October 2015

Interviewing Japanese-born students in Vancouver

This week I had the pleasure of conducting several interviews with Japanese students studying in Vancouver at UBC. Before the interviews I talked with a good friend, Sammie Hatch, to provide a well-versed outside perspective, as she is someone neither from Vancouver or Japan, but who has studied in both countries. Sammie is a second year theatre production and Japanese language student at UBC, and is originally from Oregon. She has studied Japanese language and culture for quite a while, and has participated in an exchange program in which she lived with a host family while studying in Japan. I asked her online what she thought of the difference between how Japanese culture is portrayed here and how it is in Japan. Below is her response:

“I definitely find that Japanese culture in a westernized environment is sort of viewed under a lens. Since there’s a concentration of Japanese culture in certain places (for example Daiso is characteristically Japanese) in Vancouver, people who have never been to Japan experience this lensed view of their culture. It’s very stereotypical and it’s often detrimental to the culture that’s being perceived. In Japan there really isn’t a diverse population, seeing a person who isn’t Japanese, more specifically white and black people from around the world, is really different from how we (in a heavily white society) would see a Japanese person. There’s also this very interesting thing where our culture is completely different from theirs. In most circumstances people will be ecstatic to talk to you and even more so if you can speak Japanese. In Canada (or the states) we tend to shy away from awkward conversations and we don’t want to learn. It is very rare to find a Canadian who will go out of their way to have a conversation with someone who’s language they are learning versus in Japan how everyone, young and old, typically take the opportunity to learn. Of course there are lots of exceptions but that was my experience in Japan.

I don’t think Vancouver based Japanese companies market any differently because we’re in a time when diversifying is pretty cool. Like I love buying legitimate Japanese clothes that have cute grammatically incorrect English on them because that’s what I want to see and I don’t feel like I’m alone in that aspect. I think as far as marketing goes, Japan stays very true to itself because it has always had a very unique gimmick so to speak, in which they try and out do themselves. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying they exaggerate their Asian-ness because comparatively watching commercials in Japan for say, Daiso, are essentially the same as here! Just in English. They have quirky cartoons and weird messages and it gets the point across to both western and their own audiences because that’s what they’ve come to expect from their market … basically we’re very different on a social aspect but markets really don’t change from here to there. I can’t speak for Japanese commercials here but I do believe they’ve remained constant from here to there.”


Given that helpful perspective, I went out to conduct interviews with Japanese-born students studying in Vancouver, to see how their thoughts lined up with Sammie’s, and with the other aspects I’ve been examining on this blog. My first actual interview was with Kanon Hewitt, a second-year anthropology student at UBC. Kanon is half-Japanese and grew up in Tokyo, where he lived for sixteen years. He has been studying at UBC for one year. Check out the transcript of the interview below:

Me: In your opinion, in what ways does Japanese culture differ here than in Japan?

Kanon: Well, there’s a huge emphasis on sushi here, which isn’t really that huge in Japan

Me: Very true! What is there an emphasis on in Japan in terms of cuisine?

Kanon: At least in Tokyo, there’s anything and everything from basically anywhere in the world. There isn’t really a particular emphasis on anything in particular, everything tastes good.

Me: Okay, what else?

Kanon: I feel like there’s a larger fixation on the Japanese pop culture in the West rather than the more historical or cultural aspects of Japan.

Me: Could you provide an example?

Kanon: An example would be, like, when white people find out I’m half-Japanese, they try to bond with me over anime (not every single person, but enough [people]).

Me: I see. Is there less of an obsession or focus with anime and other aspects of pop culture in Japan as opposed to here?

Kanon: Yeah, I mean it’s more commonplace, I guess. I feel like there’s almost a perception of Japan being ‘sushi and anime’. Like if someone were to think of France and be like ‘berets and baguettes’.

Me: So you feel as though Japanese culture is exaggerated and stereotyped here?

Kanon: Like, there’s a lot more to it, y’know? And I feel like people in Japan have, unsurprisingly, a better grasp of what Japanese culture is like. Exaggerated, no, but stereotypes, definitely.

