When French Fries Go Viral: Mobile Media and the Transformation of Public Space in McDonald’s Japan

Kelly Hansen, Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, San Diego State University [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 2 (Article 7 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 29 July 2014.


This paper investigates how mobile communication has transformed youth consumers of the McDonald’s brand into an imagined community capable of appropriating and redefining public space. I begin by examining connections between the localisation of McDonald’s in Japan and use of public space in these restaurants, a connection which I argue has marked the McDonald’s brand in Japan as much as the consumption of the product itself. In recent years, the draw for youth has been reinforced by the company’s increasingly heavy focus on mobile marketing strategies, a medium particularly effective among the youth-dominated mobile media consumers of Japan. The original intent of McDonald’s online marketing campaigns—to expand its customer base to older demographic groups—has thus had the unexpected consequence of empowering young consumers with the ability to connect and affect how the space is used.

Keywords: social media, mobile communication, youth, public space.

The First Viral French Fries

At approximately 11:00 a.m. on 28 October 2012, the following tweet went out from a group of four teens in Okayama City, Japan:

A bunch of us are on the second floor of the McDonald’s in front of Okayama Station, and we’re doing a challenge to eat sixty large orders of fries. Everyone come over right away, or retweet us! (J-Cast 2012)

This French-fry eating challenge was not the first, but it was perhaps the most widely propagated in a series of so-called potato parties that were rumoured to have been ongoing in McDonald’s throughout Japan since early October 2012, a trend triggered by a one-month campaign offering any size of French fries for the promotional price of ¥150, half the usual price for a large order. Much to the group’s surprise, their tweet had an almost immediate effect, as local teens quickly filled the Okayama restaurant to witness the challenge, jamming the seats and blocking the aisles, leaving little room for paying customers. Despite the teens’ insistence that they had done nothing wrong—they had merely ordered their food, paid for it, and eaten it, even following the time-honoured Japanese value of mottainai (not letting anything go to waste) by consuming every last fry—they came under considerable attack on social media. Some tweeters harshly criticised the group for their inconsiderateness in appropriating the restaurant space from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM—the lunch rush and busiest time of day at this McDonald’s. There were also complaints that the excessive number of fries they ordered meant that the staff could not keep up, and that other patrons’ orders went unfilled. Other tweeters used the situation to bemoan the general demise of etiquette and decorum among Japanese youth, even calling for the group to be legally punished in some way (J-Cast 2012). However, it is worth noting that, while the teens had been able to use mobile media to summon a crowd and take control of the restaurant space in a matter of minutes, the critical tweets that followed resulted in no policy changes or punishment for the students involved. This suggests a clear sense of affinity and empowerment among youth who communicate via mobile media, one that does not exit among older demographic groups.

Using the above incident as a starting point, this study examines how the rise of social media in Japan is empowering teens and young adults, the dominant demographic group of mobile media users in Japan today, creating a virtual community with the ability to challenge perceived adult social norms regarding the use of public space. Although cell phone usage in Japan is widespread among all demographic groups, the status of teens as the most frequent users of mobile communication, initially via cell-phone email and more recently through Twitter, has been well documented. (Fujimoto 2005; Okada 2005; Wagner, 2013). For the purposes of this study, public space is defined as an area in which “anyone may enter, and from which anyone may depart, without the consent of strangers and without any declaration—however tacit—of a justifying purpose” (Scruton 1987: 15). Although the notion of a restaurant may suggest that an individual’s presence in that space must be justified through the purchase of food or drink, this has conventionally been a very minimal requirement in McDonald’s Japan, and not necessarily the primary goal of many teen customers who visit the restaurant, as will be discussed later in greater detail. I argue that the localisation of McDonald’s in Japan has resulted in cultural-specific norms of consumption and behaviour, norms within which the potato party may have been reasonably perceived by the teens as an acceptable activity to carry out within the public space of the restaurant. I begin with a brief overview of the establishment and localisation of McDonald’s in Japan, focusing on the emergence of communities of youth consumers in the 1970s who perceived these restaurants primarily as recreational space. I then consider how in recent years this youthful consumer base has come into conflict with the company’s attempts to increase profits by expanding the demographics of their customer base through limited-time offers and Internet specials, strategies which have had the unexpected consequence of empowering the youth consumer network linked through social media.

