In a world of strife, controversy, conflict and contention, the natural impulse would to assume that an article beginning in this vein is not about ramen. It is precisely about ramen, however. Spa! (Oct 19-26) introduces us to “the dark side” of this tasty, highly popular and, one would have thought, entirely innocent dish.
“Innocent” is probably what singer Mayuka Umezawa had in mind when four years ago, age 20, she quit her role as part-time member of the pop group AKB48 and opened a ramen restaurant. She’d liked ramen as a child, studied the cuisine, and her restaurant in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, called Yagumo, did well – so well in fact that she opened another outlet in Tokyo, and then a third.
Then, suddenly and for no obvious reason, she ran afoul of the ramen establishment.
What is the “ramen establishment”? The aspect of it which Spa! examines is composed of two elements – ramen critics and ramen otaku, the latter abbreviated to raota in Japanese.
There are some 24,00 ramen restaurants nationwide. How many ramen critics there are is not known, but their influence, individually and collectively, is enormous. A word from them, percolating through social media, can make an establishment or break it. Was it because Umezawa is a woman in what’s sometimes held to be a man’s world? Or because she was lacking in the deference a critic might expect from an entrepreneur who is, in a sense, at his or her mercy? Whatever it was, one nasty online comment sparked another, which incited a third, and then it became a wave.
Umezawa was accused of being rude, of serving fare not prepared on the premises, of being a “decorative manager” so the shop could use her name, and so on. It escalated to the point where she was charged online with links to “antisocial elements.”
She fought back, engaged a lawyer. The critic who started the thing has reportedly been identified. The court case proceeds.
That’s the way it is, a Chiba ramen chef Spa! speaks to confirms. “I don’t mind being criticized, even harshly,” he says. “But if you dare to ever so slightly disagree with what a critic says, the critic will take it very badly” – and possibly do his or her worst.
“Unlike Japanese or French cuisine,” explains food journalist Daisuke Miwa, “there are no fixed standards for ramen.” A ramen critic’s education is entirely in the eating – which typically amounts to hundreds of bowls of ramen a year, he says. The only real qualification boils down to a taste for the dish – but taste is subjective, and who’s to say that personal feelings towards the chef or restaurant don’t enter into it?
A woman in her 30s who owns a ramen place in Tokyo has kinder thoughts of critics. “To the best of my knowledge,” she says, “ramen critics have high moral standards. I haven’t found them overbearing, and most of them know what they’re talking about. If ramen is popular and respected (worldwide), it’s partly thanks to them.”
Critics at least are expected to show some regard for professional ethics, even if some honor them more in the breach than in the observance. But the raota, says Spa!, are a different story. A Kyoto restaurant owner in his 50s recalls this episode: “There was a group of raota in the shop, haranguing the customers,” parading their knowledge of ramen, “and I asked them to stop.” They apparently did, but some time later the police came – there’d been a complaint that customers lining up in front of the store were blocking traffic.
The affair passed off harmlessly, but Spa!’s overall point is clear: There are powers in the ramen world that must be appeased, placated, tolerated and humored. Ramen has lost its innocence© Japan Today