My father's favorite Tampopo scene

As I've previously mentioned, my father passed away about 3 weeks ago in New York. I did not have the kind of close relationship with my father that I have with my mother (they divorced more than 20 years ago), but we did share a few things, including an interest in food and movies. My father barely ever cooked anything in his whole life, but he loved eating out. He used to keep folders filled with the business cards of restaurants he visited around the world, until recent illnesses made him lose interest.

One of his favorite movies was the great Juzo Itami directed classic Tampopo. It's my all time favorite food-themed movie too. I don't remember exactly, but he may even have been the one who told me about Tampopo originally. Tampopo is filled with short individual vignettes that are not related to the main storyline, each with a different take on the subject of food. My father's favorite by far was this scene in the private dining room of a fancy French restaurant.

The diners consist of three levels of employees of what is likely a large corporation. The two older gentlemen, who are addressed as "senmu" and "joumu" are the equivalent of Senior Vice Presidents or CFOs or such in an American company. The three guys in their 40s or so are mid-level managment - probably bucho (divisional managers) or the like. Then there's the young peon, probaby a "hirashain" (someone with no rank at all) who has to carry the briefcases of all the others.

They are seated in order of seniority - the top level execs farthest away from the door - and the discreet waiter presents them with the menus in that order too. But it's obvious that the diners are totally flummoxed by the French menu. The older high-up execs especially have no clue. Then one of the mid-level guys comes to the rescue and orders sole meunière, a consommé, and a beer, Heineken. Sole meunière may sound like a pretty fancy French dish to order, but in fact it's something every Japanese schoolkid would have known about. It is, or at least used to be, the first 'western style cooking' recipe that one learned to make in home economics class. Consommé is also something widely known - people just understand it as meaning 'western style soup that's clear'. And the mid-level executive guy probably thought Heineken, an imported beer, was quite fancy. After he places his order, everyone else quickly follows his lead and orders the same thing.

That is, until the waiter comes around to the lowest one on the corporate ladder. The young man has obviously travelled to Paris, and gone to Taillevent, one of the most prestigious restaurants in France. He knows about fancy food like quenelles boudin and escargot in a vol au vent. He knows about French sauces. He even has the audacity to want a Corton Charlemagne and ask for the sommelier. In 1980s Japan, when the movie was made, this would have been a serious show-off moment. (It's interesting also that he doesn't seem to care, or even realize, how he's embarassing his bosses. This may relate to the view of the younger generation in the '80s that called them shinjinrui, literally "a new species of human" and noted their callousness and lack of respect for their elders.)

We don't know what happens after the waiter leaves the room. The last thing we see is the older executives, red faced and in shock, looking down at their laps. To me, the scene is just funny and I just think "uh oh that young guy is in trouble now!" But to my father the scene had far greater resonance. Age-wise, he would have been at the mid-level management level in the '80s, anxiously cow-towing to the senior executives, and he understood their confusion at the fancy menu all too well.

People of his generation - men who are now in their 60 to 80s (my father was 75 when he passed away) were the ones who rebuilt Japan after the war. They were the ones who built Japan's "Economic Miracle" of the 1970s and '80s, who made the small island nation an economic superpower, after the devasting defeat of World War II. The men of his generation were so busy working all the time that they barely had time to breathe. They never took vacations, they never got to travel except for business, or dine out except as part of 'settai', entertaining clients - not a situation where one could relax and enjoy the food. But the young guy in his 20s had been able to travel and see the world, to experience fine dining and learn about wine. He represented the next generation, the ones reaping the rewards of Japan's success - the success built up by my father's generation.

Even though my family did live overseas for many years, I don't remember my father being around much while we were growing up. Even when we lived in places like England and the U.S., my father was still working for a Japanese corporation, and kept up Japanese working hours. He left early in the morning, came back late at night exhausted, went to work on Saturdays, and slept through most of Sunday. When he was awake, he was often irritable and angry. During the 4 1/2 years we lived in England, I can only remember two vacations where he was with us - all the other times my mother took us my sister and I away without him. He missed out on the fun coach trip we took to the Continent, where we experienced a French café and kind German waiters and a full course Italian dinner for the first time.