McDonald’s in Japan: Localisation of Food and Space

Fujita Den, who introduced the first McDonald’s franchise into Japan in 1971, is often called the “king of eating out” (gaishoku no ō) in Japan (Harada and Itō 2012: 4-5, 132-6), not simply for successfully establishing and expanding the fast food chain, but for effectively balancing the core global menu items of hamburgers, French fries, and sodas, with the creation of popular localised products, including the teriyaki burger (ground pork with mayonnaise and teriyaki sauce), corn soup, Chinese-style oolong tea, and the tsukimi, or moon-viewing burger, which includes a fried egg resembling a moon and is typically sold seasonally in the autumn. Ken’ichi Ohmae described the success of Fujita’s business strategy as one based on thinking globally while acting locally (1989). Although McDonald’s was initially perceived of as foreign, exotic food, menu-specific items designed for local tastes have proven to be some of its most successful products over the years. McDonald’s in Japan is now firmly entrenched in the cultural landscape, and for the two generations of Japanese who have grown with the golden arches, the French fry no longer represents a foreign or exotic Other.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, the first scholar to produce an anthropological study of McDonald’s Japan in English, attributes its success in part to the fact that its menu items did not initially pose any challenges to the existing restaurant industry. She argues that because a hamburger is encased in bread and lacks the important staple component of rice, it is equated with a sandwich in Japan: a snack, or a light lunch at most, but not a substantial meal (Ohnuki-Tierney 1997: 163-5). In fact, the Japanese term for sandwich (sandoitchi) is a general category used for hamburgers as well as fish and chicken burgers in McDonald’s Japan. Ohnuki-Tierney raises an important point, and it is worth noting that other Western fast foods such as pizza has suffered the same fate as McDonald’s—typically eaten as a shared snack rather than a meal. However, this does not fully explain why some foreign foods such as spaghetti, or traditional Asian cuisine such as noodle dishes, have acquired status as full meals despite their lack of a rice component. Another possibility is that youth, the primary consumers of McDonald’s in the early decades, may simply not have had the economic means to purchase full meals at McDonald’s, or may have most often visited McDonald’s in the late afternoon hours after school rather than at meal time. While working at a private women’s college on the outskirts of Tokyo from 2004 to 2006, I would pass by a McDonald’s between the station and the university on a daily basis, and often saw groups of students sitting in the restaurant in the late afternoon. One day I teased a group of regulars about their devotion to McDonald’s; they replied that they simply used the restaurant space as a place to spend time together before getting on separate trains to go home. Primarily because of calorie concerns, they claimed generally to have no more than a low-calorie drink such as tea with an order of fries, or even one order of fries to be shared among two or three students. However, they also stated that McDonald’s was a cheaper alternative than most of the local coffee shops. Clearly, for various reasons, the notion of McDonald’s as a suitable place for a drink or snack rather than a meal has persisted into the twenty-first century, at least at urban locations. Over a six-week period in the summer of 2013, I made a series of regular visits to a Yokohama franchise at different times of the day. This informal study revealed that the majority of the clientele do not purchase a hamburger or sandwich. Even on a Sunday at approximately 6:00 PM, a holiday and a time of day when customers might be more likely to be going to McDonald’s for a meal, out of twenty-two seated customers, only seven had a sandwich, or any combination of food that might be deemed a meal. The notion of McDonald’s as snack food rather than full meals appears to have been reinforced recently through the company’s introduction of mega fries (mega poteto) in May 2013, an order approximately double the size of a large fry, clearly intended to be shared, at the discounted price of ¥490. During the six-week period of my informal survey, the only customers I observed purchasing the mega fries were groups of youth.

