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Japan's food culture is an endangered species

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Japan’s bursting supermarket shelves and myriad top-rated restaurants conceal a food crisis. The nation’s food self-sufficiency ratio is a dismal 40%. Its “food culture,” obnoxiously symbolized in the outside world by whales, dolphins and bluefin tuna, is an endangered species in its own right, incompatible with prevailing international norms and ecological realities. Not to mention a global population explosion that, together with rising standards of living in teeming emerging economies, places existing resources under heightened strain.

What to do? Simplify eating habits and compromise with prevailing norms, if only to avoid a potentially crippling isolation, counsels writer Kaoru Takamura in Shukan Post (April 9).

Takamura doesn’t claim expertise in either dietetics or ecology, but she sums up the evidence in plain sight. The dialogue, or shouting match, between Japan and much of the rest of the world on Japan’s “research” whaling, dolphin hunting and insatiable appetite for bluefin tuna regardless of rapidly depleting stocks, is “going nowhere,” says Takamura.

Concerning whales, the world simply isn’t buying Japan’s unyielding defense of its “food culture,” and if the annual whale hunt in frigid southern oceans is genuinely about research, “Japan had better produce some scientific research data that will convince the international community.” This, she says, it has so far failed to do.

The price it pays is to be tagged a “whale-killing country.” A century and a half ago -- the era of Moby Dick -- that might have been a compliment. Now, says Takamura, it’s “a discredit to the Japanese people.” Whether the main issue for official Japan is protein or national pride, “is our need for whale meat really so great as to outweigh the international isolation” that acquiring it brings?

Tuna for Takamura epitomizes Japan’s irrational “gluttony” -- also its dependence for nourishment on global, as opposed to domestic, resources. “Japan,” she says, “couldn’t last a day without imported food” -- meat, fish, vegetables, even processed foods like miso and soy sauce are largely imported -- “and yet we blithely stuff ourselves without giving this a thought.”

In 1970, she finds, Japan imported 26,000 tons of tuna; in 2002, 330,000 tons. Since then, regulations have brought the amount down to 200,000 tons. Even so, that’s 25% of all the tuna consumed in the world, and as for bluefin tuna, on which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Qatar last month failed to implement a proposed export ban, roughly 80 percent of what’s left of it ends up in the Japanese market.

“Looking to the future,” writes Takamura, “the issue that makes me most anxious is food.” In 1995 the world’s population was 5.7 billion; it’s 6.9 billion now and headed for 9.1 billion by 2050. Will Japan even be able to feed itself, let alone indulge in a devil-may-care “food culture”?

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Will Japan even be able to feed itself, let alone indulge in a devil-may-care “food culture”?

No. Food culture needs to be defined as local and sustainable. Then, yes maybe.

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Maybe japan should allow it's food culture to evolve a little.

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A definition of Japan's food culture is hardly restricted solely to the whale/dolphin/tuna issue, and in fact, Japanese cuisine as a whole is highly regarded throughout much of the world.

While Japan may be responsible for much of the decline in tuna stocks, the country is hardly alone in its apparent disregard for natural food resources. As noted in "Cheap" (Ellen Ruppel Shell), the love of Americans for inexpensive shrimp (All you can eat! $10.99!)has, directly or indirectly, caused untold misery, environmental and financial damage in more than one country.

Nevertheless, I agree with the general drift of the article, that food self-sufficiency is a pressing issue, and that the current "farm-to-market" trend in Japan is not nearly adequate to solving the problem.

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Japanese cuisine is a cookbook, not the food itself as that's imported. Only when the imports drop will the cookbook find itself lacking in resilience and depth. Love Japanese food and it is the style that works, and should be kept up with local foods even internationally. I'm amazed this style hasn't travelled more so (not int'l sushi which is really low) and shown to be as healthy as it is.

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The culture of food waste does not help this imbalance. The amount of food thrown away after hotel banquets, parties, receptions, even supermarkets and convenience stores at the end of the day is mind-boggling, and although there have been a few recent initiatives on 'doggy-bags', most of it is trashed.

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Simplify eating habits and compromise with prevailing norms, if only to avoid a potentially crippling isolation...

Japan should accept that it is pointless and unachievable to have 100% food self-sufficiency. It's a complete waste of time.

They would be better to support such CITES initiatives to cut down on Bluefin tuna so that the 'world' will be 100% self sufficient.

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I eat tuna only a few times a year, dolphin and whale never. I appreciate the very occasional quality toro. But those fish/sea mammals are really a tiny part of Japanese cuisines, and tuna is mostly used for the lower-end supermarket sushi, to be gulped down by Japanese that never cook and eat any kind of fastfood.

My fishmonger proposes about a hundred of species of fresh and delicious local fish and seafood. You must really have bad taste to focus on tuna and whale Mrs Takamura. You're probably very ignorant in your own country's foods.

