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The International Writers Magazine: Japan Fast Food Culture

'Big Macs' in Tokyo
Benjamin Lawson
Can culture permeate established global corporate identity? (Or - is Mcdonalds always a McDonalds?)


We are all mostly avoidant of the cultural ‘faux pas’ - the frowned upon act of resorting to the familiarity of corporate brands, be it food, clothing, or any other globally identifiable product, like a nurturing womb of 'home' comfort whilst we are abroad.

But should we always feel so guilty; perhaps it wasn't just the quick-fix remedy for some kind of full blown 'xenophobic' panic attack?

I book to a trip to Tokyo to see just how a Big Mac will 'taste'...

"Moshi moshi". I step off the plane and clear the refreshingly friendly Japanese immigration control, amongst Japanese donning clinical face masks, and sharply attired businessmen spilling into the Starbucks equipped arrivals hall of Narita airport. I watch them answer their unfamiliar brands of mobile phone with "moshi moshi"; it's evident that Tokyo is going to be different, but yet familiar.

The unmistakeably welcoming hospitality of Japan is perhaps the main principle of this country that feeds my adoration for Tokyo. I have yet to purchase so much as a chocolate bar that wasn't delivered with a bow, and a very sincere looking smile. This is true of pretty much every transaction, even when I ask where to find the toilet in the labyrinthine Tokyo metro. This custom doesn't seem to be particularly bonded to either the older or younger generation. It sticks throughout.

After a lengthy but very comfortable transfer from Narita to central Tokyo with 'Limousine Bus', filled largely with western business types, I arrive at my hotel, The Grand Prince Akasaka. The hotel towers above the city with thirty plus floors, with its impressive and uniquely angular architecture designed by Kenzo Tange. Situated close to the National Diet buidling, and other Japanese governmental abodes, the hotel appeared mostly occupied by politicians and business men. The Grand Prince is now doomed for demolition, for reasons completely beyond me - with its humbly appointed rooms, space age toilets that require a degree to operate, iconic appearance and stunning lobby, although it's currently being used as a shelter for displaced earthquake victims.

Although this hotel will soon be no more, I wouldn’t condemn the other Akasaka area hotels, with relatively cheaper prices due to distance from tourist areas, but yet with great accessibility to Nagatacho metro station, an easy starting point for the metro.

A quick stroll down the nearest street at Akasakamitsuke reveals a combination of 'cultural' paraphernalia; a flurry of stereotypical Tokyo arcades, and more mysterious 'Japanese Only' establishments, and also familiar brands - Subway, and a McDonalds.

Out of hunger, desperation and disorientating but expected jetlag, I am ashamedly driven into McDonalds. Plastic seats, universally identical uniforms, and equally universal (and admittedly appealing) fast food smells. At first glance this is exactly the same as any other McDonalds. Why did I even entertain the thought?

Shuffling forward with crowds of lunch-hungry 'salarymen', or Japanese businessmen, I have a gander at the overhead menu - it begins to transcend the McDonalds norm. 'Teriyaki Mac Burger', 'Juicy Chicken Akatougarashi', 'Ebi Filet-O', 'Koroke Burger' and 'Mac Pork'.

Of course the 'Big Mac' is still on offer, but it's not just the extra sandwich options which set the Japanese counterpart, apart. I am curious to know what a 'McSmile' is, listed on the menu as costing a questionable amount. In my much less than perfect attempt at the Japanese language I point to this on the pristine countertop menu and ask. “O kudasai?” The immaculately appointed staff member simply nods at me in acknowledgement, and smiles. What I have asked for is a smile. Something so connected to the Japanese people as outstanding service has permeated into such a large corporation as McDonalds, and resulted in this unique little gem being added to the menu!

As I make my order I am treated with the same courteousness and service I have come to expect, perhaps taken for granted somewhat in my eager consumption. A tray with delicately placed fast food is politely handed to me, and the staff member exuberates, “Arigatou gozaimasu” - thank you, and proceeds to bow in picture perfect Japanese tradition. As I finish my meal in the eerily silent yet packed restaurant, another staff member whisks my tray away from me, empties the remnants of my jetlag recovery food into the bin, smiles, bows in a backward motion, and finally ending with her holding the door open for me.
I thought this was McDonalds!

In actual fact the globalisation of McDonalds has meant such modifications not just in Tokyo, or Japan, but around the world - the 'Maharaja Mac' for one.

And yes, the Big Mac tasted the same.

To get around the city of Tokyo itself, one would be completely and utterly insane to drive. I had no choice but to use the metro, but I think this is pretty much the default option for any savvy traveller. The metro runs like no other I have ever been on. Obsessively clean stations, trains and platforms, and a metro schedule so accurate and prompt, you could easily set your watch to it.

