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Japanese media reaches for the stars in restaurant coverage

by Philip Brasor

The first Michelin Guide to Tokyo’s best restaurants has sold extremely well since going on sale Nov. 22, which isn’t surprising given the huge amount of press it has received. The media love it when a foreign entity pays close attention to Japanese culture, and in this case it’s culture you can eat, even if the restaurants that “Michelin Guide Tokyo 2008″ recommends are a bit pricey for most consumers.

The elitist aspect of the guide isn’t really what stirred up controversy, though. Everyone felt flattered that the European tire-maker, which began rating restaurants in France in 1900 as a means of promoting driving, and thus selling more of its wares, awarded more “stars” to Tokyo eateries than it has to any other city it has inspected, including Paris. The complaints were over Michelin’s undisclosed criteria for evaluation. Because many Japanese people believe their culture is unique, they may have doubts about outside attempts to rate it.

Jun Yokokawa, a noted food critic, commented on TBS’s morning show “Pinpon” that of the 150 Tokyo restaurants awarded either one, two or three stars, a disproportionate number were sushi bars, a result he believes has more to do with the current “international sushi boom” than with the intrinsic qualities of the establishments.

Japanese food is about the freshness of the ingredients rather than the chef’s originality, and several commentators have speculated that criteria such as presentation, ambience and service were more central to the Michelin evaluations than the food itself. Moreover, certain types of establishments, such as those serving relatively low-priced yakiniku (barbecued beef), weren’t inspected at all, even though, according to the Asahi Shimbun, yakiniku is considered a valid “food genre” by Japanese gourmets.

But the Michelin Guide’s purpose is not really to get at some kind of truth about restaurants. Its purpose is promotional. Yokokawa said that if you visit many of the establishments in Europe that earn favorable ratings from Michelin, what you find is “American and Japanese tourists” who read about them in Michelin Guides. One reason the Tokyo guide can’t be taken as the last word is that a number of restaurants that might have made it into the book refused to take part, since those mentioned must bear the expense of photographing their interior and food themselves.

Most restaurants find the publicity invaluable and pay up. Already, many of the establishments mentioned in the Tokyo guide have seen their reservation logs fill up for the next several months. That’s because people love ratings, and many will spend the extra money to experience something that an expert has said is special, even if they themselves can’t tell the difference.

An Asahi reporter made a reservation for him and a friend at one of the French restaurants that earned three stars in the new Tokyo guide. They chose the cheapest set course and together paid ¥51,000 for the meal, including wine. The reporter and his friend discussed whether or not the food was worth the price but couldn’t decide, because they had nothing comparable to base their decision on.

What the restaurants who choose to “cooperate” with Michelin hope to gain is a boost in their brand name. Paradoxically, many elite eateries in Japan purposely avoid publicity since they believe popularity contradicts the aesthetic of an exclusive, unique dining experience. But this nonpublicity is itself a form of publicity, since the media love to report on these restaurants, and once people find out about them they all want to eat there.

Asahi covered one eatery that was chosen by Michelin but refused to cooperate because its owner had doubts about the Michelin evaluation process. That sort of integrity has its own appeal, though whether it guarantees a delicious meal is impossible to determine, and hardly the point. It’s all a matter of perception. As a friend once pointed out, you’ll probably enjoy a movie more if you walked a mile to the theater than you would if you walked around the corner to see it.

This dynamic is behind the scandal that befell the elite Osaka restaurant, Senba Kitcho. Recently, it came to light that Senba Kitcho mislabeled some of its products, claiming, for instance, that the meat in its processed beef dishes was Tajima beef from Hyogo Prefecture, the most expensive kind in Japan, when actually it was beef from Saga Prefecture. It’s unlikely that the majority of Kitcho’s customers could tell the difference, since even Saga beef is considered a high-end brand, but the point is they were paying for Tajima beef.

Sadaichi Yuki, the late founder of the Kitcho restaurants, was instrumental in perpetuating the elitist idea of Japanese food culture celebrated by the Michelin Tokyo Guide. He was the first restaurateur ever to be named a Person of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government, and allowed only his heirs to use the Kitcho name because he thought it was the best way to maintain the brand’s high standards. But he had too many heirs, and, according to the magazine Shukan Bunshun, Masanori Yuki, the son-in-law who ran the Senba Kitcho chain, wanted to distinguish his own brand from those of the other Kitcho restaurants. He was forced to cut corners in order to realize his ambitions in a way that made business sense, and somebody blew the whistle.

Masanori was trying to “popularize” the Kitcho brand, but theoretically the only people who can truly appreciate the kind of food Kitcho and the Michelin Guide honorees idealize are gourmands, meaning people who eat gorgeous food all the time. Connoisseurs, by definition, look down their noses at guidebooks, which are for the hoi polloi. A writer interviewed by the Asahi who is considered an epicure was “disappointed” after he read the Michelin Guide. “Too many stars,” he said.