My father interpreted the reaction of the executives in the Tampopo scene as embarassment and shame at their ignorance and lack of sophistication. He'd had his moments of embarassment and ignorance too. I think that's why he grew so obsessive about collecting restaurant business cards and taking notes on what he ate. It was his way of educating himself.

After all those years of relentless, grinding hours and days and years of just working, where did my father's generation end up? Where did Japan end up? The answers are too complicated for me to analyze here.

One thing is for sure: I'm of that next generation and beyond, the ones who reaped the rewards. Next time I am lucky enough to hold a glass of Corton Charlemagne in my hands, I think I'll raise a silent toast to my father's memory.

(Footnote: I wrote a bit about my father's experiences as a Japanese salesman in Europe and the U.S. in the 1960s and '70s and how it related to a Mad Men episode last year.)

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Very nice post.
My father (from Hokkaido) was of the same generation as yours and worked for large Japanese motorcycle company and the your description of the way it was is also the way it was in my family. Long hours, irritability, work on Saturday, sleep on Sunday... Yep. Too true.
Then we moved to France and he quit his company to work a french subsidiary owned by his company. : p
I'm not sure if it was the food or the Gaulish joie de vivre that did, but he mellowed out a bit. Instead of working 18h days, he just worked 14h days ; j.

Thanks for sharing. I viewed the other executives following suit, mainly to do as the boss does--with the most junior person ignoring such 'protocol', as it were.

I remember a Japanese colleague who always seemed to order steak and potatoes whenever he was in the US. He said he loved steak. However, we were in an area once, that was not known for steak, but seafood. I suggested the grilled salmon, as a kind of 'American style yakizakana'. He instantly understood and ordered that instead. Now I realize he ordered steak because that was probably all that he knew how to order. But then, his junior company members who dined with us just ordered whatever he did, whether it be steak or salmon, and whether or not they knew the difference between courtboullion and boulliabaise.

But thanks to your father's generation for rebuilding Japan. I might also thank my own father's generation (the niseis in the US) for helping to rebuild ties between the US and Japan. They really are, as the media has put it, the Great Generation.

Thank you for this. My husband and I watched Tampopo on the weekend and I remember his reaction to this scene - he laughed at the ignorance of the older generation. He's always had conflict with his Japanese parents because he chose to travel and see the world rather than becoming a salaryman. I will show him your post, so hopefully he can gain compassion for the older men - and for his parents and people of his parents' generation. The younger generations of many cultures often forget that the freedoms they enjoy come from the back-breaking work that their parents generations did....

How timely! Just yesterday I watched Tampopo for probably the 6th or 7th time. You know, I never considered the more somber dimensions of that scene. Like you, I just thought it was funny that the young man embarrassed his superiors; it said to me that he cared about food, and the rest of those businessmen were just bores. But you're right, it was FOREIGN food, which indicates opportunity that maybe the older men never had (though you'd think they would at that level of executiveness)? My attitude was more along the lines of "the meal at Taillevent must have cost that young man a much bigger proportion of his paycheck than any of his superiors' paychecks, had they gone there", yet he found it worthwhile; they might have money, but he's appreciating the fruits of his labor, which is worth more. Here was somebody who appreciated food; you've GOT to respect that. He outclassed them all. But I was unaware of the whole cultural context, that it was their shoulders he was standing on.

Oh my gravy. Those upper-level guys have been had so hard... this kid is bound for bigger things, I think. He's not just another salaryman, that much is clear. Amazing how so simple a scene can convey so much in a few minutes.
I now know what we're watching for movie night tomorrow! :D

Thank you. I hope you and your family are doing well after his passing; I'll certainly think of him when we watch this.

I like that movie too.
I work for a Japanese multinational and recognize the description of your father's work ethic in my Japanese colleagues. Even those of a younger generation still put in many more hours than their European counterparts. I know of at least one guy who slept in his car in the underground parking lot during a particularly important project.
I do admire how driven and passionate they are, I really respect that. But it's not something I could do - there are too many other things I would have to sacrifice.

