Friday, 9 December 2011

Kimchi and Class Struggle

The best kimchi in Tokyo is to be found very near the Republic of Korea’s embassy. I found this out the difficult way, one particularly humid August afternoon in 2009. Gathered with a group of trade unionists in Hiroo Park, I’d joined a march in solidarity with workers at Ssanyong, who in that year were part of an heroic sit-in struggle, and were facing down severe police and company violence and repression.

Our group was tiny, but it is times like those when solidarity feels like it matters the most. Somewhere along the straggly march I noticed Azabu and was drawn in by the smells and displays. Timing counts in Tokyo shopping; who knows if you’ll be in that particular alley ever again, or, indeed, if the shop you’re visiting has been around since the Edo period or is doomed to an undeserved 5-minute life? I popped in for a few moments and, coming out with two bags of kimchi, rejoined the march.

My situation became more complicated from there. There was the matter of the heat, something no amount of facecloth dabbing or fan-waving could properly manage. The rally itself soon presented peculiarities of its own. We’d arrived a good few blocks away from the Embassy, and well out of sight of its gates, when the police stopped us and penned us in. Long, and detailed, negotiations began and, after much waiting and more sweating, we were allowed, in groups of five, to trek up the hill to the Embassy and, once there, deliver speeches to the lines of police waiting for us. It all seemed, even for Japan’s repressive standards, over the top, and I commented to a friend next to me. Grinning with a baby-boomer’s mixture of pride and embarrassment he explained that, on the first demonstration outside this particular Embassy he’d attended in October 1969, student activists had stormed the building in solidarity with the Koreans struggling under the Park dictatorship, and, in the process, ransacked its central offices. Since then the police had treated all Embassy-based demonstrations with the same aggressive zeal.

So, to no one in particular, and to my surprise, I learnt that day about a particular tradition in the Japanese movement: appeal. Without warning I was asked to “make an appeal”; too tired and confused to try out any Japanese, I made an incoherent hash of a speech in English which was then interpreted, for no one in particular, by a comrade beside me. “A participant from Australia powerfully appealed” (オーストラリアの参加者は「あなたたちの蛮行はインターネットですべて筒抜けだ)」, the official report rather kindly had it; the truth was rather messier and less eloquent. At my feet the bags of kimchi were now giving off a pungent, and distracting, smell.

The cultural alienations have stuck with me since that day and, for me, there is always an olfactory association of kimchi and class struggle.


The association’s not mine alone, though; in recent years the “Korean Wave” in Japan, and shifts in domestic labour and social organisation in the ROK, have seen important shifts in kimchi’s status as a semiotic object and political marker. Its place in the social formation indicates other, important, changes in North Asian politics.

Japan imports over 20 000 tons of kimchi from Korea each year, and, from the early 1990s on, most supermarkets in Japan have been stocking kimchi as a standard grocery item. At the same time South Korean consumption has fallen, and is falling still - Yonhap News in 2005 reported per capita consumption of 32.4 kilograms in 2004, compared to 35.1 kgs in 1991 – and kimchi is now rarely produced at home.

Kimchi’s status in Japanese culture follows, with the Hallyu, the Korean Wave, the changing relationship between Korea and Japan at both official and popular levels. For decades kimchi’s smell in a house or on a person was taken a sign of the ‘dirtiness’ of being Korean, one of those racist markers that manages to squeeze in a class-based point at the same time as it stereotypes an ethnic Other. Kimchi was the food of immigrant manual workers, the Korean men of day-hire areas, the odd habit of an alien and subjugated people. Now, of course, it is the food of the Wave, a product to be incorporated in various ways (all that kimchi ramen and those kimchi chips) when it isn’t adding a touch of Hallyu glamour to an otherwise ordinary shopping trolley. There’s much that’s positive about this – the Korean Wave has, whatever its seeming superficiality, led to real advances in anti-racist understanding but - as much as these moves ‘from below,’ shifts in power and confidence from above play out in domestic consumption.

