[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]
I like Benihana.
It isn’t the meals that does it for me; not the USDA Selection steak and positively not the rooster (although I’ll admit I’m a sucker for shrimp of any type, for Benihana’s unhealthy dipping sauces, for the mushrooms which might be invariably over- and undercooked on the similar time). It isn’t even the exuberant fake friendliness of the service, even when I get somewhat thrill of pleasure at any time when the complete flooring employees gathers ‘spherical to sing glad birthday to a desk twice, as soon as in English and one other in perfunctory if satisfactory Japanese.
Despite the fact that I’ll fortunately eat a plate of meals reduce into scat-sized bits or clap together with the employees and their birthday tune, and can even, if the spirit calls to me—and it has, often—pipe up in Japanese when the time comes, what I like about Benihana is extra intangible than the meals served or the atmosphere or the reasonable-for-Manhattan drink costs and specials.
It isn’t even the outright wackiness—the flying shrimp tails or the onion volcano or the egg juggling or any of the opposite cooking acrobatics.
No, it’s the naked, brutal honesty of the entire expertise. I don’t simply imply the upselling is as clear as the tasteless onion soup served together with your meal. It’s that each restaurant does what Benihana does however extra sneakily and fewer effectively; it’s that Benihana murdered the preciousness of the “chef’s desk” and cooked it up together with shrimp lengthy earlier than the “chef’s desk” ever existed; it’s that Benihana understands most individuals don’t exit simply to eat, simply to drink, only for the present; it’s that Benihana is aware of most individuals simply need a good time, and it solely exists to present it to them rapidly—regardless of how massive your group, regardless of what number of yelling children, regardless of what number of drinks you’ve had or ordered, you’re out and in in much less time than it takes to see a film. That’s the reason I like the person who got here up with the idea that Benihana perfected and thereby spawned a legion of copycat “hibachi” Japanese steakhouses internationally.
Now, I don’t normally sit round and take into consideration Benihana and why it’s good, though I usually sit round and take into consideration why different eating places I am going to are unhealthy. Which is one other approach of claiming I’ve by no means discovered Benihana offensive within the slightest, despite the fact that I can’t actually say I benefit from the meals. However this previous summer season, social media conspired in opposition to my studied complacency about inspecting the Benihana expertise too intently. A reporter tweeted out a photograph posted by Donald Trump Jr. on his Instagram: a snap of some fried rice formed into “I <three U” on a griddle, over which Trump had typed, incomprehensibly, “My tradition shouldn't be your fried rice ‘I like you’ with a beating coronary heart signal!!! [crying laughing emoji] #culturalappropriation.”

Oh, no! Politics! In meals! In eating places! And even worse I spotted it was attainable that each one alongside, over time—whilst I laughed and clapped alongside as numerous Benihana cooks scootched a stack of onions spouting steam throughout what would possibly as nicely have been the identical flattop, a flattop so lengthy it might very nicely span my 35 years, and mentioned, or yelled, or merely noticed as they're clearly required to: “A choo-choo practice”—I had been the unwitting confederate in some type of terrible appropriation of my tradition, my tradition as a half-Japanese individual, sure, however extra importantly, my tradition as a Japanese-American.
So I made a decision to return to Benihana and see for myself.
And, after all, I used to be upset.
Not with the standard of the meals, which was not good (as was anticipated, as was—let’s simply say it—most popular, the way in which I favor Range Prime Stuffing’s MSG-powdered garlic taste over some other stuffing); not with the service, since each server carried out Benihana’s trademark enthusiastic disinterest admirably; not with the present, after all (no, by no means with the present).
I used to be upset to completely perceive simply how un-Japanese the entire Benihana expertise is.
Granted, Benihana does serve sushi, however the principle attraction, the stuff you order so Benihana cooks can sterilize it mercilessly in entrance of you and the stuff the place is thought for—if it’s recognized for its meals in any respect, that's—isn’t Japanese.
I suppose Japanese folks eat rooster; they eat shrimp, steak, and lobster; they eat fried rice. However the identical might be mentioned of any variety of different folks—the Chinese language, say, or Peruvians.
One would possibly argue that the fashion of cooking is Japanese, I assume. Not the clacking of utensils, not the volcano onion, and positively not the flying shrimp, however the bit about cooking meals in entrance of consumers on a griddle. Misono, a restaurant that opened in 1945 within the metropolis of Kobe, Japan, claims to have launched the concept of cooking issues on a cast-iron griddle or metal flattop, which is thought in Japanese as teppanyaki, to Japan. The restaurant was primarily common with People stationed there as a part of the publish–World Conflict II occupation as a result of it offered beef steaks, a meals acquainted to the occupiers’ palates, and—shock!—it continues to be common with American vacationers as we speak, presumably for the exact same motive.
