Ramen, An epitome: The complicated mood of China during the Japanese culture popularization

01 June 2017 on Food. 6 minutes

While some people address China as a country with “astonishing economic growth” and rapid modernization [1], other people would like to describe China as a country with more and more incisive society problems. The image of China is becoming more and more complex during its rapid growth. Moreover, other from the outer image, the internal of China, the culture, is also becoming complicated. Along with the information explosion brought by the Internet and social media evolution and the more and the more frequently globalization cultural exchanges, a serious question is raised for both China and Chinese people: How should we find our location during this “world cultural syncretism”[2] era? As the representative of Japanese culture, Ramen becomes an epitome. The growth of Ramen in China reflects the complicated mood of China during the Japanese culture popularization. While a part of China admires Ramen and Japanese culture for cultural and economic reasons, another part of China refuses to accept them for history and political reasons.

The rise of foreign food such as Ramen is a result of China’s modernization. As one of the very first Japanese Ramen restaurant entering China, the Ajisen Ramen is a good representative of foreign chain restaurants in China at the time. The first Ajisen Ramen is opened in 1968 in Kumamoto, Japan [3]. 28 years later, in 1996, with the help from Chinese merchant Pan Wei, the Ajisen Ramen founded its Chinese company and opened its first restaurant in Hong Kong in the same year. Shortly after that, it opened its first restaurant in Mainland China at Shenzhen in 1998 [4]. 20 years later, the Ajisen Ramen has already opened over 662 restaurants in China and becomes one of the most famous Japanese Ramen restaurant in China now[4]. According to the comment from the Jiemian magazine, the rise of Ajisen Ramen is a success of the highly standardized quality of food, environment, and service[4], just like the rise of other foreign chain restaurants in China such as the McDonald’s, the KFC and the Yoshinoya. During the process of China’s modernization, those foreign restaurants like Ajisen Ramen serve as the image of western exemplary of modernization, which also reveals first reason of the Japanese culture popularization: As the nearest western developed country, Japan serves as a modernization model for China after the 80s’ reform and opening-up policy.

While the standardized Ajisen Ramen serving as the western exemplary in China’s modernization, the rise of expensive and original Japanese style Ramen restaurant around 2010 starts to reveal another trend happening in China: the consumption upgrading. IPPODU is one of the most famous and representative restaurants among those. Different from the fast-food liked Ajisen Ramen, IPPODU is more expensive and exquisite. According to my field trip experience, you will be welcomed with the native Japanese style greetings once you enter their Japanese style decorated shop. Then, you will be served with a menu with the detailed description of their Ramen and Ramen culture such as “Zuzutto”(make sounds to enjoy the Ramen). More importantly, just like other Ramen restaurant nowadays in Japan, IPPODU emphasizes their efforts of making a bowl of Ramen and make it feels like an artwork. The restaurant endows their food with cultural meaning besides the food itself, such as the spirit of craftsmanship. The rise of such Ramen restaurants reveals the change of Chinese market: after satisfying the basic demand, people start to look for fancy stuff, such as a bowl of carefully prepared noodle made with the spirit of craftsmanship. As a result, the new Ramen restaurants such as IPPODU keep the popularization of Japanese culture by playing the role of exemplars during China’s consumption upgrading.

Despite the economic reasons, the cultural similarities between China and Japan also contribute a lot to the popularization of Ramen and Japanese culture. As the Chinese-oriented food, Ramen shares a lot of similarities with the Chinese style soup noodle, which guarantees its basic popularity in the Chinese market. Moreover, according to Professor Mao’s opinion, Chinese people are actually embracing their own traditional culture through embracing Japanese culture, because we have already lost ours during the Cultural Revolution, while Japan preserves the similar culture and become the successor[5]. This opinion gives a new way to explain the popularization of Ramen: the spirits inside the story of Ramen such as the meaning of “Zen” are actually concepts come from the traditional Chinese culture, and that is why we enjoy the story so much.

However, while a part of China takes Japan as the preserver and successor of traditional Chinese culture and the exemplary of modernization and consumption upgrading, the other part of China can not calmly accept the “invasion” of Japanese Culture. As the representative of Japanese culture, the fate of Ramen restaurants is sometimes closely related to the relationship between China and Japan. At 2005, because of the angry towards the irresponsible way of history description in a Japanese history textbook, a national anti-Japanese protest erupted. During the protest, several Japanese Ramen restaurants at Beijing was smashed as the representative of Japanese culture [7]. At 2010, because of the disagreement on the Diaoyu Island problem and the historical National sentiment towards Japan, the anti-Japanese protest erupted again in Szechuan. This time, an Ajisen Ramen restaurant was smashed [6]. The smashed Ramen shops reveal a fact: Chinese people may be touched by the stories of Ramen and the spirit of craftsmanship, however, the injury deep inside their heart may not be easily erased by a bowl of Ramen.

As the representative of Japanese culture, the rise and fall of Ramen in China reveals a complicated mood of China during the popularization of Japanese culture. A part of China takes Japan as the exemplary of modernization and consumption upgrading, and even the preserver and successor of traditional Chinese culture. However, the other part of China can still be easily provoked by the improper behaviors of Japan and can not accept the popularization of Japanese culture in China. At this era of cultural fusion, China still have a long way to find its position between its own culture and the foreign cultures, and maybe only when China find such a position, it can become more confident and less sensitive.

[1] Farndon, John. China rises: how China’s astonishing growth will change the world. Random House, 2007.
[2] Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. “Globalisation as hybridisation.” International sociology 9.2 (1994): 161-184.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajisen_Ramen
[4] http://www.jiemian.com/article/1339751.html
[5] http://www.nippon.com/hk/features/c03201/?pnum=1
[6] http://www.appledaily.com.tw/appledaily/article/international/20101018/32894649/
[7] http://news.tvbs.com.tw/other/448205