In South Korea, Japanese Restaurants Break Law with Japanese Signs

Unseen Japan
4 min readFeb 19, 2024

Japanese food is trending in South Korea — and many restaurant owners are technically breaking the law to make the experience authentic.

Pictures: gandhi; ささざわ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

People in South Korea love Japanese food so much that they’re reliving the dining experience in Japan on the streets of Seoul. That recreation goes so far as to have Japanese-only signs and menus, which is technically illegal.

What’s on the menu? (We don’t know — it’s in Japanese)

Japanese cuisine is booming in Seoul, South Korea. and restaurant owners are technically violating the law to make the dining experience as authentic as possible.

“When the restaurant opened, there were no signs in Hangul, so I got reported to the police,” says the owner of the Osaka-themed ATASHI in Seoul.

Signs with no Hangul writing are illegal according to South Korean law. Stores can use a foreign language but must include Hangul on the sign as well. However, as there’s no penalty for violating it, shops and restaurants with only Japanese signage are popping up.

Inspired by the culinary memories the owner acquired on his trip to Kansai’s street-food capital, ATASHI — a Japanese word meaning ‘myself’ — has exterior and interior signs in Japanese. The door is clad with stickers with Japanese telling customers to hiku (引く), or pull.

While instructing to pull or push a door is less critical, even the more critical messages are written in Japanese — a language that less than 1% of Koreans were learning in 2021.

On the inside, there are signs specifying the store won’t serve booze to customers who are driving. It’s fully in Japanese, with no accompanying Korean translation. The menu, however, is more Korean-friendly and juxtaposes items in both Japanese and Hangul.

Don’t make us do math