After all, Misono can't declare to have invented the griddle, which is nearly as outdated as fireplace, and the concept cooking steaks for the occupying American forces constitutes the creation of a definite fashion of Japanese delicacies appears absurd on its face. Additionally, to get a bit extra technical about it, teppanyaki shouldn't be sometimes positioned within the class of
yoshoku, or Western-influenced Japanese meals, like tempura, say, or tonkatsu. Yoshuku dates to the Meiji period, when Japan actively sought to westernize its tradition after a whole bunch of years of self-imposed and rigorously enforced isolation, which ultimately led the nation to determine to overcome half the globe in essentially the most brutal approach conceivable.
All of which is to say, the fashion of cooking shouldn't be very Japanese to start with.
And so, after my meal, as I walked to the subway, I used to be left questioning why it's that anybody, wherever, thinks of Benihana or any of the imitation hibachi** eating places as Japanese.
** A hibachi shouldn't be a flattop upon which one cooks badly. It's a type of rustic fireplace or a charcoal grill, which can also be recognized by the identify Ariana Grande mistakenly bought tattooed on her hand: shichirin.
Clearly, it has to do with the truth that Benihana’s founder, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, who died in 2008, was Japanese.
He was a personality, an individual about whom folks say “he was bigger than life,” no matter meaning. And though over the course of this life he did many, many issues apart from run Benihana—he raced boats, he flew a hot-air balloon throughout an ocean, he printed a soft-core porno magazine, he served time for insider buying and selling—Aoki was by no means an envoy of Japanese tradition, as his obituary within the New York Instances claims.
You may see this in his biography, Mr. Benihana: The Rocky Aoki Story by Takahashi Miyuki, which, fittingly, is now solely accessible as a manga. You too can see this in Making It in America: The Life and Instances of Rocky Aoki, Benihana’s Pioneer by Jack McCallum, a little bit of company hagiography commissioned by the corporate (the 1985 copyright is owned by Benihana of Tokyo, Inc.). Aoki famously advised a Instances reporter, “The minute I forgot I used to be Japanese, success started,” and each books reinforce the concept Aoki possessed qualities that have been atypical of Japanese folks—he had character, he valued individuality—and his very un-Japaneseness is what made him profitable in America.*
* I can’t assist however notice the McCallum e-book does this by leaning closely on racial stereotypes. “Conditioned to combat by the wall of Asian reticence, People assembly Rocky for the primary time as a substitute discover a smiling, heat open-door of a person,” McCallum writes, for instance.
Because the books have it, Aoki tried to set Benihana aside from different Japanese eating places in the identical approach he sought to face aside from his compatriots: by the sheer drive of character. And so, the restaurant chain presents up the odd case of a Japanese businessman who gave the American eating public what he thought they needed—steak, rooster, shrimp; no “icky, slimy issues,” as McCallum quotes him—in an setting that was purposely designed to look exaggeratedly Japanese—the unique Benihana’s inside was outfitted to seem like a gassho zukuri, or a farmhouse in-built a conventional Japanese fashion—utilizing a campy cooking efficiency that Aoki created from complete fabric. Benihana was profitable as a result of Aoki designed it to attraction to People, a lot as he molded his personal character, despite the fact that it appeared Japanese.
It doesn’t appear attainable to accuse Aoki of appropriating his personal tradition, though on my most up-to-date go to it occurred to me that the corporate as we speak would possibly nonetheless need to reply for the decor. My reminiscences of Benihana are all stainless-steel and vivid lights and purple and black uniforms, none of which notably shout “Japan!” to me, however once I went again to Benihana’s Manhattan flagship location, I noticed, as if for the primary time—perhaps really for the primary time—that some tables are bracketed by little raised rock gardens into which wan bonsai timber have been imprisoned; there are strains of ornamental ceramic plates alongside some partitions; and there is without doubt one of the ugliest maneki nekos I've ever seen, designed by somebody who apparently believed good luck might be scared into attendance.
These nods to Japanese-ness are all of the more unusual when you think about the company branding on the menu and its studied aversion to the phrase “Japanese,” which solely seems on the drinks menu. Though, upon consideration, which may simply be a case of trustworthy description: the one really Japanese merchandise on the menu are the sakes, the spirits, the tender drinks, and a small choice of beers.
It doesn’t seem to be Benihana wants the aura of being Japanese anymore—being Japanese is solely ancillary to its product—and it looks as if the company understands this, given how subdued the Japanese theme is in its branding. And but it nonetheless holds on to a simulacrum of Japanese-ness, one that's simply odd sufficient to impress a response just like the trolling from Donald Trump Jr. and would possibly open up the restaurant chain to accusations of cultural appropriation, regardless of how specious.
Since Benihana doesn’t appear to me to really be responsible of appropriating Japanese tradition, what I discover extra attention-grabbing is how the chain clings to the faux-Japanese stuff, and what that claims about the way in which Japanese tradition is considered by many American diners.
