Why is American food so popular in Japan?

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 22 2009 11:12 AM

McSushi

Why is American food so popular in Japan?

Fast food in Japan.
McDonald's in Tokyo

The image of Japan as being inhospitable to imports is old, enduring, and not entirely unjustified. The government is offering immigrants from South America—many themselves descendants of Japanese emigrants—$3,000 to return home (the better to free up jobs for native-born Japanese). The vista that meets visitors at Narita Airport is hardly more welcoming: masked staffers, health disclosure forms, and a sign warning that people who are coming in from countries such as Bolivia and Brazil must go in a special line. (They're looking for either soccer players or swine flu.) On the 80-minute ride from Narita Airport to Tokyo, I tried in vain to spot an imported car on the road.

But Japan—Tokyo, at least—isn't uniformly hostile to imports. Though fiercely proud of its many cuisines, Japan is surprisingly open to food-related businesses from overseas. I instantly marked the Subway franchise as the place to turn off the main drag to get to the hotel. An array of recognizable names welcomes visitors to Gaien-Higashi Street: Wolfgang Puck, McDonald's, Outback Steakhouse, the Hard Rock Café (with Hello Kitty playing the guitar in the window). And there's even the ne plus ultra mediocre American cuisine: T.G.I. Friday's. I've traveled about 20 hours and 7,000-odd miles to wind up in a strip mall. Tokyo's SPC (Starbucks per capita) ratio rivals that of Manhattan. And there are also what might be dubbed theoretical imports—faux American brands that exist only outside the United States, such as Bagel & Bagel, which features the ice bagel. (To me that sounds more like a Jewish congregation in Manitoba than something to put some lox on.)

With Japan's scarcity of land and aging population of farmers—70 percent of the nation's farmers, I learned today, are over 60—the country imports about 60 percent of the calories it consumes. A lot of that food comes from the United States. Japan is the biggest non-North American destination for U.S.-produced foodstuffs, gobbling up some $14.5 billion in exports annually. The United States provides Japan with 90 percent of its corn. Staffers at the embassy are charged with making Japan safe for Pringles, Oreos, and other processed food products.

It struck me that while Esperanto may be dead, the language of food may have replaced it as one that transcends borders and can be universally understood. A Tokyo resident probably doesn't have to be proficient in English to know what's in the McPork sandwich at the local McDonald's. (The logic of dubbing fried chicken pieces as "shaka shaka chicken" still eludes this gaijin.) And Americans, who are terrible at learning Japanese, have learned something from the sushi joints that now dot the U.S. landscape. I managed to avoid the indignity of T.G.I. Friday's by plopping myself at the counter of a sushi bar, pointing to a menu, and uttering one of the only Japanese words I know: toro. In short order, buttery raw tuna, perched on warm rice, appeared on my plate. Early the next morning, mind addled by jet lag, I sheltered from the rain in the Starbucks vestibule, watching as scarily huge black crows picked at garbage. (Japan is famously clean, but not that clean.) At 7 a.m., the automatic doors swung open. And there it was, the familiar smooth jazz, color scheme, and triangular scones. The menu remained a bit of a mystery. But the language of caffeine is universal. I approached the counter and said, questioningly: Doppio? Within seconds, the cashier and barista sounded off cheerfully, like chimes: Doppio! Doppio!

Daniel Gross is reporting from Japan this week and next. Tomorrow: a central bank governor explains that American financial crisis months are like dog months compared with Japanese financial crisis months.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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