The McDonald’s experience, however, is about more than simply the food. As Wakabayashi Yasunaga explains, what Fujita was really selling was American culture (2003: 62-3). The first consumers of McDonald’s in Japan encountered not only a new kind of food, but also new behaviour for food consumption—in particular, behaviour that had not previously been considered proper etiquette. Similar to the first drive-up McDonald’s restaurant established in Monrovia, California in 1948 by Maurie and Richard McDonald, the first franchise in Japan consisted only of a counter-front, with no seating area. The customer was thus required to take the food elsewhere, or to consume it tachigui-style,eating while standing. Although tachigui stands selling noodles or gyūdon (beef and rice bowls) have been in existence in Japan since at least the 1890s, they have long been perceived as a low-brow cultural practice, generally limited to areas such as train stations, where the necessity of acquiring a meal quickly might mitigate the lack of etiquette. McDonald’s food products also require customers to touch the food with their hands, an act that still remains something of a taboo. In contrast to the West, where holding the hamburger directly in one’s hands is considered acceptable, many Japanese customers today still tend to eat fast-food hamburgers with the bun partially encased in the paper, thereby avoiding touching the food itself as much as possible. French fries, of course, are impossible to eat without touching them, and might therefore be considered the product that runs most counter to established norms. However, despite the seemingly low-class manner of consumption, Fujita successfully introduced McDonald’s as fashionable cuisine through careful selection of store locations. Masaoka Kanji describes the contrast between the first McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, which were generally located along highway service areas in rural locations, and Fujita’s bold decision to place his first store in Ginza, an upscale district in the heart of downtown Tokyo, in a niche on the first floor of the affluent Mitsukoshi Department Store. Masaoka notes that this proximity to other high-end businesses elevated the McDonald’s image; establishing it as a prestigious, brand-name product. This is seen by many economists as one of the key factors leading to McDonald’s success in Japan (Masaoka 2003: 135-6). As Fujita opened up more restaurants, he continued strategically to select prime real estate near large stations or other high-traffic urban areas. As a result, the first regular customers of McDonald’s Japan were not children or families, but businesspeople. This approach contrasted sharply with similar restaurant chains such as Mos Burger, McDonald’s strongest competitor in Japan, which entered the market one year later, in 1972. Rather than seeking high-traffic areas, Mos Burger established its first restaurant in the outlying area of Narimasu, northwest of Shinjuku, offering burgers at slightly higher prices than McDonald’s. With its slogan of “Fine Burger and Coffee,” Mos Burger might be considered a chain that aspires to a reputation somewhere between a fast food restaurant and a more up-scale coffee shop (Uranaka 2003).

Despite Fujita’s apparent goal to aim at an urban business population, as the chain expanded, it was youthful consumers who became regular fixtures at the restaurant. This may be reflective of a shift in social structure that coincided with the introduction of McDonald’s into Japan. James L. Watson has noted that throughout Asia, start-up dates for McDonald’s franchises correspond with the rise of economically affluent classes: consumers with both the time and money to spend on luxuries such as eating out (Watson 1997: 16). In the case of Japan, by the early 1970s, the majority of teenagers were staying in school through high school, and had both the leisure time and financial means to visit McDonald’s. Unlike franchises in the United States, which have increasingly sought to expand profits via drive-through and take-out service (Martin 2009; Sullivan 2013), it is not unusual for customers in Japan to linger at a table for hours. In contrast to the West, where a patron might be expected to vacate a space soon after finishing a meal in order to make room for others, McDonald’s in Japan has generally been known to show tolerance for customers who dawdle over a coffee or soda, or appropriate the restaurant space for other purposes, such as socialising or study. In the morning hours, McDonald’s offers a haven for housewives or the elderly, those seeking a cheap alternative to the local coffee shop, and in the afternoon, McDonald’s has become known as a place where teens can spend time over a soda chatting with friends, or take advantage of the space for study, a practice so common that it even resulted in the coining of the neologism macben (makkuben), or mac-study. This tolerance may be due to the fact that these kinds of customers, who make small purchases but spend long hours in the restaurant, typically do not appropriate space needed by other paying customers, since they seldom come during the lunch or dinner rush hours. Watson notes that throughout Asia, McDonald’s was also one of the first restaurants to fit public expectations of an appropriate public space for teenagers to occupy: the restaurants are alcohol-free, well-lit and safe, and in the 1970s they offered the somewhat unusual amenities of free public restrooms and air-conditioning in the summer months (Watson 1997: 33-35).

