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BEIJING (Kyodo) Yi Kehan, a 17-year-old Beijing student, was hooked a year ago when she tasted “chawan mushi,” or Japanese-style savory egg custard.

“There is a similar dish in China, but the Japanese version was different in ways I can’t quite explain. I wanted my aunts to try it, too, and that’s why we came today,” Yi said, accompanied by her two aunts at a popular Japanese restaurant in the Chinese capital.

The popularity of Japanese food has shot up in Beijing in recent years, helped by rising income levels and enhanced exposure to the outside world, as well as the cuisine’s reputation for being healthy.

Customers now crowd Japanese restaurants despite political tensions that would normally hurt the image of anything Japanese.

“I don’t really care about all the political stuff,” Yi said. “I don’t think food and politics have any connection.”

While no official figures are available, lifestyle magazines list at least 100 Japanese eateries in Beijing, ranging from higher-end sushi restaurants to more casual places featuring yakitori.

“I think the increase of Japanese restaurants became prominent in the last two years,” said Eileen Wen Mooney, food and drink editor at Time Out, a free monthly magazine.

“I think it’s because people have more money today than in the past and they have traveled more,” making Japanese food more affordable and approachable, she said. “For the younger people, they like Japanese food because it’s lighter and healthier.”

Leading the trend are young white-collar workers who are more affluent and better educated, according to Mooney.

“Japanese places are elegant and quiet, so people can talk business,” she said. While Chinese business lunches mean a huge amount of heavy food, at Japanese restaurants “they don’t have to eat a lot, because the portions are small.”

The current popularity is a far cry from when Matsuko Naotsuka opened one of the first Japanese eateries in the capital over a decade ago.

“When we first opened in 1993, we had no customers,” Naotsuka said. “I had to go to Japanese companies’ offices to ask people working there to come to the restaurant, saying that we’ll be closing if they don’t come.”

Naotsuka’s restaurant, Matsuko, which she co-owns with a Chinese partner, now has three branches that employ about 300 people.

Long lines form at lunchtime for the popular all-you-can-eat buffet, and more than 70 percent of the customers are now Chinese, Naotsuka said.

One sign of the growing popularity of Japanese food is the growth in sake.

Sales have gone up 150 percent over the past three years, said Koji Ihara, director of the Beijing office of Takara Shuzo Foods Co.

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