Monday, August 15, 2011

Food Faux Pas... Or Just Faux Parfait?

7th August, 2010 - My family had popped into one of the Aeon shopping centres in Sapporo, and were thinking about having lunch - and that's always a pleasant though at times confusing task. Always so many options - especially when you stand outside a row of shops each with their foods on display. And it got me thinking of why is it that Japan seems to be largely unique in this tradition. And reminds me of when I first came to Japan, in 2003, and didn't have any idea about anything. It's embarrassing, but I didn't know it was all fake. At least most of it is... I can still recall going past one little cafe which had some pasta dishes out... and T-chan was explaining to me that it was all fake. To prove it she stuck her finger in the dish to show it was plastic. It turned out to be real... oops. Now that's embarrassing - a food faux pas? Maybe, but it's also a rare exception.

Most cafes have displays out the front, which are known as shokuhin sanpuru or food samples. They pretty well tell you all there is to know about the dish, and are a god-send for foreigners who are unfamiliar with Japanese (or Japanese food for that matter). Though most make ordering easy, some can also be a little harder to interpret  such as spicy hot (karai) foods.

It always amazed me how much attention to detail there was in these food displays. Most of them literally look good enough to eat. All they need is to invent the perpetual smell, and it would be perfect. But one question kept coming into my head - why? Was this really about making foreigners lives that much easier? Actually, it's quite an interesting tale; which I can't hope to justice - but will try. [Note: the best sources of info I found on the net was from an Asahi Shimbun article by Chisato Yokota, a really good post by Steve Edwards on SeekJapan, a great newsletter from Yoko Howes , and an interesting expose by Japan Times by Yoko Hani - drop us a line if you know of others].

Now the story goes something like this, the practice of creating fake or display foods originally started around 1917 in Tokyo, with the fake foods being created out of wax. By the mid 1920's these wax creations were being used by a restaurant as a means of cooking up some extra business (bad pun I know). Apparently, it worked. Then along comes the manufacturing entrepeneur Ryuzo Iwasaki, who developed a technique for producing fake omuraisu in Osaka in 1932. Strangely he had been initially attracted by the anatomical models that were being made from wax around that time... I'm just wondering how differently things would have turned out if he'd remained fascinated by the anatomical models - choosing doctors by the organs they displayed out the front of their surgeries? Er... food was definitely a good commercial move Ryuzo! Indeed, the popularity of food displays is often attributed to the sudden influx of foreign foods into Japan, and the need for a universal language... the WYSIWYG of the early twentieth century. That may or may not be true, but I don't think that it's something that modern day Japanese would give a second's thought to.

It was a great success, and started the Iwasaki fake food company. From those humble beginnings it turned into an industry worth billions of yen per yer. With cash in pocket, Ryuzo returned to his hometown of Gujo in Gifu prefecture; where a significant gathering of fake food companies have been established. The question remains - why? And more importantly, why don't other cultures use the same methods? According to one Japanese writer, Nose Yasunobum, this comes from a Japanese trait to eat first with the eyes... the reality however is that if you were to ask most Japanese why, they would shrug their shoulders as if you were asking why the sky is blue. Whatever reason, it is now a cultural norm - and one which is convenient for so many travellers to Japan.

It's hard to conceive of just how many of these displays are made - I mean after all, the sheer number of restaurants/cafes in Sapporo alone are countless... then if you consider the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya - it's hard not so see how big the industry has become. Yet for all of that, this food is designed to achieve one thing only. To make the shops food look more appetising than anything else you're going to see. I guess it's also somewhat of a status symbol... the nicer the displays, the nicer the impression of the shop. Of course, if the food doesn't taste as good as the advertisement looked...that's a different story. And yes, over-sell definitely occurs in the food-display business as well. But that's a testament to the power of suggestion, and the desire of the normal punter to want to believe in finding the perfect hamubagu, tonkatsu, omuraisu or parfait. Don't we all deep down want that?

