Sunday, March 22, 2015


Chang An Gate in Kobe's Nankin Machi

A stroll through Kobe's gated Chinatown gives the visitor not so much a glimpse of China as it gives a glimpse of a Japan-imagined China, replete with red lanterns, pigtailed dolls, kungfu heroes and panda bears. The proprietors range from ethnic Chinese long resident in Japan  --so effortlessly acculturated in things Japanese as to know what works best with Japanese customers-- to newer "Asian" style vendors whose eateries are promoted by loud street side touts. Most restaurants are staffed by workers and students from the bustling cities of Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai. Nankin Machi is neutral territory, where the Sino-Japanese tensions that one learns about in the news are non-issues. It's a people-to-people apolitical culture zone, a culinary Disneyland, high on affect, low on authenticity. The menus present much that is so familiar --jiaozi, mantou, noodles-- as to be a kind of local comfort food. Despite the diverse and exotic exteriors, the shop menus tend to repeat themselves,  variations on the theme of Chinese-style food that Japanese like to eat when they go out for "Chinese" food.

Nankin Machi embraces both classical Chinese cultural tropes and light-hearted media-driven cliches, with emphasis on the feminine side of things. The very name, Nanking, summons up the China of an earlier day, when Nanking was the capital. It turns its back on the march of history, and the terrible intersection of Japan in China that culminated in the Nanking Massacre of 1937.  It predates all that, and in effect, pretends it never happened, making for an easy, innocuous  journey into an imaginary Middle Kingdom with a Japanese accent, a nice place for a night out.

Chinese food outside Nankin Machi  - -Xiao Fei Niu across from Sanomiya Station

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Basement mall entrance to Koyama Sanlitun

Koyama Sanlitun is a China chain restaurant serving Japanese food in a manga-themed environment. It appeals to a young urban crowd familiar with Japanese popular culture icons from film, anime, manga and TV.  The interior is decorated like a gallery celebrating Japanese pop culture. The restaurant which serves a broad range of Japanese fare, can only be entered after taking off one's shoes, Japan-style. This is part of the "Japanese" experience, and is more Japanese than the Japanese in the sense that Japanese restaurants, mostly especially those located in big cities and modern malls, do not require removal of footwear, though the tradition persists in rural inns and onsen resorts.

During a recent spate of Sino-Japanese tensions I talked to some student aged diners at Koyama who said they liked Japanese food and culture. In fact, the act of eating the cuisine associated with China's leading economic and military rival can even be seen as "hip" in the sense that it does not comport with the "square" propaganda of the Chinese government which is always railing about history issues that do not seem a pressing matter to most young people. 

"If the government doesn't like it, I like it," a young man told me, winning a round of conspiratorial grins from his companions.

The food and fun decor of a place like Koyama clearly provides for most of the draw, but patronizing such a place may also provide individuals who are fed up with the heavy-handed pedagogical push coming from Chinese TV--with its stridently anti-Japan war dramas and sharply biased news reports-- a subtle  way of registering dissent. 

The demonization of Japan continues apace on Chinese TV, making Japan loom larger than life, and perhaps inadvertently pushing young people to embrace the culture of the "enemy" for the fun of it.