5 Questions for a Food Anthropologist of Japan

The Center for Asia Pacific Studies welcomes Dr. Christopher Laurent as its new postdoctoral fellow. We invite you to get to know him and his research. 

Dr. Laurent is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in regional cuisine in rural Japan. He received his PhD from the University of Montreal and his MA from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He will be in residence at the center for the 2019-2020 academic year.

How did you get interested in studying Japanese cuisine?
Ever since I was a child, I have had a fascination with Japan. I also had practical experience with food after having worked in the restaurant industry for a while. So when I had to decide on my research topic, I thought why not combine the two things that interest me the most—Japan and food. Moreover, my experience as a sushi chef added more charm to this research topic. 

Can you tell me about a memorable experience you had while living and studying in Japan?

I participated in a food revival group with Japanese women with ages ranging from  65-90 years old. I was the only young man there, and a foreigner at that. It was really interesting because they had various weekly activities—one of them was running a restaurant for a day. I was surprised when they would make me taste their cooking while asking,“Does this taste right?” Even though I had no idea what the “right taste” was. To this day, I am not sure if this had to do with gender status in Japan–cooking to suit a man’s taste–or if it was simply Japanese hospitality.

What will you be pursuing during your time at the center? 

I will be focusing on two things. The first is the Asia Bridge Junior Fellowship, which is a new program that seeks to get undergraduates involved in the Center for Asia Pacific Studies and hone their research skills. I aim to provide guidance so that students understand what is and isn’t research, and to enhance their skills in writing papers, constructing bibliographies as well as how to present papers at conferences. Though it might seem a little ambitious I also want to help students become successful after the program ends—like working or studying in Asia.

Apart from the fellowship, I will be spending time on my own research project which examines the treatment of ethnic Korean living in contemporary Japan and the appropriation of their cuisine. Japan is known to be a homogeneous country and often doesn’t acknowledge the contribution of foreigners to the national culture. In this manner, culinary contributions of minorities in Japan have been erased. For example, few recognize that ramen was first developed by  the Chinese community in Japan. Ethnic minorities in Japan are still struggling to find jobs and depend on the restaurant industry to support their living. What I want to do is redefine appropriation in terms of “power differentials”, which includes factors like job opportunities, housing, the legal system, racism, etc. 

How would you explain your research in a sentence? 

Food is an easily accessible doorway to broader social issues like identity, colonialism, gender and racial discrimination.

Will you be sharing your research with the USF community while you are here?

Yes, I will be giving a talk on the new concept of the “5th flavor” in the food industry on November 20, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. at Fromm Hall, Xavier Room. The talk, titled “Finding Umami: The Rise of Japan’s Fifth Taste,” explores the emergence of this “5th flavor.” The talk will tie in together scientific discovery, the MSG industry and new trends in popular restaurants. I will expand into whether people can really taste this 5th flavor.