Apparently these faux food displays are not only used in shop-fronts, but also in advertising... as they allow a higher degree of photographic freedom and "consistency". They don't melt. Not the best advertisement I would think if people realised that the fake version looked better than the real thing. The thing is, that these fake foods often have to be assembled with the same sorts of skills and techniques as the real things... and often the best makers have strong cooking backgrounds as well.

You can buy fake food displays off-the-shelf (see below), but the best ones are customised in terms of how the shop actually makes it's food, from the dishes, to the ingredients and style employed. This starts with moulds being made of actual dishes produced by the shop... though how this happens without the food turning into indistinguishable mush is a trade secret. We know that silicone is an important step - but the more important part is the artistry in the painting, glazing and especially in the manufacturing of those semi-transparent ingredients. This not only adds to the time taken to develop, but also means that it's harder to change your menu at the drop of a hat. It also means that the displays are going to cost a whole heap more. Indeed a shop can spend many 1000's of dollars on complete menu display.

Now many people that travel to Japan end up wanting to see if they can get their hands on examples of these faux foods - as they tend to make for quirky souvenirs. Now I've not personally done this, but the best place to find these goods is in the area known as Kappabashi-dori, or more commonly Kitchen Town - in Tokyo. This is often said to be accessed from the Asakusa area, but can also be reached from Ueno (see below). But be prepared - whilst I've not been there myself, I understand that it's pretty awesome in a non-eating sense. Not only will you find an almost infinite variety (ok - infinite may be stretching it) of goods/utensils used in the restaurant trade, you'll also find the shokuhin sanpuru. Though it doesn't come cheap - and indeed you might end up paying far more for the sample than you would for a plate of the real food. You can expect to pay around the 800-1000 yen mark for the simplest/smallest of food displays (and here I'm talking key-chain size). For more substantial dishes you could be looking at over 6000yen per dish. If you've still got a hankering, you can check out some very nice images of fake food displays over at TokyoTimes.

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At the end of the day - there's little value in trying too hard to dissect the cultural histories that generated this famous food tradition in Japan. Instead, we should just be thankful that it has held firm against the constant threat of homogeneous globalisation. Indeed, the Japanese are exporting the idea to Korea and China. I wonder how many decades it would take before it reaches the shores of Australia. Hopefully not too many...

If you want to see more, please check out this LuStation YouTube segment on the fake food industry in Japan:
(Source: LuStation, used with permission)

It may take a bit of getting used to - and some might be worried at the faux pas in confusing the fake from the real thing... but for me, it's about making the dining experience as much about engaging both the eyes, mind, tongue into a truly complete experience. And there can be nothing embarrassing or socially awkward about that. Can there?

This is one of my entries for the August 2010 edition of the JFesta theme-based blog. Whilst it may not be "edible" in terms of food - anyone that has travelled to Japan would know that it an essential part of the Japanese eating experience. Stay tuned however, as I'm also about to post on a typical supermarket experience (in Sapporo at least)... another important part of any food experience.


  1. Great post! Kappabashi kitchen street in Tokyo is the best place for those plastic replicas of food seen in restaurant windows. A few places in Japan also have minature versions that you can buy as key-rings. One of the best I've seen is in Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture.

    Japan Australia

  2. Sounds interesting. I have definitely wanted to get out and about more in Japan, but when you've got family connections it's not as easy as you might think. What was good about Gujo Hachiman in particular?

  3. It IS so nice and helpful to see those plastic food displays at Japanese restaurants. 6000 yen per display though... wow!

  4. Yeah - whilst the nerd in me wants to buy one (who knows why), I'm also a tight-wad, and couldn't possibly splurge that much for a plastic meal. Not unless is was mind-boggling good (and could be eaten in an emergency).

  5. Hm! I always just thought it was another extension of the 'food porn' industr
    Cool entry to the J-Festa!

  6. Hehehe.... I love food porn myself (but don't indulge in as much as I would like). BTW I'm sure there's a fetish out there for faux food... not that there's anything wrong with that.