A Late-night Chinese Diner in Nishiogi
Just a short walk from the South exit of Nishiogi Station, the entrance to “Chinese Restaurant 21” is non-descript and easy to ignore as just another small urban Chinese diner. The restaurant has a maximum twenty-person capacity and the layout blurs the space occupied by the customers and the owner-chef. The seats are tightly squeezed together. Kitchenware, plants and even a large clunky tree branch crowd onto the customer tables. There is more the feeling of a home kitchen than a public restaurant. The owner of the place, Mr. Ocho says, ““I like owning my own small shop, in which I can do whatever I like.” As long as I am doing my best, I am satisfied. A small place is fine.”
Ocho is one of the Chinese student immigrants who came to Japan after the normalization of relations between the two countries in the 1970s. He arrived in Japan in 1985, fairly early in this wave of student migration. “I came as a student,” he said. “I still remember a number. They said that there were only 2,700 Chinese students in Japan at the time, which is a very small number.”
He didn’t begin in the restaurant business. After graduating from university, he joined a stock brokerage firm. “When I was looking for a job around the early 90s, it was extremely easy because there were not enough people working in the market and there were too many jobs. Then in 1997, the Asian financial crisis happened, my firm was bankrupted, and my fate completely changed. Because of that, I entered the restaurant business and have been doing it for twenty years now.” He continued to explain, “I didn't want to do this at the beginning, but I really needed a job back then. I was interviewing with all sorts of companies. Then I ended up interviewing with this company which was running Chinese restaurants. They told me that since my Chinese is really good, as long as I can make all the Chinese chefs come to work properly and make sure that everyone gets along, then it would be good enough. They didn’t care if I could cook or not. The pay wasn’t bad at all, pretty much the same as when I was working in the stock brokerage firm, so I took the job.”
Ocho is now operating his own independent restaurant. He also offers freshly ground coffee: “I sell coffee as well. Japanese love coffee.” It is not an item one would normally associate with a Chinese restaurant. Besides coffee, you can find the standard tasty, comfort food found on the menus of most Chinese restaurants in Japan: mapo tofu, fried rice, dumplings, and noodles.
Ocho’s little restaurant operates as a late-night eatery, from noon until five in the morning, and attracts some of the marginalized members of Japan’s high-pressured society and some odd behaviors seen only in after-hours Tokyo. “If I wasn’t involved in this business I would not have understood,” he said. “But since I started my own place, I have seen too much. Sometimes people can hardly control themselves. They just drink way too much. It is rarer to see people get so drunk at big restaurants, but you see it more often at these smaller places because they find more freedom here. I have seen people who broke others’ heads with glass bottles. I have seen people who pushed others’ heads against the wall and left a hole in my wall. I have seen people who ate glass. I have seen people who stuck chopsticks into their nose and couldn't stop the bleeding. And I have seen people who just cried and cried in the middle of the night, women and men.” With a big pause, he said, “I have seen too many crazy things, people get arrested and fired from work, their lives are ruined, it just makes me feel really sad.”
When asked why he thinks all these things are happening, he replied: “Because Japan is a result-oriented society, everyone is stressed and tired. No one is living an easy life. I really like Japan, but living here is really tiring. People work too much.” He looked at the coffee cup on the table, and said with a half joking tone. “That is why people should just drink coffee to release the stress; because you won’t get drunk.”
That being said, Ocho is himself still working nearly eighteen hours a day. He said he has to do it “for a living.” Small restaurants like Chinese Restaurant 21 are places for nourishment and companionship, for sure. But they also reflect the stress and alienation of precarious urban lives in neoliberal Tokyo. Even the work conditions of the owners reflect the stresses of the culinary precariat, something we could say of many of the people we interview in this project. Still, in the late-night Chinese diner, a cup of hot coffee and a plate of hot noodles offer a moment of respite (Tong Liu, James Farrer, July 3, 2017).