100 years ago, most Japanese people wouldn't eat much maguro, and they wouldn't waste like now. And that was not a "simplification" at all, there was a great variety of recipes. They should go back to traditions.

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What food culture?

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"A definition of Japan's food culture is hardly restricted solely to the whale/dolphin/tuna issue, and in fact, Japanese cuisine as a whole is highly regarded throughout much of the world."

Exactly. The GOOD stuff (AKA more popular foods) are available anywhere worldwide. They will never die.

The silly little things that conservatives and old bats try to hang onto... they only survive because they are HEAVILY government subsidised.

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This is similar to the oil sufficiency of the US, and asking Americans to stop driving cars. Yeah good luck with that. At least Japan here has an excuse - there's simply not much land and you can't ask people to stop eating like you can ask them to stop burning millions of barrels of oil.

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100 years ago, most Japanese people wouldn't eat much maguro

The everyday diet of the typical Japanese 100 years ago would probably not have had much fish at all. It was largely vegetable and grain-based.

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The more food you grow and eat locally the more transportation oil you save.

-Of course this upset the globalists.

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I'm missing the point of this article are we addressing the plumetting marine resources or the changes in diet of young people? Anyway aside from dolphins, whales and tuna I don't see that Japanese food culture is endangered, if anything Japanese food has spread around the world and is more prevalent than ever.

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Japanese food culture went the way of Instant Ramen, Curry Rice, McDonalds Hamburgers, and canned coffee years ago !

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This is similar to the oil sufficiency of the US, and asking Americans to stop driving cars. Yeah good luck with that. At least Japan here has an excuse - there's simply not much land and you can't ask people to stop eating like you can ask them to stop burning millions of barrels of oil.

I failed to see any excuse... Oil is necessary in modern America. There is no way around it other than being shot back to the iron age.

They aren't asking Japan to stop eating. They are asking them to limit the eating of certain things, especially those of which cannot maintain a healthy population.

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About the tuna, is it possible to farm raise them and put a limit to how much you can catch in the wild? where I'm from they do this for catfish and there doesn't seem to be a problem.

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My solution: Make rural places nice places to live. Then more young people will want to take up farming or work in food cultivation industries.

As it is, rural Japan is a depressing, desolate place, still ruled by oppressive and reactionary attitudes.

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"The naton's food self-sufficiency ratio is a dismal 40%"

What's dismal about that? Nothing wrong with tiny Japan importing 60% of its food from the rest of the wide world.

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"Nothing wrong with tiny Japan importing 60% of its food from the rest of the wide world."

Japan made the decision years ago to forego food production for factories that make cars, electronics, and gadgets. Now those markets are bottoming out and Japan is stuck with the reality that they no longer have the farming community able to produce mass amounts of food on a whim ! With so many people unemployed today in Japan you'd think farming would be the career of choice- but alas we got a lazy work force out there that refuses to adapt- so be it, a doomed scenerio if ever there was one.

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Japan's food culture.... why is so much focus on whales n tuna? traditionally costal people dined on fish but with the capitals having been in Nara and Kyoto, fresh fish products was not part of the food culture for a large number of j-folk. I really wonder where some of these non sensical ideas come from? sushi? morphadite product originating in korea and other areas as a way to preserve fish and then evolved to include fresh fish as we see today. At what point to we establish 'authenticity' of something that by nature and definition evolves and adapts.... It seems that there is very little understanding of what j-folk ate here a hundred or more years ago before refrigeration, prosperity, and modernization. Food self sufficiency? Well of course a small overpopulated island will have to deal with such an issue and allowing the food culture as well as the culture evolve, adapt, and mature by considering the environment that it is a part of is a good thing.

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Japanese food culture went the way of Instant Ramen, Curry Rice, McDonalds Hamburgers, and canned coffee years ago !

I thought that was japanese food culture! It is certainly what most of the people eat here in Tokyo!

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Rather than banging-on about tuna, how about normal food? I used to eat a lot of fruit, but some of it can be ridiculously expensive here, over Y300 for 1 apple??? The government need to subsidise farmers more, so people can have a better choice of food rather than not being able to eat healthy because it’s expensive.

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I grow my own fruit & veg. Hopefully soon, we'll only need to go to the market for meat and fish.

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Japanese food is the best prepared in the world. I'm so sad to see the great little restaurants in Azabu and Omotesando disappearing. Japanese diet saved me from being overweight. I'm very grateful for that.