The situation in Korea is more complex still. Kimchi was for so long a staple of Korean dining, its status, as Kyung-Koo Han argues, “was peripheral, not central to a meal…This gave kimchi a somewhat ambivalent place in the meal structure of Korea; as a basic item, something always served, it was not counted as one of the proper side dishes in traditional Korean table d’hote.” Now, though, with the consumption of kimchi in the South,

A deep sense of national anxiety about globalisation undergrids kimchi’s prominence as a national symbol in a country traumatized by war, division, and rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

Han’s essay on “The ‘Kimchi Wars’ in Globalising East Asia” traces this ‘deep anxiety’ across domestic and international politics. The wars of his title are trade wars between Korea, China, and Japan: as kimchi’s appeal spreads, so to does its production, and many Korean nationalists (to say nothing of kimchi makers) fret that Japanese kimuchi (キムチ) and Chinese producers undermine the integrity and essence of the dish. Behind that concern lies regional competition, Korea’s rise as a geo-political player, imperialism, and capitalist competition. Kimchi’s appearance, in modified form, in Vietnamese cuisine reminds us of an earlier tragedy too. It was ROK soldiers fighting in the American War who had it brought to Vietnamese attention.

In the domestic sphere, kimchi enters into the realm of the “jargon of authenticity.” For centuries its production was one of the many pieces of drudgery women carried out in the home and, with manufactured kimchi production developing through the 1970s, working women abandoned the back pain and stained bathtubs of an earlier era. Now, though, it is the wealthy who make their own and, in a strangely reified piece of labour, use the maintenance of tradition to assert their own authenticity and particular cultural connections.

If mass production saved women many hours’ labour it led to important cultural losses too, though, and that story is another example of kimchi and politics. Korea’s (in)famous regionalism matters, and “the industrialisation and commercialisation of kimchi production” in the south fed into other discourses around the ROK as an ‘imagined community.’

Kyung-Koo Han:

Although the customers for commercially produced kimchi were from all over South Korea, the kimchi factories were located in Seoul and the surrounding Kyonggi area and produced kimchi that imitated Seoul tastes, which were considered the least objectionable and most common. One reason why the flavour of Seoul and Kyonggi-area kimchi has become the commercial standard is not that it was the most popular but that it met the least resistance when served in blind tastings to customers from different regions. Kyongsang people may not love Seoul kimchi, but they can put up with it, something they may find more difficult to do with Cholla kimchi. Cholla people may similarly favour Seoul kimchi over Kyongsang kimchi. Industrialisation thus brought about the birth of ‘Korean’ kimchi.

Han’s research draws out kimchi’s connections as part “of a moral panic over Korean family life, Koreans’ health, the Korean economy, and Korean identity itself.”


Here in New Zealand, I’m forced into a compromise position. None of the New Zealand-made kimchi I have tried is at all satisfactory; none of the imported varieties are at all affordable. So at our house we take turn about, one week buying a pack of New Zealand kimchi, the other week treating ourselves to a kilogram Chongga’s Chinese cabbage or radish kimchi.

It’s a trivial, and domestic, detail, but one, I suspect, not all that uncommon in our city now.

We’ve just seen a new parliament elected, including the reactionaries and anti-immigrant forces in New Zealand First. Already calls for assimilation are being repeated. And to what is the immigrant to assimilate into? It doesn’t suit the forces of racism, yet, for the answers to that question to be made obvious. They will in time and, perhaps, passing the Korean supermarket Haere Mai on my way down Dixon Street someday soon, I’ll find myself on a protest with a week’s kimchi all over again.


Kyunng-Woo Han’s essay is chapter in Laurel Kendall (ed.), Consuming Korean Tradition in Early and Late Modernity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).

Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s book Eating Korean, as well as containing some fabulous kimchi recipes, has some wonderfully moving, and beautifully written, short pieces on the cultures of food, immigration,and memory. She’s a great author.

The two protest photos I have reproduced from the LaborNet blog.


  1. Where do you get your Chongga's kimchi? Somewhere in Wellington I hope!

  2. Hi Emma -- most of the time Haere Mai supermarket on Dixon Street have it. They've got a few varieties, and Chongga's radish kimchi too. The stock comes in on Tuesdays so it's best to check then.

  3. Thank you! I look forward to trying it.