In South Korea, Japanese Restaurants Break Law with Japanese Signs

In South Korea, Japanese Restaurants Break Law with Japanese Signs

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Japanese signs in South Korea
Pictures: gandhi; ささざわ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japanese food is trending in South Korea - and many restaurant owners are technically breaking the law to make the experience authentic.

People in South Korea love Japanese food so much that they’re reliving the dining experience in Japan on the streets of Seoul. That recreation goes so far as to have Japanese-only signs and menus, which is technically illegal.

What’s on the menu? (We don’t know – it’s in Japanese)

Menu in handwritten Japanese
Picture: ペイレスイメージズ1(モデル) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Japanese cuisine is booming in Seoul, South Korea. And restaurant owners are technically violating the law to make the dining experience as authentic as possible.

“When the restaurant opened, there were no signs in Hangul, so I got reported to the police,” says the owner of the Osaka-themed ATASHI in Seoul.

Signs with no Hangul writing are illegal according to South Korean law. Stores can use a foreign language but must include Hangul on the sign as well. However, as there’s no penalty for violating it, shops and restaurants with only Japanese signage are popping up.

Inspired by the culinary memories the owner acquired on his trip to Kansai’s street-food capital, ATASHI––a Japanese word meaning ‘myself’––has exterior and interior signs in Japanese. The door is clad with stickers with Japanese telling customers to hiku (引く), or pull.

While instructing to pull or push a door is less critical, even the more critical messages are written in Japanese––a language that less than 1% of Koreans were learning in 2021.

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On the inside, there are signs specifying the store won’t serve booze to customers who are driving. It’s fully in Japanese, with no accompanying Korean translation. The menu, however, is more Korean-friendly and juxtaposes items in both Japanese and Hangul.  

Don’t make us do math

Monjayaki
Monjayaki. Trust us, it tastes better than it looks. (Picture: ささざわ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

When Nippon TV reporters visited, they noticed the Japanese spelling to be incorrect for many items. Saku-saku-chikiso-karage (サクサクチキソ唐揚げ), for example. A far cry from authenticity.

Another Japanese restaurant specializing in monja (もんじゃ) – a pan-fried batter that may not look far from puke but tastes great nonetheless. There, efforts to mentally transport customers to Japan went too far.

While using Hangul for menu items, this monja restaurant listed their offers in the Japanese yen currency. Diners were expected to add one zero to the end and convert prices to South Korean won on their own.

After receiving complaints, the menu changed to display all prices in won.

Two-way travel

The increase in South Korean owners of Japanese restaurants is unsurprising when looking at the significant portion of South Korean travelers to Japan in recent years. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, South Koreans comprised the largest group of inbound tourists in April 2023, numbering 467,000 visitors. That’s a 60.6% increase from the previous year.

Conversely, 88,8000 Japanese visited South Korea that same month, representing the largest group of tourists, according to the Korean Tourism Organization.

Japanese Tempura
Picture: Sunrising / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Japanese food is trending in other parts of the world, and some dishes are getting more attention than others. A decade ago, Japanese food was the most loved food among foreigners, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

Asia is the region with the most Japanese restaurants, totaling approximately 45,000 establishments. The standout is Thailand, where people easily embrace the Japanese palette. Over 5,000 Japanese chain restaurants like Otoya (大戸屋) and Yayoiken (やよい軒) made their home there as of 2022. That marks a 20% increase from the previous year.

People in Thailand are apparently digging tempura for its similarity to local favorites. Many chains have also localized Japanese dishes. Thai-sukiyaki, for example, adds more spice to the one-pot mix of vegetables and meats.

Indonesia is also a hub for Japanese food. The country overcame initial doubts as to whether the predominantly Muslim population, most of whom eat Halal diets, would take a liking. However, combining sambal (chili sauce) with Japanese food like sushi has become a popular choice.

The West also brings its own twist to Japanese food, with rolls (maki-zushi) being the most popular form of sushi in the United States over the more traditional nigiri.

Sources

韓国で“日本風”飲食店が増加中 若い世代中心に好評 「日本語だけ」看板に問題も. 日テレNEWS

学歴社会の根強い韓国での日本語教育や就職事情とは?. ASIATOJAPAN

海外で人気の「日本食ブームのトレンドと現地に住む外国人の反応」まとめ. 出島

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