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Ms. Takamura, have you even visited any other countries? Do you even know what's going on in Japan? I walked into my local bento (boxed lunch) shop today, and you know what? Not a piece of dolphin or whale or even tuna on sale in any of the bento boxes, it's simply too expensive for most Japanese people to eat every day. I've long admired the Japanese for their more sensible and balanced diets, with the average lunch box consisting mostly of rice and vegetables, with very little meat (in most a couple of pieces of pork or a piece of fish, in short a "taste" of meat). Most people I know start the day with miso soup (soybean paste, you don't get much more environmentally friendly than that!) and rice, for some maybe an egg too. Suppers tend to be a bit more elaborate, but again the meat intake is much lower than in Western diets, and dolphin and whale certainly don't feature, and if there's tuna it's a couple of tiny pieces, probably 100 grams at the most. Salmon is far more common, and even that is served in "taste"-sized pieces.

Compare this to the large bloody lumps of meat served up on most Western dinner tables, with a side-order of starch and vegetables, and you'll see that while the rest of the world is complaining about Japanese eating it's them that need to revise their eating habits. The West complains loudly about the possible extinction of whale, dolphins and tuna, while supporting the extinction of countless species as they clear huge swathes of forests to allow more grazing room for cattle to feed their burger and steak obsession.

Frankly if Japan has to do anything it's focus on eating less Western junk food, which is becoming increasingly popular, and focus on eating more traditional Japanese food. Of course I'd like them to cut out the whale and dolphin, but most people I've talked to have eaten whale maybe a couple of times in their lives and almost no-one had eaten dolphin, so you're really over-stating how wide-spread this problem is. Oh, and I'm in a region famous for its seafood, and whale and dolphin just aren't on the menu here... however they have recently made a breakthrough in making food from those disgusting giant jellyfish. This is definitely a step in the right direction since those giant jellyfish caused by pollution from China have done more damage to the tuna, dolphins and other fish populations than any other single factor.

Eat a jellyfish a day and do your bit for the environment!

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dolphin? where in japan can you eat dolphin? if you ask the question to regular japanese people, i dont think any of them can answer that.. whale? well, LONG time ago, after the WW2, japanese people ate whale quite often simply because that was cheap and people couldnt afford beef, chicken or pork. nowadays, whale is still available, but it is definitely not common here.

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Japan is whale-eater!!I still remember, I got whale menu for my lunch when I was in Shougakkou. The school served whale once or twice in a month :D

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NaomiCLB -- How long ago was that? just curious, because my kids' schools do not serve whale, never.

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according to the survey, more than 90% of japanese people have either never eaten whale, or haven't eaten it for over 30 years. Japanese schools served whale as school lunch up until 30 years ago but not anymore. after the world war II, the United States allowed Japan to catch whales, and it's been only a little over 60 years ago.. There were a few Japanese communities that ate whale before then, but not even 2% of Japanese had ever eaten whale until after WW2. Today, most younger japanese either have never eaten it or maybe once or twice in their whole lives...

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you guys want to bring up another whale debate here

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One thing that no one seems to look at in all this is the effect of the "showa era" homogenization of Japan that perpetuated the myth that all of Japan is the same.

Today if you go to a "riokan" in Akita or in Kyushu you will find virtually the same menu with a slight local variation but traditionally both these regions would have served very different meals in the past in Akita it would not have been uncommon to have been served deer or pheasant and you would have rarely been served fish or prawns (maybe Japanese Char) in Kyushu you would have possibly been served boar and in both cases you would have been served more locally traditional vegetables.

In places like Yamanashi (Kofu) Sashimi and sushi would have been inconceivable as they were too far from the sea for the fish to be fresh enough still today many older residents till won't eat it.

Japans own campaign to promote its image as one people is now backfiring and has been a loss of some of what made Japan.

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Japanese respect the dead. People in western countries respect whales and dolphins. What would Japanese think if Westerners showed disrespect towards the dead?

The honorable tradition of Shintoism is about giving more than receiving. But in the case of dolphin and whale hunting, Japanese hunters take more than they give to the sea. So it makes it dishonorable, and environmentally unsustainable.

There may be no more commercial fish stocks left in the sea by 2050, according to a new study cataloguing the global collapse of marine ecosystems.

See http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10433-no-more-seafood-by-2050.html

So the end of Japanese food will come with fish being an endangered species due to the dishonorable habit of taking more than giving to the sea.

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StarCom; Shintosm is a nationbalist religion adopted by facists. Japan doesn`t care about fish being endangered or any other animal. they would jut move onto the next one and blame the extinction on others.

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There is a lot of talk about protein-based food in this article, but what about the vegetables and fruit?? JA seems to have a monopoly over everything.

I've heard a lot of complaints from farmers about the lack of young people who have any interest in farming at all. But I've also heard that it can be difficult for new people to establish themselves in farming here.

And from where I am in Hokkaido, the living conditions of farmers aren't so great either. A lot of the houses are falling apart and/or are in the middle of nowhere. It's hard to get around without a car, and life seems very isolated in the winter. I find that people who do well here are either the "lone wolf" type, or are really genki and like to go out and enjoy the mountains and rivers.