Etiquette on board the trains seems to adhere to the universal subway concept of 'don't look, don't talk', but almost certainly not as dreary as the tube, and with obvious differences. Despite being the most used subway system in the world, and subsequently the most sardine-esque, the Japanese are overtly courteous with other passengers. Travellers sometimes, and humorously, seem to adopt a 'fake sleep' whilst travelling, which they magically wake up from when arriving at their required stop. Curious; but this also fits in with the inherently shy, but in no sense rude, Japanese attitude. Besides, having that many people crammed into the train, sometimes in positions reminiscent of a game of Twister, makes conversation a little awkward at best.

I repent my anti-cultural sins a few days after visiting 'that restaurant', by taking a trip to a Japanese shrine, the Meiji Shrine. Well, if Hillary Clinton visited this shrine to show 'respect toward history and the culture of Japan', so can I…

Easily accessible by metro, as with most of Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine was finished in 1921, although rebuilt in 1958 after being heavily damaged during World War II. Located near the Harajuku area, it was built to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shokun, and is constructed almost entirely of Japanese Cypress tree and copper. The site seems to command an other-worldly tranquillity and peace - definitely a must do, even if just to soothe delicate heads from the overdone sake, and relentless karaoke the night before (also a must do).

Stepping off at Harajuku station to reach this temple, I also inevitably walk through Harajuku itself, a piece of modern Japanese legacy. A vibrant amass of colour and intrigue, crammed full of small shops selling eclectically niche fashions, and just about anything covered under the word 'miscellaneous'. I am offered flyers from westerners attempting to sell me night club admission, or simply 'a good time'. Avoiding these I weave in and out of the shops, trying to make sense of some of the bizarre clothing. You will also find your big name brands; Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada - complete with big name prices on Omotesand? Street. Stick to Takeshita Street if you are after the one-of-a-kind bargains. A trip to Harjuku is essential.

Tokyo Disney Mickey Mouse perhaps wasn't the next thing you expected to read, but in exploring the cultural permeations of Japan into global corporations, and to satisfy my long-lived Disney park appreciation – Tokyo Disney Resort simply had to be on my itinerary. The iconic castle, ‘It’s a Small World’, the spinning teacups; yes they are all there, but again this global corporation differs in both its product, and delivery.

I swiftly notice upon purchasing my tickets outside that the ‘cast members’, a Disney term coined for staff, haven’t adopted English as a necessity in the Japanese world of Disney, and why should they. It soon becomes clear however, after just a short time in Tokyo Disney Resort that this version is just as magical; perhaps even the best of them all.

Why, exactly, this is, I would put down to the permeation of the Japanese psyche, service and quality into this otherwise global identity. The parks are spotlessly clean, with quality and sophistication injected into every corner, and cast members willing to bend over backwards to help guests. As I wait in the queue for a water based ride, I witness two female cast members haul a lone disabled guest straight out of a wheelchair without further assistance, clearly struggling yet also clearly determined to enable this guest to experience the attraction. The cast members bow at guests, in each boat dispatched – another wonderful, magical, Japanese touch.

Snaking around a long pathway, in another beautifully themed ‘land’, I come across an almost silent, hour long queue of patient Japanese visitors. This must be the queue for the fabled Gyoza Sausage Bun – something I had read about before my visit. Unique to Tokyo Disney Resort, eager Japanese are willing to wait what most of us might consider a ridiculously long time for this much anticipated snack. Both the delivery of this product; the willingness of the Japanese to wait, and of course the product itself, show the wonderful infusion of culture and well-established corporate brand. I wait until the queue dies down a little. The verdict – this must be an acquired taste!

I’m willing to bet that Disney as a global entity never anticipated this level of global expansion, or dreamt up such cultural assimilation from its initial all-American roots, even popularity for a mere snack. But the Disney park, or brand itself has evolved differently in its Asian backdrop. In fact the park is owned and operated by The Oriental Land Company, and has primary control over the finances and development of the resort.

This sort of francization, as with McDonalds or any other global identity, is what gives these corporations a unique accent – a subtly alternative take on a firmly grounded concept, without complete distortion, and retaining the most important profiteering aspects of its core.

My last day in Tokyo is spent in the electrically mesmerising and hypnotically spectacular Shibuya, home to the largest pedestrian crossing in the world. I’m reminded of an old playground game, and mildly perturbed as the lights turn green, and an onslaught of trendily dressed citizens march towards me with mock stubbornness (of course everyone passes with polite awareness). I imagine that this could be a Times Square of the future; also a perfect example and conclusion to my exploration – a marvel of Japanese innovation, micro-packed with cultural stereotypes and nuances, and infused with international familiarities on a monstrous yet inviting scale. Gazing out at the vast television screens, skyscrapers, Japanese neon signs and frantically scurrying people, I sip a coffee in the largest Starbucks in the world.
shibuya girls

Next time you find yourself immersed in a unique and engaging culture, yet plagued with an insatiable hunger, or home comfort that must be immediately remedied, don’t beat yourself up as you submissively scoff a tray of familiarly branded fast food. 

Culture is just outside the door; or perhaps even closer.

© Ben Lawson August 2011

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