Me: Regarding the Japanese consumer-market in Vancouver, do you feel as though Vancouver-based Japanese companies market differently than in Japan? Do they try to westernize their company, or else exaggerate its “Asian-ness”?

Kanon: What kind of companies do you mean? I haven’t really bought so much Japanese stuff here other than, like, condiments.

Me: Just general big-name companies that you’ve seen both in Tokyo and Vancouver, if there are any

Kanon: I haven’t really noticed any Western-ization, Other than, like, English labels?

Me: Okay great! Thank you so much for helping me out!

Kanon: No problem.


My next interview was with another Japanese-born student, Junna Hagiwara, who has lived in Vancouver for two years studying GRSJ (gender, race, sexuality, and social justice) at UBC. Below is Junna’s impressions of Vancouver’s Japanese culture, and how it varies from the culture in Japan:

Me: For my GRSJ class I’m examining the differences between the Japanese culture here and Japanese culture in Japan, particularly in the sense of consumerism and the market for Japanese products and services. Some of the things I’ve been looking at are companies like Daiso as well as the abundance of Japanese cuisine in Vancouver. In your opinion, how does Japanese culture differ here than in Japan?

Junna: Well one thing I noticed is that even though we have many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-run stores here in Vancouver, the service is quite different! Japanese staff/waitresses are trained to always have a smile on and say “Irasshaimase! (Welcome”) every time a new customer comes in, and apologizes so sincerely when we have to wait for seats to open. Basically the salesclerks have to have a super polite and welcoming manner in japan.

Me: How do things differ in terms of the actual cuisine and other types of markets aside from restaurants?

Junna: I guess the products (like sushi) are different and are made for more western tastes. Like we don’t have California rolls in Japan! Also in Japan we have convenience stores like 7 Eleven everywhere and it’s a super huge part of consumer life. Workers rush to the convenience stores in the morning/afternoon to get their lunch and maybe a newspaper, and it’s so easily accessible. It’s basically at every train station (we use trains all the time), and of course in the streets too. The stores seriously have everything. Like small rice balls, packed sandwiches/bread/lunches, desserts/snacks, magazines, drinks/alcohol, stationary, condoms, travel size bath utilities, and so much more for so cheap and good quality! Like you could get a bottle of tea (120 yen), and two rice balls (105 yen each) for like 330 yen (about CAD$3.60) and its usually open 24/7! All my Japanese friends miss it so much. Speaking of service, the Japanese stores generally are open till very late no matter what day of the week it is. Sorry for the long reply, did I answer your question?

Me: Absolutely! That’s really helpful, thanks! I didn’t know that there were so many differences in terms of service and cuisine. Last Question, I promise! Regarding the Japanese consumer-market in Vancouver, do you feel as though Vancouver-based Japanese companies market differently than in Japan? Like do they try to westernize their company, or else exaggerate its “Asian-ness”?

Junna: Yeah I think Japanese companies in Vancouver target not only Japanese but western / white people as well, so there are some stuff that you don’t really see in Japan. Especially when it comes to food. Because white people don’t necessarily have the same tastes, like including or not including wasabi or ginger in sushi. I feel like sometimes they do exaggerate or even make up Japanese-ish foods and atmosphere. For example there’s a place [in Vancouver] called Japa-Dog where they sell Japanese croquette and noodles placed in hotdog buns, but there is no such thing as Japa-Dogs in Japan. In the case of Daiso, I think all the products are imported from Japan. Usually the tags or the description on the Daiso products are Japanese (even in Vancouver) so I don’t think they’re selling anything that’s from here. But in japan all the products are 100 yen($1) whereas here it’s $2.

Me: Ok awesome, thanks for your help!

Junna: No problem! Good luck!


These interviews helped draw some interesting conclusions as to the authenticity of Vancouver’s Japanese culture. It was interesting that everyone seemed to agree that the Western view of Japanese people in Vancouver was very limited and heightened or stereotyped aspects of the culture. It was also interesting to see that there are a variety of differences in terms of Japanese services and cuisine, yet big-name Japanese companies such as Daiso stay true to their Japanese origins, at least in terms of their products. At the same time, it’s certainly worth noting that while Kanon and Sammie didn’t believe, as Junna did, that Japanese marketing is different here than in Japan, everyone agreed that there is a strong Western view to how Japanese culture in terms of a consumerist aspect is regarded.

