Not just ‘weird’ Japan

Conformity is encouraged in most aspects of Japanese society, and, as one of the main principles of “wa” (a model for creating group harmony that Japanese society is built on), it has been for centuries. Examples can be seen almost everywhere, from family structures, dress and schooling to the most minor aspects of life – even a bald man will wear a swimming cap at a pool, if one is required. Japan’s obsession with conformity often means that those who do not find success via conventional paths (top grades at school; a high-ranking university; a company job) will often be seen as failures, despite any later success; children from unconventional or broken families, or from other cultures, will likely be bullied; people with disabilities are encouraged to stay at home; and women are expected to be feminine and to slot, easily, into stereotypes. Difference is rarely celebrated. In this regard, Midnight Diner: Tokyo stories (a Japanese series from 2009 and British Netflix’s most recent Japanese acquisition), is pleasingly anomalous. One character is an androgynous female taxi driver, another a transvestite, another, a lawyer from a broken family who failed his bar exam many times. These characters would be considered outcasts in normal Japanese society; in other television shows, they might exist simply to be ridiculed. While there are certainly comedic moments across the series (of frankly uneven quality), these characters are treated with sincerity and sensitivity.

The action takes place primarily inside a traditional Japanese diner. Each episode begins with the same monologue from the chef-patron (called “Master” by his customers), over shots of Tokyo at night. “When people finish their day and hurry home, my day starts”, he says solemnly; his diner is open between midnight and 7am – a sanctuary for those who have no family waiting at home and for nightshift workers in need of a meal – and he serves whatever customers request (“as long as I have the ingredients”). Each episode features, alongside the diner’s regulars (who by the tenth episode feel comfortingly familiar), a new character, their favourite dish (prepared by a real chef on set, and eaten by the actors) and a problem that the wise Master, like an oracle, solves. In one episode, a clumsy, bumbling “promising physicist” falls in love with a Korean co-diner who learns from Master how to make omu-rice (tomato rice wrapped in a thin omelette), the physicist’s favourite dish and, in another, a retiring lawyer eats ton-katsu (ham cutlets) when reunited with his estranged half-brother in a symbolic act of remembrance – both a token from their shared childhood trauma and an appeal for forgiveness. The customers work together to discuss fellow-diners’ problems and, like a chorus from a Greek play, three women sit together, offering their perspectives, often in unison. The counter, around which they all sit, becomes like a family dining table, where each character is unconditionally accepted.

In Japan, the viewership will most likely fall into two groups – those who watch Midnight Diner to vicariously experience the lives and hardships of outcasts with whom they will rarely, if ever, have contact in real life, and those who see themselves reflected in the non-conforming characters, and take comfort in their self-affirmation (in episode one, a character comes out publicly as trans and says “I love my past self and my current self; no matter what anyone says about me, I am who I am”). It is more difficult to predict, however, how Midnight Diner will be received in the UK where it has received little coverage as of yet. Western media has a propensity to focus on (and grossly exaggerate) “weird” Japan: Harajuku Lolita-style fashion; cuddle cafes and other unusual fetish bars; hostess cafes; video game and rock-paper-scissors championships; and, most notoriously, “used panty” vending machines (which, in reality, contain new panties and exist only in extremely small numbers). Recently, the rise in the popularity of virtual relationships (in which some young Japanese are preferring boyfriend/girlfriend apps and games to committing to real-life relationships) has been a particular focus of Western media. Japan and Japanese people are constantly depicted as curiosities. It is of little surprise therefore that many Westerners have an inverted notion of Japan, imagining it, wrongly, to be an accepting and open nation of non-conformists. Midnight Diner, when exported for Western consumption, risks losing one of its core strengths – its sensitive representation of social minorities. Indeed, these characters with their unusual lives – the business owner’s demure wife with a history in the adult film industry, the transgender ex-TV star in bright and multi-coloured outfits, a cosplaying radio presenter – may worsen and intensify the West’s preoccupation with “weird” Japan. And yet, the show manifests universal themes, which survive a Western, distorting lens. Midnight Diner is, at its heart, comforting, romantic and heart-warming; and food, with its myriad cultural and personal associations is central to both the themes and narrative of the show. At the end of each episode, a character breaks the fourth wall and gives a short cooking demonstration. In these moments, we are, without judgement, invited in.

Claire Kohda Hazelton is a freelance writer with a particular interest in Japanese and Korean literature