japanese food to vegan customers.

We presented a Berlin perspective on how food labeling plays a role in promoting Japanese food in Asia food markets and Japanese restaurants in Berlin. Especially important for our project are the ways labels are presented on Japanese food products from Japan, products of Japanese food from outside Japan and Japanese food products produced in Germany. Furthermore, we want to find out about labeling practices in Japanese restaurants via doing semi-structured interviews with managers and analyzing menus.

In summary, all four groups found different ways of employing social scientific methods in order to find out more about regional, vegan or seasonal food presentation in Japanese-coded shops and restaurants in Vienna and Berlin. So, stay tuned for the results of our projects which are due in September.