Why Japan is so down on British food

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Ask any Japanese person what they think of British food, and the common reply will be, “I’ve heard it’s terrible.” This universal disdain for British cooking is a result of the usual media prejudice, exacerbated by a confidence among Japanese in their native ability to discern epicurean excellence.

A prime illustration of this mindset is the famous comment once made by Kyosen Ohashi, Japan’s most illustrious TV personality of the 1970s and ’80s, that whenever he visits Britain he boards in Belgium so he doesn’t have to eat British food. Ohashi is one of the few Japanese celebrities who lives abroad full-time — he has homes in Canada and Australia — cultivating a credible cosmopolitan image. If he says British cooking sucks, a lot of people are going to believe him.

The prejudice originated in the years after World War II, when food rationing limited British households’ and restaurants’ access to ingredients. But since the 1970s, British cooking has improved demonstrably. Still, some prejudices are just too irresistible, and somebody has to be the scapegoat and shoulder the burden of “worst national cuisine in the world.”

If the prejudice endures with particular tenacity in Japan, it’s probably because British home cooking is usually portrayed in the media as being limited. TV almost never covers the way the Brits eat at home. One Japanese blogger living in England wrote about the “advantages” of British cooking and, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced this stereotype. “I didn’t feel like cooking,” she said, “so I put a potato, some cabbage and a sausage on a plate and placed it in the microwave. English cooking is so easy!” Another British food “enthusiast” from Japan philosophized that “British cooking means enjoying food as it is,” which means “baking or grilling” meats without any extraneous preparation or fuss.

Another problem Japanese people have with British cuisine is the paucity of seafood. Except for fish and chips/fish fingers (cod) and kippers (herring), the English plate has little room for our finny friends. The Japanese find this strange, since England is also an island country. What these complainers overlook is eel, one of the few dishes that overlaps with Japanese cuisine, though the Brits typically eat it in jellied form, which some may find unappetizing compared with unaju (grilled eel on rice).

Maybe it’s more the look than it is the taste. Many Great Britain travel guides for Japanese tourists recommend non-British fare (“the best Chinese food in the world can be found in London”), but when they do recommend British dishes it’s usually in pubs, since that implies authenticity. The problem is that pub food is difficult to photograph: a hunk of meat, some pale potatoes, a greenish veggie and a dab of runny pudding. And since TV travel shows are the main vehicles for promoting food culture in the Japanese media, the pub has become the de facto source for British cooking.

That may explain why there aren’t any British restaurants in Japan, just theme pubs that serve a few recognizably British dishes but mostly offer generic bar food.

There are some exceptions. The Meguro Tavern in Shimomeguro, Tokyo, has a full array of British favorites, not to mention its famous Sunday Carvery featuring all-you-can-eat roasts of various animal species. The menu of the Aldgate in Shibuya is even more varied, including English breakfast and some non-British dishes (falafel, etc) that are nevertheless prepared in a British style.

What Japanese people tend to appreciate most about Britain is its sense of tradition. The idea of setting aside time in the afternoon for tea is attractive, since it appeals to the Japanese love of continuity. The only problem is that such refined style comes at a refined price, and the most acclaimed places to enjoy tea in Japan are luxury hotels where a cuppa and a scone or cucumber sandwich will run you more than ¥3,500; though even in these establishments, “afternoon tea” is more of a concept than a description. The food is not always typically British. In fact, it’s often Japanese.