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Research examines the incorporation of fast food into Japanese culture

Though McDonald’s often is disparaged as imposing American culture upon unsuspecting global consumers, a new study shows that in Japan fast food restaurants may have positive cultural effects.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Though McDonald’s often is disparaged as imposing American culture upon unsuspecting global consumers, a new study shows that in Japan fast food restaurants may have positive cultural effects.

The study, conducted by Dr. John Traphagan of The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. L. Keith Brown of the University of Pittsburgh, highlights examples of how McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other Westernized fast food restaurants provide an opportunity for Japanese families to interact with a sense of intimacy and conviviality that is not seen in more traditional Japanese fast food establishments.

"We became interested in fast food in Japan as a result of casual observations of people in restaurants," Traphagan said. "It seemed to us that the patterns of eating and interaction were different from what is often reported in the media and in various scholarship in relation to the role of McDonald’s and other fast food venues in modern societies.

"We also were interested, in this age of globalization, in how the products of multinational corporations such as McDonald’s fit into other, non-American cultures," he said. "We were interested in how such global, or American, products are perceived in other cultures, how those products are consumed and used in other cultures, how they are adjusted or changed to fit with the local culture and what effect such things have on other cultures."

In observing behaviors of diners in fast-food establishments, the researchers found noteworthy differences between Japanese and American eating patterns, including how food is shared among co-workers, friends and family members.

"In Japan, the sharing of food is an important element of building effective bonds among people," Traphagan said. "It is very common for Japanese to have plates of common food in the center of the table, from which they take small portions. Intimacy is sometimes evident by the manner in which people use their chopsticks. If they turn the chopsticks around and take the food from the common plate with the back ends of the chopsticks, this indicates a degree of social distance. One would not do this with family members.

"The tendency of having common food in the center of the table holds in restaurants like McDonald’s, where people usually dump all of the french fries onto a common tray in the center of the table and then draw from them as desired," he said.

Though the term "fast food" is used in Japan, the definition is slightly different than in the United States.

"Japanese fast food involves a range of options wider than the burgers and fries or fried chicken that typifies the American example," Traphagan said. "Ramen, yakitori and sushi can all be fast food. In some ways, many aspects of Japanese cuisine are fast food in that they can be prepared, kept and eaten quickly — although by no means do Japanese always eat quickly.

"From the Japanese perspective the phrase ‘fast food’ which is also used in Japanese, refers to foods purchased at chain restaurants," he said. "In some ways, it refers more to a style of standardized selling rather than to specific foods, although some of the participants in the study did indicate that there was a feeling of hamburgers and fries associated with the phrase ‘fast food.’ Also, many Japanese view foods like hamburgers and fries as snacks, rather than as a full meal. The lack of rice puts these foods into a somewhat different category from that typical in the U.S."

The study also found that several Japanese customs were sustained in fast food restaurants. One is that a woman in the group — the wife, mother or girlfriend — will go to the counter to place the order and pay, while the rest of the family is seated. In a society where family dinners are rare, the researchers found this time was used by the father to interact with his children, making a trip to McDonald’s an important family outing.

The report, "Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns," will be published by the journal Ethnology in the fall.

For further information contact: Dr. John Traphagan (512) 471-8315.