There is also a committee in my town that is trying to finds wives for the few young guys here who did get into farming. Apparently that is a big problem, and probably another deterent for young men to join agricluture here.

What kills me is that my town has beautiful parks and a nice little museum, but they never hold nay kind of social events apart from the annual asparagus festival or whatever. The town nevers holds new or exciting social events that would attract young poeple and make life here seem more city-like or exciting, such as gallery openings, or weekend beer gardens with music at the local park.

I worry that the lack of prefectural and town governments' ability to meet the social needs and living standards needs of young people in the inaka will keep drivng poeple to the cities instead of to the farms, thereby exacerbating the current food crisis.

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fishy : it was in '90s

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International whaling was banned in 1982. Whale went off nearly all school menus and returned in several cities of Japan in 2005, so there was no schools in Japan that served whale as school lunch in the 90's. If you used to eat whale for lunch while you were in elementary school in the 90s, it means you are probably still a teenager, are you?

In any ways, I think Japan should stop catching whales.

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fishy - Get over it. Even Pete Bethune is today quoted in Japanese media as recognizing that whaling is a Japanese tradition.

Your logic doesn't make sense, anyway. That the IWC has had whaling catch limits set to zero for the better part of 30 years is why most Japanese people haven't eaten whale or haven't eaten it in a long time. Whale inventory levels today still run along at less than 10% of the volume of expensive bluefin tuna inventory levels. Thus, people can't eat whales much - there is hardly any product available, and would amount to a single slice of sashimi per person, once a year, if it were to be divided up and distributed evenly to each resident of Japan.

Comparisons with WWII arbitrarily selected as a reference in time are also senseless. The fact is that the technology to make producing large volumes of whale meat was not available to the Japanese until after WWII.

And the inescapable fact is that Japanese people were eating whales since the Edo period. They were eating what was made available with their production methods of that age.

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Some on here are critical of Takamura for suggesting Japanese eat loads of whale & dolphin, but nowhere does she say such a thing at all.

And once again some have to bring up the "well look what the others are eating" non sequitur. She's talking about Japanese food customs and culture - for crissakes.

davidtokyo - Japan I believe, along with Germany, were the greatest whaling nations in the years prior to WW11. Ridiculously so.

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StarCom wrote:

The honorable tradition of Shintoism is about giving more than receiving.

It may be true. And my understanding of Shintoism is about not forgetting the sense that we owe our lives to the whole world and nature around us. The sense that we are being let live by a whole lot of givers brings forth the sense of thriftiness and conservation, which we have almost forgotten. We may look back on this age half-wistfully as the rare time in history when we can eat whatever we like in abundance.

We may have to east small in future. The traditional Japanese food is good for such days: Germinated half-milled rice, fermented foodstuff, vegetables and sea shells/small fry are enough to keep us going healthy. Better forgo animal meat too. Cattle breeding consumes much feed grains and water and actually gives a heavier load to the environment than other foodstuff.

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Japans "bursting" supermarket shelves? Where? I counted 6 small bags of potatoes on my local supermarket shelf the other day. The same applies to other foods. Compared with the UK, Japans supermarkets look somewhat Third World in terms of variety, choice, and quantity. Hardly "bursting!"

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Shintoism is not anymore a fascist religion. Fascism came as it was turned int a way to give everything to the emperor, a twisted version of shintoist giving nature. Nowadays it is more tradition than anything else.

It is weird that media presents whaling and dolphin hunting as "traditional". A tradition usually is widely know by population.

And given the dishonorable nature of whaling because it takes more than it receives, it would be dishonorable according to the tradition of shintoism.

Does it mean that Japanese should take instead of receiving? If that's the case, then Japanese should also take company property, assets and data for their use. Under the "take more than you receive" principle, they also should rob temples and loot graveyards and offer relatives the chance of paying ransom for returning the remnants of the dead... Hmmm, I do not think decent Japanese may want to abandon the noble honor of shintoist giving nature.

Average Japanese people are good, not dishonorable enough to engage in whaling or loot graveyards.

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Japanese live with the myth that whaling is still part of their culture. It may have been in certain parts of Japan years ago, but not today. I had ochanko ryori several decades ago with whale meat and it tasted different, if not outright terrible. Never again. Blue fin and whale are illegal in the U.S. Nobu's and a Japanese sushi restaurant were recently fined for serving them, respectively.

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@davidattokyo

Men sleeping with young boys was a tradition also...seemed to be happy to change that one?

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tradition is not an excuse..............western culture used to sacrifice virgins and it's illegal now.

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The excuse of Japan to do whaling was "research". Why should research affect food? With this article it seems Japan Today denounces under wraps that whales are used for food and not for research. So it is a good time to ban whaling. Food and research are different things.

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