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Transnationalism and Korean Diaspora: On Transnational Culinary Dynamism 1

This article was written for 'Korean Diaspora International Scholarship Conference' held to commemorate the Centenary of March First Independence Movement and the establishment of the Korean provisional Government.


1. Introduction: Transnationalism & Culinary Dynamism


Throughout history food and culinary cultures were greatly influenced, changed, and developed by human migrations. Introduction of particular food that is peculiar to an ethnic group to another group occurs through cultural exchanges, and such cultural exchanges are facilitated by migration. This is because people who migrate to other places also bring their own culinary cultures and eating habits with them. “Globalization” of an ethnic food – the phenomenon in which certain food culture of an ethnic group is known to other groups, consumed by the latter in their daily life, mixed with the food culture of the locals, and develops into a new kind of food – is carried out normally by migration of peoples. The migrant group’s culinary culture is also transformed under the influence of the local climate, products, and culture.


There are numerous historical and anthropological studies on the human migration and food. Jared Diamond (1997) is one of the famous historians on the spread of civilization and he explored how technology and culture including food and food technologies spread through the Eurasian continent from ancient civilization of Mesopotamia to the other regions of the continent. Sidney Mintz (1985) is also one of the most prominent scholars and his anthropological works show how global political economy has promoted migrations for such as sugarcane industry, also resulted in mixing of different cultures including food. Therefore, the food what we eat and the ways how we prepare our food has been very much have been affected by the geography, culture, and particularly the history of human migrations. For example, soybean and other soybean-based foods such as soy sauce, soybean paste and tofu were probably spread out to other Asian countries including Korea and Japan by Chinese migrants, merchants and Buddhist monks (DuBois, Tan and Mintz 2008).


It is same today that international migrants introduce ethnic foods to their host societies and, in fact, ethnic restaurant business seems to be the most common entrepreneurial projects for new migrants. The numerous and omnipresent Chinese restaurants in North America, Oceania, and Western Europe testify this. As far as ethnic culinary entrepreneurism is concerned, however, Korean diaspora have been in a somewhat underprivileged position compared to some other diasporic groups. Unlike their Chinese, Japanese, or Thai counterparts, Koreans overseas were not able to commercialise their ethnic culinary culture substantially beyond their own ethnic enclaves until recently when the Hallyu boom occurred about two decades ago. This is because until recently the popularity of Korean cuisine has been limited in the global stage compared to those of Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese. Only recently, with the help of the Hallyu Korean food began to gain more popularity in global stage.

Nevertheless, though less known, there have been relatively successful culinary entrepreneurship among the Korean diaspora of Japan, China, and the former Soviet Union. There is also Japanese sushi business conducted by Korean migrants in North America, Oceania, and Europe. All these cases involve Korean diaspora’s traditional culinary practices, which are blended or negotiated with various local and global culinary cultures. This paper explores such “transnational” practices of culinary entrepreneurship carried out by Korean diaspora. In particular, it will focus on the ways how Korean diasporic groups chose certain food items (such as sushi business of Korean Americans, horumon yaki of Zainichi Koreans, lamb skewer business of Korean Chinese and the “Korean” dishes of the former Soviet Koreans) and how they popularised (or globalised) them. Such activities are very much related to “transnational cultural practices” of diasporic groups (cf. Willis 1992, 73).


2. Zainichi Koreans and horumon yaki 


Today in most cities of Japan one can find horumon yaki restaurants, which serve various kinds of grilled entrails, intestines, and offal of beef, pork and chicken. These restaurants have normally charcoal grills at the centre of tables, where these meats, often marinated with Korean sauces, and customers sitting around the tables grill them. This barbecue dish is commonly accompanied with a variety of seasoned vegetables (namul) and a few different kinds of kimchi.

In Japan this horumon yaki is, like yakiniku itself, known as ethnic Korean food together with kimchi and jijimi (Korean-style pancake).


Like some of the “ethnic cuisines” of diasporic peoples, however, horumon yaki did not originate from the ancestral homeland of ethnic Koreans (cf. Song 2016), and instead, it evolved in the ghettoes of ethnic Koreans in Japan (Zainichi people as they are called). The poor Korean workers in Japan during the colonial period would marinate these pieces of meat with sauces (typically with chili pepper and garlic-based ones) and grilled them. Such as, horumon yaki was a food for survival for those Zainichi (Nomura 1999, 70). During the hard times of the immediate post-war era of Japan in the 1940s and 1950s this food was widely spread and shared by ethnic Koreans in their ghettoes throughout Japan.


Nevertheless, the Korean horumon yaki food continued to evolve as a specialty barbecue dish within the Korean community. By the 1960s it gained wider popularity even among Japanese. Through continuous development and innovative measures, the Koreans made the “ghetto” food into a popular gourmet cuisine. The consumption of horumon yaki has increased greatly recently, which is demonstrated by the overwhelming number of horumon yaki restaurants found in many street of Japan (Toshio 2005: 74). In addition, any Korean meat shops and supermarkets sell horumon meats together with bottled sauces, and housewives buy them to make the grilled dish at home. Today horumon yaki is not only found on ordinary yakiniku restaurants but they are also on the menus of ordinary izakaya restaurants. Until it became such a popular and “ordinary” food, horumon yaki has gone through decades of transformations. These transformations include some important technological, cultural, social and entrepreneurial innovations by the people involved in this business, such as chefs, restaurant owners, customers, and media among others.


First of all, behind the acceptance of the culturally and socially “impure” “ghetto” food of horumon yaki by the general public in Japan were the cultural and social changes of Japanese society itself. Through the rapid economic development since the 1960s Japanese society became culturally more secular, open, democratic, and pluralistic, which helped people to accept exotic, foreign, and unconventional food, fashion, and ideas. In addition, the practical side of Japanese culture was easy to accept the idea and practice of using things fully without wasting, which includes the idea of utilizing every edible part of meat if possible even though traditionally this used to be considered unfit for human consumption.


One of the inconveniences of barbecue or yakiniku food is they generate smoke and smell of grilled meat. Even those people who love barbecue meat tend to dislike the smell stained in their clothes after they visit yakiniku restaurants. This problem became less when non-smoke grill was invented in the early 1970s, when the Shinpo company began to supply smokeless grill in 1971 (http://www.shinpo-en.com/AboutusEN.html. With smokeless grills, the general atmosphere of yakiniku (including horumon yaki) restaurants became less unpleasant and messy.


Horumon yaki business also has adopted some important culinary improvements in the last few decades. Though in the past horumon meat used to be from low graded meat, these days many upmarket horumon yaki restaurants use finest grades of beef, pork, chicken and their organs. Chefs of these restaurants also use cutting-edge arts of cutting their meat and presenting their food. In Japanese culinary tradition cutting has been always important and, in particular, sashimi dishes show high level of artistic cutting skills. These skills were adopted by horumon yaki industry and cutting and presenting raw meat at these restaurants are highly professional and visually pleasing. In particular, items such as chicken neck meat served in horumon restaurant shows highly sophisticated cutting skills of chefs. Such use of high quality meat, artistic cutting skills, elaborate presentation, and trendy interior of horumon yaki restaurant all contributed to the transformation of the old horumon-as-ghetto food to a gourmet food.


Zainichi Koreans also invented brilliant marketing strategy to make it popular. From early days of its inauguration, horumon yaki was advertised as “stamina” food. In Tokyo and Osaka there are horumon yaki chain stores called Jonetsu Horumon and jonetsu in Japanese means ‘passion’ (情熱). In addition, they also advertise that intestinal meats are rich is collagen and they are good for skin. Therefore, today, horumon yaki is known to the public for its enhancement of male virility and female skin treatment. Horumon yaki restaurants even went global and one can find them in many global cities such as New York City (Takashi Horumon Yaki Restaurant).


3. Korean Diaspora and Sushi Business


In the last two decades Japanese sushi gained remarkable popularity all over the world including North America, Europe, and Oceania (Kumakura 2000). Interestingly, however, behind this rapidly growing sushi business in North America, Oceania, and Europe are ethnic Koreans living in these regions. Many of the newly opening Japanese restaurants and sushi bars in North America, Europe, and Oceania (from Honolulu to New York, from Paris to Moscow, and from Sydney to Perth) are operated by ethnic Koreans (cf. Park 1997, 54; Tanaka 2008). Based on the number of Japanese restaurants that appear in the Korean Community Directories of L.A., New York City, Sydney, and Auckland, one can estimate that roughly 20-25% among all Korean food business seems to be deal with Japanese food in these regions. Why so many Koreans are involved in sushi business then? There are both cultural, historical, and migratory reasons behind this phenomenon.


When the popularity of Japanese food, especially sushi, rose rapidly in North America, Europe and Oceania in the 1990s Korean migrants in these regions began to enter into this market. The different migration patterns between Japanese and Koreans to North America and other western countries is an important factor in Koreans’ dominance in sushi business. The number of new Japanese immigrants to the US declined drastically after the 1950s due to Japan’s economic recovery after the World War II. In the post-1965 era, Japan has sent only a few or several thousands of immigrants to the United States per year, while large number of Koreans arrived. Korean migrants looking for new business opportunities while there were not many Japanese new immigrants.

As latecomers to North America, Europe and Oceania, Korean immigrants need to find a niche market to establish themselves as quickly as possible. Due to their language problems, nonetheless, they tend to stick to Korean communities and this makes the competition among Korean immigrants very harsh. Thus, Koreans were looking for business opportunities outside of Korean community. Similar trend goes in global level and Korean diasporas venture into countries that are popular among other ethnic groups. Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania do not attract many Japanese for restaurant business and Koreans tend to view it as an opportunity.

The ease of preparation of Japanese food compared to Korean food was an important factor in the Koreans’ decision to set up a Japanese restaurant. According to these owners, Japanese food does not require side dishes, and it is much more simple to prepare food such as sashimi (simply slicing raw fish) and sushi (simply rolling rice). Differently from Korean food, Japanese food also does not require many ingredients. This means less cost for the ingredients and labour at kitchen. Meanwhile, the prices of Japanese food tend to be higher than Korean food, and this means higher profit.   

Another important factor here is the cultural similarity of Koreans to Japanese. Koreans and Japanese exchanged their cultures throughout history, especially in the first half of the twentieth century when Korea was colonised by Japan. It is probable that Koreans learned sushi during the colonial period. Korean kimpap originated during the colonial period and is derived from Japanese makizushi. In addition, the physical similarities between Koreans and Japanese also help. Westerners normally do not discern Koreans from Japanese and Koreans seem to be able to utilize this in engaging in Japanese restaurant business in these regions. Customers assume that the operators are Japanese as sushi is a Japanese food. Even when they knew that the sushi bar’s owner is a Korean, customers did not care much. 

As Koreans are not bound to the tradition, they tend to be also more adventurous in creating and inventing new kinds of sushi according to the tastes of their customers who are normally non-Japanese but Americans and Europeans. Therefore, new kinds of sushi are added continuously to their menus. Engaging in Japanese restaurant business in North America, Europe, and Oceania, these Korean diasporas not just cross multiple cultural boundaries, from Korea to host societies, and from Korean culture to Japanese one. They also represent “Japanese” culture in their host countries. Thus, this practice of Korean diasporas running Japanese restaurants in these regions provides us with many interesting insights on cultural boundary crossings, hybridity, representation and trans-national entrepreneurship.


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