Until next week,


Nitobe Gardens

Two years ago, when I was touring campuses in search of a place I could call my home for the next four years, one of the major aspects which made me fall in love with UBC Vancouver was it’s abundance of nature. From its forests to its beaches, mountain views, parks and gardens, there’s such beautiful scenery to take in on campus, making the studying experience a lot more enjoyable and less stressful, especially during exam seasons! One of the main attractions of the campus which really tipped my decision to study here over the edge of indecision or hesitation was the Nitobe Japanese Memorial Garden. Nitobe combines West-coast and Japanese-imitation plants with traditional Japanese horticulture and meanings, creating a perfect balance and fusion between the two cultures through the wonderful and peaceful gardens.

Check out this really cool video of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the Nitobe garden!


Until next week,


Japanese Cuisine and Vancouver’s Authenticity

One important aspect of all ethnic-based consumer culture is cuisine. Vancouver’s Japanese cuisine and sushi scene has skyrocketed over the past two decades. When I first moved here my mother told me that the first time she’d ever seen sushi was back in the early 80’s when she visited Vancouver. Sushi had not yet made it’s way to the east coast to Montreal, where my mother was raised, or even to the metropolis of Toronto where she was studying. In an article from The Vancouver Sun, Metro Vancouver’s sushi explosion: 600 and counting, journalist Douglas Todd notes that Vancouver may be “the sushi capital of North America”. Even now, “Sushi is more popular on the West Coast than the East Coast of North America, Tostenson said. Toronto, for instance, does not have nearly the number of sushi outlets per capita as Metro Vancouver”. The article also notes that back in 1976, “there were only three restaurants in the city that served sushi … Now, there are more than 600 sushi outlets in Metro Vancouver. And that does not include sushi counters in supermarkets across the region”.

Vancouver was one of the first Canadian cities to introduce Japanese food, and is now being dubbed “the sushi capital of North America”, so how has Vancouver’s strong, yet recent, roots regarding Japanese food influence it’s authenticity? According to the article, “most [Japanese restaurants] are not run by sushi chefs” and Vancouver’s sushi scene is not authentic because “most of the city’s sushi outlets are run by ethnic Koreans or Chinese”. However, I decided to judge for myself and look at my three favourite Japanese restaurants in the city and judge their authenticity to a real Japanese dining experience. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach any of the restaurants managers or other personnel to ask them if they considered their restaurant to be authentic, however I decided to check out the websites of the three restaurants, Minami, The Eatery, and Shota, as well as use my own experiences dining at these restaurants. I consulted Japan Guide online to compare my dining experiences at these restaurants to a traditional Japanese experience.


Minami is a upscale Japanese restaurant in Yaletown. The restaurant prides themselves on all things Japanese, from their art work, currently featuring the work of Japanese artist Hideki Kimura, to their dish-ware, “Japanese porcelain originating from the artisan town of Arita, Japan”. The website claims that “with [the] company’s roots in Japan, owner, Seigo Nakamura strongly believes in preserving the Japanese culture in any way that he can”. The company’s corporate philosophy is also based on “Ningenmi, a Japanese term used to refer a person with outstanding humanly qualities: sincere, thoughtful and passionate.” In these senses, it is apparent that the owner, Mr. Nakamura, kept Japanese culture and tradition in mind when he created Minami.

However, regarding their Westernization, Minami’s website advertises “a combination Japanese and West Coast cuisine in a comfortable rustic space”. Not all their food is made through strictly Japanese preparation, as they combine Western ingredients and techniques with traditional Japanese dishes. An example of this is their Aburi sushi, or “flamed sushi”. According to the site, “owner Seigo Nakamura innovated the Aburi concept by creating specialty sauces and using non-traditional Japanese ingredients to complement the unique taste properties of each fish”. The site also notes their “unique takes on beef, pork, poultry, and seafood dishes to enjoy with your choice of sake, wine, or specialty beverage”.

