More on Katakana

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last week we discussed the rise of Katakana in Japan and the opposing forces both resisting and embracing foreign words.  1000 Japanese Table-Points to regular Japanese Table member Will Morgan, who correctly guessed the meaning and origin of "ピエロ," a Japanese word meaning "Clown" that is derived from the French literary and film character Pierrot.  

Another mysterious word that baffles Westerners is バイキング (baikingu = viking).  The word is used throughout Japan to refer to buffet-style restaurants, such as Shakey's Pizza.  But the word appears to have no connection at all to its original, Western meaning.  

In fact, the word バイキング has NOTHING to do with buffets at all.  The story begins in 1957, when Mr. Tetsuzo Inumaru, manager at the Imperial Hotel back then, encountered a smorgasbord restaurant on a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark.  When he returned, he instructed his chef to design a "smorgasbord"-style restaurant for the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed landmark hotel next to the Imperial Palace in Toyko.  However, he immediately ran into a problem:  no one, including his own staff, could say the word "smorgasbord."  Therefore, Mr. Inumaru asked his team to suggest names better suited for this novelty restaurant. They needed a better word to promote the buffet idea. At the time, "The Vikings" (a 1958 film staring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis) was in the theaters and playing at the nearby Hibiya Movie Theater in Ginza. The movie featured epic scenes of gluttony and the staff decided that "Viking" was a perfect word for buffet-style dining.  

In the beginning, the typical menu of "Viking" eateries consisted of fourteen different dishes, such as smoked salmon, liver paste, roast beef, etc. Setting you back 1,200 yen for lunch and 1,500 yen for dinner, prices were considered to be quite extravagant, as they accounted for up to ten percent of the starting salary of a company employee fresh out of university.  Today, however, you can find many inexpensive バイキング restaurants throughout Japan.  The Imperial Hotel still maintains the original Viking style, and now serves about forty different kinds of dishes for 5,250 yen for lunch, and 7,875 yen for dinner.  The  word "Viking" has now spread to other countries, including South Korea and the Philippines, to refer to buffet-style restaurants.