One difference between "then" and "now" (or at least 2000, when I left Japan) is that in the boom years even a middle-level Japanese sarariman had a big, padded expense account, so trips to spendy French restaurants wouldn't be that unusual. When the boom started to go bust in the 90s, however, so did the lavish outings at company expense. I caught the tail-end of the boom years, at least, and fortunately, as a gaijin, I could pretty much order what I wanted with impunity :-)

While I was in Japan, I met actress Yoriko Douguchi, who had a small part as a pearl diver in "Tampopo" (her debut, I think). Unfortunately, I didn't see that movie until I came back to the U.S., or I could've really scored some points :-(

I am spanish, but I have a japanese friend and I love your country and a lot of aspects of japanese culture.

I like very much the scene, it depicts very well a lot of things about japanese culture.

Thanks very much for sharing such a memory between you and your father. I am sorry for your loss.

I love reading your stories !

Thanks for this wonderfully considered and delightfully written piece. You have a great voice and tell a funny (though certainly sad in a way) story with such warmth. I hope this is all going into a book soon.

thank you for sharing. your post made me think of my relationship with my father and his unusual ways. i should find that movie, too. i love your writing!

I took a 'Japanese psychology' course in high school as an elective, and the teacher used this exact scene as part of his lesson. However, as I found out later on, he had a habit of bending the meanings of his supplemental materials to fit the themes of his lessons. In this case, he told us the lowly guy was someone looking to get hired by that company, and the reason they all ordered the same was because in Japan they were big on unity and "the group before the individual," even in dining situations. He said their embarrassment was actually anger that he had the nerve to order something else! lol
Once I found out the origin and real story of the scene sometime after graduating, I could only shake my head and laugh.

Yeah, I think 'anger' would have been played very differently by the actors. And in a typical restaurant setting where they understood what was on the menu they would have most definitely ordered something else. The middle-management guy who orders first was in a way trying to make it easier for the senior management guys (who he could see were totally lost).

Plus, no company, even in Japan, would make a potential employee carry the briefcases to a fancy restaurant!


What a thoughtful & touching memory about your father; though I don't know either of you, I would venture to say that he would appreciate this tribute. I love reading about your experiences, so I hope you continue to share, even though you may not always feel so healthy/well.

Ogenkidene & ganbattene!

After seeing this movie mentioned so many times in your posts, I finally found the time to look it up and watch it. And, boy, was it worth it! I enjoyed every fascinating, unexpected bit of it, and I loved how it portrayed so many aspects of food and sharing meals... I really liked the exec. scene, but your comment really gave me a whole different insight into it. Being from Serbia, the scene just reminded me of how typical it was for most people to suck up to their bosses (who all to often are chosen through party lines, and don't posses real knowledge or skill for their post), and the young man from the scene was really my hero, who had not only the knowledge, but also the guts to use it... Which made your explanation all the more interesting to me! It reminded me how important cultural context was :)
So, thanks again for recommending this amazing film, and for all the great Japan-related posts! :)

I'm so glad I inspired you to see the movie! ^_^

I watched Tampopo , at the recommendation of my Japanese friend and enjoyed it very much. Your comments are certainly very illuminating , as food culture is indeed a reflection of sophistication , but carried to far , it becomes funny.

Like most fathers , I am sure your father , indeed put his family first through his sacrifices. Its indeed a wonderful story , and I hope to see more.

I just wanted to express my gratitude to you, for sharing this story.

Tampopo has been a favourite since seeing it at Japanese film festival sponsored by the Japanese consulate in Canada in the eighties. When I lived in Japan I caught on that my lunch mates all ordered the same thing I did. So different from N America where we want to try different dishes & share.
I always love the slurp spaghetti scene, the squished food in the konbi store, but faves have to be the search for the perfect ramen.
Thanks for sharing, good memories are aaakened by there connection to food,and to movies.
Ps also loved A Taxing Woman.

When I first read this post all those years ago, I had alread found Tampopo (through that post on omurice) and watched it. It is truly marvelous, and I have over the years returned to the movie, to enjoy it again.

And just as I have kept returning to the movie, I keep returning, ever so often to this post, to read through what this scene meant for your father. Thank you for writing this. It reaffirms to me, how food is central to culture and to meaning in life.