McDonald’s as Recreational Space

The field of mobile communication in Japan is, paradoxically, another field originally aimed at businesspeople, but appropriated by youth. The origins of mobile communication can be traced back to the late 1980s, starting with the use of pagers (poketto-bēru). Originally marketed at white-collar workers, pagers were quickly appropriated by teens not as a means of texting a phone number for call back, but rather for sending personal messages encoded through numbers. In February 1999, when DoCoMo launched limited Internet access on cell phones via i-mode, kattei saito, or unofficial sites which could be accessed via the standard menu of a cell phone, this offered the opportunity for direct exchange among users with no prior connections for the first time. Michel Dailot-Bul has examined the cultural implications of this appropriation of mobile communication originally designed for businessmen, with what he terms “cellular playscape.” According to Dailot-Bul, cell phones are not simply tools to facilitate communication. Rather, they represent “an extension of the self,” a tool in which play merges with nonplay (Daliot-Bul 2007).  In the case of the French fry challenge, the teens’ tweet highlighted the contrast between the goal of businesspeople coming to McDonald’s for lunch, customers who perceived the function of the restaurant space to be for those who had come to purchase and eat food, and the perspective of the teens, whom for decades in Japan had been allowed to appropriate McDonald’s as recreational space, a perspective which was highlighted when they extended the boundaries of their ‘cellular playscape’ into the virtual world by tweeting their challenge.

One factor that may have contributed to this clash between teens and business people is the marketing strategy of McDonald’s, which has aggressively sought to bolster its falling profits in recent years by reaching out to business people, a demographic group that traditionally has not patronised the restaurant in large numbers. When Ohnuki-Tierney visited Japan in 1994 to carry out fieldwork for her article, she observed that, even in franchises located in metropolitan areas where seating was limited to narrow counter space presumably conducive for a solitary diner, the primary patrons in the restaurant were still Japanese youth. The only people in business suits, she noted, were foreigners. She even recounts one Japanese businessman confessing to her that if he wanted something from McDonald’s on a weekday, he would send a “girl” (onnanoko) from the office down to make the purchase, rather than risk being seen in the fast-food restaurant wearing a business suit (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1997: 171). On an extended visit to Japan in the summer of 2013, however, I observed numerous Japanese customers in business attire in urban franchises throughout the Kanto and Kansai regions. The majority of these business people were solitary customers who primarily occupied individual counter space. In some franchises, counter space was divided by plastic partitions, creating individual work stations and even including a charging outlet for cell phones or laptops. This suggests that McDonald’s is consciously working to cultivate business people by creating space uniquely suited to their needs.

Nevertheless, for teens and business people to occupy the same space for long periods of time is not without conflict. In the first place, it must be acknowledged that the mere presence of large groups of teens in any public space can evoke feelings of discomfort among adults. Herb Childress discusses the unique situation of teens as a demographic group who are no longer quite children, but not adult enough to have the ability to own or rent their own space; they must therefore resort to occupying space owned by others. Youth are therefore, he adds, the most frequent users of public space, including parks, beaches, shopping centres, and I would add in the case of Japan, McDonald’s. Childress goes on to explain that conflict between teens and adults can result not from unlawful behaviour, but simply from the presence of teens in large numbers, perhaps carrying out behaviour slightly beyond what is normally expected, such as speaking in loud voices or playing music in a public space. (Childress 2004). The potato party incident is not the only case of Japanese teens appropriating McDonald’s as recreational space to the chagrin of adult customers. In January 2012, a public notice posted online by Kansai Gakuin University asked students to refrain from entering the nearby McDonald’s during examination week because they had become a nuisance, occupying tables for long periods of time, making excessive noise, and disturbing other customers. The manager later said he had been misquoted—that he had not banned students from the restaurant outright, but only asked that they observe good decorum. (Sponichi 2012). This incident is just one more example of clashes developing between teens and adults as a result of McDonald’s efforts to transform itself into a public space used by a wider range of demographic groups.

