Every month I have the opportunity to travel to Asian cities for my projects in the hospitality industry. I always go out of my way to sample the local food and learn more about the host city. As we all know, food is a key ingredient defining one’s culture. What would the Korea dining culture be without bibimbap, kimchi, and Duk Bok Ki? All Asian countries have noodles and rice but these dishes say something special about the Korean people and their lifestyle.
What is most apparent to me on these travels is the enormous popularity of Japanese food in every city. Japanese is always the “second choice” after the local cuisine. This is true in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia – actually everywhere!
What is most interesting is the wide variety of Japanese food available but the absence in many cases of Japan based restaurant concepts serving authentic Japanese cuisine. In other words, local entrepreneurs are driving this trend without the help of Japanese restaurant chains in most cases. Just think of Teriyaki Boy in the Philippines, Itoya in Thailand or Hoka Hoka Bento in Indonesia.
There are some exceptions of course when you consider Yoshinoya, Watami and Coco Ichibanya to mention a few. But in general most Japanese restaurant companies just dabble abroad unlike the best in class manufacturing companies like Toyota, Matsushita or Toshiba.
So why is Japanese food so popular in the first place? The food is rice and noodle based and easy to share which is similar to most Asian cuisines. Almost everyone seems to like sushi but more the American style “rainbow rolls” rather than the traditional nigiri or temaki sushi. The food is generally fried or grilled which is easy to be accepted by local citizens. Presentation is a key reason also. The food looks good and fresh and healthy. But I think one of the biggest reasons for the success of Japanese food is that Asians just love the Japanese culture- the packaging, the cars, the Anime, the fashions, Hello Kitty – you name it and Asians love it! Certainly, Japan is no longer the “Super State” it was in the 1980’s but the country has real “soft power” through its culture and popular consumer products which dominate the Asian landscape. Italy has a similar appeal worldwide because of the huge success of fashion labels like Prada, Armani and Gucci. And while Italian food is the most popular “Western” food in the Asia Pacific, the category is still relatively small compared to Japanese. Finally, I think there is some appeal for the Japanese being “more like us” compared to Europe or the USA.
Given the poor economic conditions in Japan, I am still waiting for some of the bigger Japanese chains to finally discover the opportunity of international markets.