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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Japan's culture dictates: Thou shalt eat meat


On Jan. 15, the animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, announced that CBS had refused to accept a 30-second TV spot from the group for the network's Feb. 1 Super Bowl broadcast. CBS explained that its policy is not to accept "advocacy advertisements." PETA, which would have paid $2 million for the spot, complained that CBS, by airing antismoking ads, had already shown that it accepted advocacy commercials.

News photo
Wholesalers bid at a Tokyo meat market. In Japan vegetarianism is very much an underground phenomenon.

While the group's activism involves everything from fighting animal testing to promoting the spaying and neutering of pets, the ad they wanted to place during the Super Bowl was one for vegetarianism that focused on only one benefit. In the ad, two comely young women attempt to seduce a pizza deliveryman but find he can't "deliver the goods." At the end of the commercial, the women are satisfied by a different deliveryman who happens to be a vegetarian.

The ad plays up the theory that meat-eating men are more prone to impotence than non-meat-eaters are. The virility theme is clearly directed at the kind of men who watch football, and anyone who receives U.S.-originated e-mail spam will immediately recognize it as a national obsession.

As "advocacy," it doesn't sound very effective, but because CBS described it as such it's obvious that the network regards the ad as being political in nature. CBS also rejected an ad from the political action group MoveOn.org, which wanted to buy 30 seconds for an anti-Bush spot.

Generally speaking, vegetarianism is considered a political rather than a personal statement. History is full of famous vegetarians, but for some reason Adolph Hitler is more famous for not eating meat than Henry Ford is, probably because people equate vegetarianism with extremism.

As both a health-related lifestyle choice and an act of moral rectitude, vegetarianism has gained wider acceptance with the recent meat-industry scares involving BSE and avian influenza. When the mad-cow scare gripped Europe in the '90s, many British people became vegetarians. During the more recent BSE scare in the United States, however, the news shows were filled with Americans confidently telling the cameras that they had no intention of cutting back on their beef consumption and acting as if eating meat was protected by the Bill of Rights.

But there are many American vegetarians, including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, and they come in many shapes and sizes: Some eat fish, some shun all dairy and egg products, some only eat vegetables in season.

In the media, embracing a meat-free diet is not seen as a personal choice, but rather a rejection of everyone else's choice to eat meat. The demonizing of vegetarians is a defensive reaction, as all demonizing is. That's why CBS rejected the PETA ad, and why in Japan vegetarians are virtually a secret society.

The absence of an aboveground vegetarian culture in Japan is particularly surprising since the country's belief system is at least partly founded on Buddhist principles that proscribe the killing of animals. However, the more prevalent belief system is consensus, and the idea of vegetarianism is automatically viewed as a polarizing one.

The BSE and avian flu problems have been presented as health crises or economic crises. The animals themselves are collateral damage, waste. Many vegetarians choose to reject meat for health reasons, but it is my belief that the vast majority take it up because they cannot abide the slaughter of animals for food. In Japan, there is a bizarre disconnection between the image of livestock and an appreciation of meat that one doesn't see even in a meat-obsessed country like the United States. Supermarket fliers for pork feature smiling young women frolicking with cute little pigs. Elementary school children go on field trips to dairy farms to nuzzle calves without being told what happens to them. Celebrities on cooking shows are shown plump, live chickens and squeal "kawaii (cute)" and "oishiso (looks delicious)" in alternation.

Japanese TV's food fixation has probably done more to discourage vegetarianism here than any other single phenomenon, mainly by depriving the average viewer of role models. DiCaprio and Diaz can still make movies even if their dietary habits offend many Americans, but in Japan show-biz people who don't eat meat automatically reduce their work prospects. Celebrities who make it known that they are vegetarians may find their job offers dwindling. When these shows do cover vegetarian cooking, such as the traditional shojin ryori eaten by some Buddhist monks, it's presented as haute cuisine, removed from its religious meaning.

News stories and commentary that have addressed the BSE and avian-flu problems often point out how nature seems to be getting back at industrialized human society, but except for an Asahi Shimbun editorial by conductor Hiroyuki Iwaki, I haven't seen anything that takes into consideration the animals themselves, whose lives are deemed to be less significant than their use as food.

Even if shunning meat is beyond the pale for most of us, maybe we should consider giving something back. It's interesting to note that the Chinese government is trying to ban traditional funeral rites in Tibet, which involve cutting up dead bodies and leaving them exposed so that they can be consumed by scavenger birds. The authorities call this custom "barbaric," but it's actually ecologically sound and cosmically fair. It allows animals a chance to eat us once in a while.



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