In addition to changes in the physical space of the restaurants designed to appeal to a wider range of customers, McDonald’s has also pursued on-line advertising strategies as a means of expanding their customer base. At present, numerous coupons are available via cell phones, but require that the user first download an app and become affiliated with McDonald’s social media network. Limited-time offers are available on a regular basis, but in order to take advantage of these, the consumer must be a frequent Internet user willing to check the app on a regular basis, and presumably a frequent visitor to McDonald’s. There are no readily available data on the success of these campaigns, but there are clear examples of the manner in which social media has backfired for McDonald’s. One unsuccessful campaign which received wide coverage on social media was the “Sixty Seconds or Free” campaign, offered nationwide in January 2013. The campaign was promoted as a game, with colourful timers on the counter to keep the staff in check. According to tweeters, however, the focus on speed resulted in a significant reduction in product quality. Dissatisfied customers quickly began tweeting online images of hamburgers with sauce and cheese dripping over the sides of the bun into the boxes, declaring that they would gladly tolerate a longer wait if they could receive a better product. (Mainichi 2012). Similarly, McDonald’s decision to remove menus from the counters in October 2012, requiring customers to look at the menus posted on the wall instead, also met with harsh criticism on Twitter. Customers complained that the menus were too far away to read, or expressed frustration that they were being pushed through the ordering process too quickly, and forced into choices without time to think. According to Watson, part of the introduction of McDonald’s in Asia in general involved educating customers on proper behaviour: waiting in line in an orderly fashion, finding a table and clearing it when leaving, and so on (Watson 1997: 27-32). The removal of the menus might be seen as part of this education process, designed perhaps to encourage customers to study the menu and make their decision before getting to the counter. Due to heavy criticism from Twitter, however, the policy was quickly rescinded (Kendall 2012).

McDonald’s Japan and Twenty-First Century Trends

Changes in recent years indicate that McDonald’s is making efforts to move away from its youth-oriented associations established during its first decades in Japan, to a wider demographic base. By the time Fujita retired in 2003, executives in the United States felt that the benefits of his goal of expansion through price cuts was no longer viable, and was eroding the quality of the product being produced at franchises. He was replaced with Harada Eikō, who pursued a strategy of downsizing. Harada quickly shut down 400 stores, and began moving toward policies aimed at bringing in a higher volume of customers in the remaining franchises, including mac-delivery (makkuderibarii), or delivery service to offices and restaurants beginning in 2010, a change which Harada explains was made in response the fact that more people today, particularly those in urban regions, are living alone (Harada and Itô, 92-4).  These trends suggest that the notion of McDonald’s as a public recreational space, capable of supporting consumers who spend little and stay for long hours, may be coming to an end. Harada is also responsible for introducing McCafe into Japan in 2007, an attempt to reach out to an older demographic group. In contrast to the traditional menus with the staple foods of hamburgers, French fries and drinks, these restaurants offer a wider range of made-to-order coffee drinks, and lighter meal or snack options such as pastries and soups. Harada plans to increase these franchises, installing McCafe stores next to existing McDonald’s, in an attempt to bring more families into the restaurants. McCafe prices are higher than McDonald’s, yet slightly lower than those at Starbucks, suggesting that McDonald’s may also be trying to appropriate a share of the coffee shop market (Takahara, 2007).

