Shiro Oguni had ordered a hamburger, but he wasn't all that surprised when his server brought him a plate of fried dumplings instead.
The Japanese television director was filming a documentary about dementia at a group home for the elderly. That meant experiencing life in the group homes, including eating meals prepared by the residents. At first, he was going to comment on his mistaken order, but then he looked around the dining room.
"Everyone was eating their fried dumplings one after the other with such enjoyment," he says, in an interview with Global Journalist. "I thought the scene was magnificent. A mistake is only a mistake because it's your perception. When you don't think it's a mistake, it isn't one.
The experience led Oguni to found The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders as an experimental way to puncture stigma and raise awareness about dementia in Japan, where more than 27 percent of the population if 65 or over. These pop-up dining events began in Tokyo in 2016 and feature volunteer servers with dementia, supervised by caregivers. After raising $130,000 through crowdfunding, Oguni has been able to rent out restaurants and utilize a government-owned cafeteria to put on the events several times a year. Crowdfunding donors eat for free, walk-up diners pay the equivalent of about $10 each.
The concept has garnered Oguni international attention and inspired about 20 other organizations to hold similar events. From Tokyo, Oguni spoke with Global Journalist's Annie Le about the project with the assistance of a translator.
Global Journalist: How did the servers initially feel about the experience?
Shiro Oguni: To be able to work is something that brings back confidence. Of course, they know themselves that they’ve grown old and that they have dementia. There’s a lot that doesn’t go as planned or things that become frustrating for them.
But when they work at the restaurant, it’s okay to make mistakes; no one becomes upset by them, rather they’ll laugh together with them. It’s a really happy atmosphere, and I’ve heard many say that working here has restored some of their confidence.
Oguni: It was having people with dementia working and the criticism that this place would become a space where they would be made fun of, kind of like a circus or show. It’s not that we want to make fun of them. We just wanted to bring the experience, whether or not you have dementia, of being okay with making mistakes and laughing about it.
If you try to change people's perspective, sometimes such criticism comes your way.
Oguni: The question I’m always asked is about the message of our restaurant, and my answer is always, “No, I don’t have a message.”
Do you know the actor Bruce Lee? One of his quotes from [the movie "Enter the Dragon"] is “Don’t think. Feel.”
I think that this is really important. Putting a meaning behind things happens way too often. That’s one of the reasons why dementia is perceived with a certain connotation, and a restaurant is expected to be one thing. Everyone is expecting it to be a certain way, and I’m trying to break that way of thinking. If I say that The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders is a certain way, then everyone will already have a label in their head.
Oguni: Next year the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics will be hosted here. There has been a lot of good reaction from people overseas about the work that we do...so I want to open like a normal restaurant in Tokyo during that time. It would be an experience to bring people together not only from Tokyo but also from around the world.
with assistance from Serena Jolliff
Images courtesy Shiro Oguni/The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders