Multinational corporations like McDonald’s are prime examples of how globalization works. While the concept of ‘globalization’ is not always easy to grasp, the ubiquitous big bright yellow triple ‘M’ is easily recognized from America to Africa. McDonald’s, embodying the concept, is therefore a great case-study when exploring the effects globalization. This short essay explores the impact of McDonald’s spread around the world-  specifically, of its growth in Japan.

Has the coming of McDonald’s restaurants brought American culture to Japan? To what extent does this process involve cultural imperialism? Before I go further into the case study of McDonald’s to Japan, I will briefly explain the concept of globalization. After a short history of McDonald’s, I will illustrate its introduction to Japan, followed by a brief conclusion on how McDonald’s has found its way in Japanese society.


Globalization exists in many forms. One can speak of ‘globalization’ in economic terms: countries all over the world are becoming more dependent of each other when it comes to trade and computer connections. Cities like London, Tokyo and New York are closely connected in these ways. Globalization also works politically when countries develop closer ties (Wilterdink and Heerikhuizen 2003, 34). One also speaks of globalization in cultural terms. In “Global Culture: Dreams, Nightmares and Scepticism”, John Tomlinson writes about a ‘world culture’. This illustrates the idea that, as Hannerz points out, the world has become a network of social relationships where cultural practices and experiences are spread across over the globe (Tomlinson 1999, 71). By world culture he means the circumstances where these practices integrate and flow together.

When discussing the topic of globalization, the term ‘cultural imperialism’ is often coined. This popular ‘cultural imperialism thesis’ involves the idea that dominant cultures (generally American or Western culture) overrule others that are culturally weaker (80). One can especially perceive this idea of imperialism with worldwide consumer goods like food, clothes or music. It also reflects on how certain Western key institutions, like industrialism or urbanism, spread around the globe (91).

Although Tomlinson’s article mainly focuses on the concept of cultural imperialism, he is highly critical in his use of the term. He makes two general observations. First, he speaks of ‘cultural deterritorialization’ to explain how modern-day globalized culture (dominated by the West) is not experienced by Westerners as being their own (local) culture. This points out that global modernity is ‘placeless’ and ‘decentred’ (95). It seems to be nobody’s culture; it is deterritorialized. The West is not convinced of its own cultural superiority, and therefore, as Tomlinson says ‘(..) it seems unconvincing to speak of the present or future global cultural condition as the ‘ Triumph of the West’’ (96).

Secondly, Tomlinson does not believe that other (non-Western) cultures will disappear through the domination of the West (96). On the contrary, he believes that every culture applies new cultural systems or goods to its own society in unique ways. This is called ‘indigenization’, where the receiving culture gives its own ‘flavour’ to imported cultural goods (84).

Although Tomlinson does not deny that globalization evolves unbalanced processes where there are winners and losers (97), he points out that cultural imperialism might not be as bad as it sounds. It does not necessarily imply that the whole world will become Americanized or Westernized.

McDonald’s in Japan

The first 1954 McDonald’s in Los Angeles was not more than an ordinary drive-in where people could buy cheap hamburgers (no need to tip the waitress!). It was Ray Kroc, salesmen of paper cups and mixers, who signed a contract with owners Dick and Mac McDonald to expand the McDonald’s concept. In 1974, the analysis of the McDonald’s company was as follows: “The basis of McDonald’s success is serving a low-priced, value-oriented product fast and efficiently in clean and pleasant surroundings. While the Company’s menu is limited, it contains food staples that are widely accepted in North America” (Ray Kroc 1977, 177). Ray Kroc was a risk taker who believed in the simple formula of clean and cheap McDonald’s restaurants. The Big Mac was introduced in 1968. In 1976, the 4000th restaurant was opened in America. At present McDonald’s has globally spread to 118 different countries.

McDonald’s has gone a long way from being a simple drive-in. In 1971 the chain reached Japan, where it immediately became a huge success. McDonald’s Japan preserved the original McDonald’s concept, but did apply slight adjustments to the menu in order to comply with Japanese taste. McDonald’s Japan introduced the Teriyaki Burger, the Rice Burger and, amongst other products, Green Tea ice-cream.

Except for slight changes in the menu, other differences emerged between McDonald’s US and McDonald’s Japan. These differences relate to how McDonald’s restaurants were perceived by Japanese consumers. In “McDonald’s in Japan: Changing Manner and Etiquette”, Ohnuki-Tierney writes how most Japanese consumers consider McDonald’s products as snacks rather than considering them to constitute a ‘real’ meal. McDonald’s therefore did not pose a serious threat to the Japanese lunch or dinner market (Ohnuki-Tierney 1997, 164). Several factors explain this perception of McDonald’s products as snacks. The first important reason is that most products on the McDonald’s menu, such as hamburgers, cannot be shared amongst several people. Sharing is an important part of Japanese dinner or lunch time, because it brings a sense of community (169).

Secondly, McDonald’s food consists mostly of meat and bread. The majority of the Japanese population does not consider meat as a part of their traditional lifestyle; it is typically considered to be part of the Western diet. Before McDonald’s was introduced in Japan,the combination of meat and bread was quite alien to many Japanese. Additionally, the overall lack of rice in McDonald’s food makes it unsuitable for a proper dinner or lunch. According to most Japanese, a ‘real’ meal always includes rice, which is not only seen as good nutrition but also as an important part of Japanese national identity (166).

McDonald’s did not only introduce a new type of food to Japan, it also introduced a new way to eat. The ‘table manners’ at McDonald’s clashed with traditional Japanese ways to eat. At McDonald’s, one eats whilst standing instead of sitting, and uses his hands instead of chopsticks. McDonald’s also made it more common to drink soda’s directly out of the bottle, and to finish a meal with some ice-cream (179). Although many facets within this new style of eating were initially associated with bad etiquette, McDonald’s turned them into something trendy. But, as Ohnuki-Tierney writes: ‘In the public sphere the “new” forms of etiquette gradually became the norm; the fashionableness of eating fast food wore thin as the restaurants became a routine feature of everyday, working life’ (181). McDonald’s became a mainstream phenomenon within Japanese society.

Global goes Glocal

Whilst McDonald’s initially symbolized American culture (or rather, symbolized how the US was perceived by Japanese), it has now become part of Japanese ‘local’ culture. I would rather refer to this as ‘glocal’; a concept to illustrate the intermingling of the global and the local.McDonald’s has become indigenized by Japanese; is has been adapted to suit Japanese society as a the place to have a quick snack. One can eat a quick Teriyaki or Rice Burger there while sipping on an Oolong tea and reading the Japanese McJoy magazine. In the case of McDonald’s in Japan, Tomlinson is quite right that cultural imperialism is not as bad as some people claim it is. McDonald’s presently is embedded in Japanese culture. This reveals that the concept of McDonald’s is not interpreted univocally across the world. Different cultures somehow mix the concept with existing societal norms. In this way, no matter how globalized the world becomes, diversity will prevail amongst its many cultures. Global becomes glocal. After all, the Big Mac and the Rice Burger simply are not the same burger.



*Kroc, Ray. 1977. Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s. Berkley: St. Martin’s.
*Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1997. “McDonald’s in Japan: Changing Manners and Etiquette”. Pp. 161-182 in Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by J.L. Watson. California: Stanford University Press.
*Tomlinson, John. 1999. “Global Culture: Dreams, Nightmares, and Skepticism.” Pp. 71-96 in Globalization and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
*Wilterdink, Nico and Bart van Heerikhuizen. 2003. Samenlevingen: Een Verkenning van het Terrein van de Sociologie. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff.

Manya Koetse, 2008, Leiden University