Together with these changes introduced by Harada, anecdotal observations reveal that the physical interior of McDonald’s in urban areas in particular have been moving toward a sleeker, cafe-style theme. Gone are the neon uniforms and brightly colored plastic tables of earlier decades, replaced instead with counters and stools in muted colors, subdued lighting, and environmentally friendly messages. The growing popularity of LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) among Japanese consumers, both as a lifestyle and as a term used to market products, is showing its effects in McDonald’s as well. In a franchise on a busy shopping mall in Yokohama in the summer of 2013, I encountered the following statement (in Japanese) painted on the walls above the counter-space:

We strive to encourage even one child to choose to eat a well-balanced meal by him or herself. McDonald’s supports nutritional education through its Website, the development and sponsorship of teaching materials, the cooperation of specialist organisations and schools, and the support of education in local sites throughout the country. Creating smiles, one at a time.

Although the notion of McDonald’s as a promoter of proper nutritional health may seem contradictory to many consumers, the McDonald’s Japan Website does indeed include a section on nutritional education (shokuiku), featuring an image of two smiling school girls examining a food chart on a blackboard, and a list of recent school visits made by McDonald’s representatives. The site also offers a 45-minute DVD on food education which it claims is suitable for elementary and junior high school students, and is available for free rental. Sample anime videos of four to five minutes on the site include topics such as “Why is breakfast important?” and “Do I have to eat foods I don't like?” (Shakai 2014). The site does not provide any indication of the impact which this program may be having, but from a marketing standpoint, it clearly promotes an outward appearance of McDonald’s not as a cultural eyesore or propagator of unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle choices, but rather an integrated and socially-positive component of contemporary society. Other statements on the restaurant walls in this same franchise attest to McDonald’s participation in ecological movements, including the reduction of carbon emissions and waste, participation in organisations promoting sports for children, and charity work, emphasising the Donald McDonald House (similar to the Ronald McDonald Houses in the United States) of which five have been established in Japan. All of these statements conclude with the same slick slogan: creating smiles, one at a time (egao no tame ni, hitotsu hitotsu). These changes suggest a shift toward restaurant space aimed not at youth, but rather at social-conscious, older demographic groups.


McDonald’s is not the only successful Western fast-food chain to be exported abroad, but it is certainly the most successful (Tice 2013). However, since the 1990s, anti-McDonald’s groups across the globe, representing a range of topics from obesity and animal rights to environment and employment issues, have become increasingly vocal. In international protests, McDonald’s is frequently criticised as a form of cultural imperialism that seeks to undermine traditional local lifestyles and family values (McSpotlight.org 2014). In such a polarised climate, it can be difficult to look beyond the iconic symbol of the golden arches, and determine the extent to which McDonald’s franchises abroad may be contributing to the homogenisation of cultures, or whether local cultures may, in fact, be significantly altering the McDonald’s brand to suit their own tastes and preferences. James Watson argues that McDonald’s success throughout East Asia is due in no small part to localisation. He notes that this extends not only to modification of products, but also to the creation of an environment that is both appealing and acceptable to the cultural norms of the local community. Watson distinguishes between the form, or outward appearance of globalisation, and the content, or cultural innovations that may transform the global, emphasising that many signs of localisation lie deep below the superficial exterior, and are seldom apparent to the casual observer (Watson 2006: 197).

The French Fry incident in Okayama City highlights the interconnectedness between globalisation and localisation. Even more than the hamburger, the French fry may be the most quintessentially global of all McDonald’s products. Localised menu items can vary considerably, from the shrimp filet in Japan to the Maharaja Mac in India, but the French fry is a product that meets the dietary, religious, and cultural standards of nearly every market where McDonald’s has established itself. And for Japanese youth, the French fry is also a symbol of Mcdonald’s as recreational play space, a notion which remained relatively unchallenged until the twenty-first century. Despite recent marketing strategies to expand the customer base and increase profits, these socio-historical associations, in which the shared community experience in McDonald’s Japan may be as defining as the products consumed, are difficult to dispel. This was brought to the fore through the power of mobile communication, which illustrated how a demographic group such as teenagers, a group with minimal economic power, could act with agency to not only appropriate a public space over the needs and desires of authoritative adults, but could do so in a matter of minutes, and all for the sake of the innocuous French fry.


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About the Author

Kelly Hansen received her Ph.D. from the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Hawai’i. She is currently assistant professor of Japanese in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at San Diego State University.

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