When Aoki opened the primary Benihana, the Japanese and their tradition have been largely considered as a punchline in the US. The animosity displayed towards Japanese and Japanese-People in the course of the World Conflict II period, greatest exemplified by the position of about 120,000 Japanese-People and Japanese immigrants in focus camps had given strategy to a view of Japan as a rustic that primarily made items of substandard high quality for export.
In McCallum’s e-book, Tad Suga, a Japanese-American buddy of Aoki’s, recollects how “it should be made in Japan” was a punchline for one among famed comic Danny Kaye’s bits. The 1985 film Again to the Future has an analogous gag: When Marty McFly travels again in time to 1955, Doc Brown says of some malfunctioning bit of kit that it should’ve been made in Japan, to which Marty from 1985 responds with a quizzical look. The dramatic irony of the second, after all, is that the 1985 viewers, like Marty, related Japan with technological marvels just like the Sony Walkman.
Aoki’s need to face aside from the American stereotypes of Japanese businessmen is solely comprehensible, in the identical approach that it’s comprehensible that he sought to distinguish his restaurant from different Japanese eating places: the distinction was the promoting level. However over the many years throughout which Benihana grew to become a world chain, the picture of Japan developed additional, reworking from a purveyor of substandard items to the epicenter of each state-of-the-art know-how and ruthless enterprise acumen as firms like Sony and Toyota appeared to realize international dominance. And now, whilst Japan’s rising star has ceded its place to China and South Korea, it nonetheless retains a optimistic, nearly beatific glow within the American creativeness.
The transformation of the favored conception of Japanese tradition on this nation from the World Conflict II period to the current is solely distinctive. Japan was as soon as an enemy so menacing that it warranted placing its emigrants in focus camp; now it exists as a type of benign oddity within the American thoughts. At present, the Japanese are extensively recognized for his or her meals, their cleanliness, their consideration to element, their customer support, and their comics and cartoons, which serve to bolster the picture of Japan as a nice, albeit bizarre, place populated with correspondingly bizarre and nice folks—a caricature that's about two components Marie Kondo, one half Jiro Ono, and one half Haruki Murakami.
This caricature is relentlessly strengthened by the nation's admirers within the Western press. We're advised the Japanese are simply so optimistic or that we People would do nicely to emulate them, regardless of common information reviews concerning the society's deeply ingrained misogyny, exploitative work tradition, and the rampant xenophobia that finds its expression in its suicidally exclusionary immigration insurance policies, which is why it’s held up as an exemplar by ethno-nationalists the world over. And let’s not overlook the jingoism evident within the pilgrimages and tributes despatched by Japanese heads of state to a shrine devoted to the few token warfare criminals prosecuted within the aftermath of World Conflict II, which justifiably enrages Japan's neighbors.
All of which is to say, Japan is a sophisticated nation with a troubled tradition, however for many People, it's merely the supply of merchandise that they're keen to pay a premium to own, not as a result of they're technologically extra superior or qualitatively higher, however as a result of they've a sure aesthetic, whether or not it’s animated cartoons, middle-brow fiction, or scented oil dispensers assured to spark pleasure for years to return.
Nowhere is that this tendency to overvalue Japanese-ness extra evident than in restaurant tradition, which is why it might be foolish for Benihana to ditch any references to its legitimately Japanese origin, even when it doesn’t want them. Japanese stuff sells, and it might be malpractice for any restaurateur to not make the most of the truth that many People are extra keen to spend cash on “small plates” at an “izakaya” than on bar meals at a restaurant and bar. For example this level, allow us to flip to a different international chain of eating places that has distinctly Japanese branding however sells fairly un-Japanese stuff: David Chang’s Momofuku Group.
When the group opened one among its newer eating places, Majordomo, in Los Angeles, the fruit plate on the menu raised some eyebrows. Chang had famously criticized California eating places for equally stripped-down dishes, and the brand new dessert merchandise gave the impression to be a retreat from his earlier place. However what caught my eye as I learn that little information merchandise was the next strains: "The primary evening the restaurant ran the fruit plate, just one offered. However then Johnson determined to freeze the grapes and make the dish look extra Japanese. In its present iteration, it seems to be just like the fruits served on the finish of a kaiseki menu and can also be harking back to the ceremonial fruits on show at specialty distributors. It’s promoting higher now."
One might argue that is an instance of Chang—a Korean-American—and his colleagues of appropriating Japanese tradition, however for my part that may be improper. Chang, like Aoki, is barely giving the American eating public what it needs. And what most People need is the weather of Japanese tradition that they like—the nice-looking issues; the tender, palatable meals; the bizarre stuff, however nothing icky or slimy. What most People need isn’t “Japanese”: what they need is Japanese-y.

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