My dining experience at Minami reflects exactly what their website suggests; I was eating Japanese-style food, in a Japanese-feeling restaurant, but I was still engaging in a western experience. However, in contemporary Japan, a lot of elements of the Western eating style has been implemented, in a way, making it Japanese itself. For example many restaurants in Japan no longer rely on floor seating as the traditional style, but use Western-style tables and chairs. Another example is that while “paying in cash is most common … more and more restaurants also accept credit cards or IC cards such as Suica”. Overall, Minami seems like a pure fusion of North American and Japanese concepts.

The Eatery:

The Eatery is self-described as “the funkiest place for Japanese food” and “one of the neighbourhood’s favourite destinations for innovative sushi”. This is to say the experience is not a traditional one. But is it authentic nonetheless? With its bright lights, sensory overload in decor, and a (Western-style) DJ every weekend, it does not seem like it would be. However, a plethora of restaurants in Japan (albeit non-traditional ones) are starting to use experience and decor as a primary factor in their dining experience, eating culture, and consumer culture. This article http://kotaku.com/tokyos-most-unusual-restaurants-offer-more-than-food-1147350054 outlines some of the interesting and unique restaurants in Tokyo’s modern sushi scene. Food-wise, like Minami, The Eatery puts innovative twists on their traditional dishes, including funky names such as the “Aloha roll”, or the “Tex-Mex Roll” which is a classic California roll combined with a salsa mix.


Shota is probably the closest dining experience to what the Japan guide described. although the seating was raised, most of the tables were bench-style on both sides with little matts for each person to sit on. I was automatically offered tea as well, which is common practice in Japan. The food itself, for the most part, seemed authentic, with only a few options being Westernized or repurposed from traditional Japanese dishes. Their website also advertises their origins. The director, Maggie Hon, who has always, like myself, been enthralled with Japanese culture, lived in Japan for three years and now strives “to provide a rich experience to all customers by sharing her knowledge and insight on Japan through food and personal relationships”. Although the eating experience at Shota still feels very westernized, it is probably the closest experience to authentic Japanese food that I’ve had in the city.

Overall, it is apparent that many of Vancouver’s Japanese cuisine is a mix between traditional Japanese foods and dining experiences, and western styles and familiarities. This makes sense in a North American context, as westerns don’t want to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar while they eat, however they do want some sort of ethnic connection and authenticity to the food they are eating. It’s also important to note that while these restaurants are all westernized in one way or another, that doesn’t make them inauthentic. In the words of William Tsutsui in his book, Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization, which I recently read for my Anthropology 215 class (Japanese popular culture), “the Japanese are ‘underhanded agents of cultural plagiarism’ and Japanese pop [culture] is profoundly derivative of Western, and particularly American, mass entertainment forms” (Tsutsui, 26).

Until next week,


ESL Students and Japanese influence in Vancouver

One thing I really wanted to figure out when I started this blog is the why and who behind Vancouver’s vast Japanese influence and culture. Is it Japanese immigrants as the Vancouver Sun article I reviewed last week insinuated? Is it an increase in the popularity of Japanese pop culture among a demographic of Canadians or ‘Westerners’? The video above poses an answer I’d never considered before: Japanese ESL students. According to the video, which is a clip from a CBC segment from the mid 2000’s called Culture Shock, “every year, an estimated ten thousand young Japanese students, looking to learn English live temporarily in BC”. The video notes that these students are creating a “new Asian presence” in Vancouver. The video, which came out in 2007, brings up an interesting perspective as to why there is such a high market for Japanese products and companies in Vancouver’s consumer culture.

One Japanese company the video discusses specifically is the Konbiniya Japan Centre on Robson street. Konbiniya sells Japanese meals, candy, snack foods, music, books, movies, technology, toys and home products. It features an arcade, a Japanese hair salon and a Japanese computer cafe. The CBC reporter calls Konbiniya “the home away from home” for the Japanese youth of Vancouver. Judging by the Japanese students featured in the video, I think it’s fair to say that Konbiniya is authentic to Japanese society, imitating to a high degree the consumer culture of the ESL student’s home towns in Japan. This is an interesting company to research in terms of it’s routes to Vancouver’s Japanese culture because of the unique demographic of Japanese people that shop there. Below is the link to Konbniya’s website.


Until next week,