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Sunday, April 3, 2005

MEDIA MIX

So much food that we don't know what to do with it


The media didn't quite know what to make of that bizarre story last month about the elderly Sapporo man who allegedly killed his wife following a dinnertime spat. One might expect a husband to become angry over not getting enough food, TV commentators implied, but in this case the situation was the opposite. He killed her because she gave him too much.

When the husband complained, the wife reportedly told him that he didn't have to eat it all, a remark that threw him into a rage. As best-selling author Takashi Yoro commented on TV Asahi's "Hodo Station," the 80-year-old suspect is old enough to have clear memories of World War II and its aftermath, when food was precious and people were constantly hungry.

What Yoro wanted to say was that the husband probably couldn't tolerate the idea that his wife would throw food away, but in fact Japan leaves more food on its plate than any country in the world.

Last week, a letter appeared in the Asahi Shimbun penned by a 14-year-old girl who wrote about seeing Aichi Expo employees on TV confiscating visitors' home-packed lunches for security reasons and throwing them away, a policy that has since been stopped as a result of public protest. The girl couldn't believe this was happening "while people are starving in Sudan."

The Agriculture Ministry estimates that, on average, 25 percent of the calories that are served to Japanese people is not eaten. In monetary terms, 11 trillion yen's worth of food is thrown away annually. These figures becomes more alarming when food production is taken into consideration. Among developed countries, Japan has the lowest self-sufficiency rate in terms of food production: 40 percent.

A recent Asahi Shimbun series titled "Goodbye Wasteful Society" reported that Japan also has the highest "food mileage" index in the world. Food mileage, a term devised by a consumer group in England, is a number that implies the amount of extra energy expended for the production of food due to transportation from the primary producer to the end consumer. Japan's index in 2001 was 900 billion ton-kilometers, more than three times that of the United States, which has more than twice Japan's population.

Japan's wasteful food situation is informed by more than just economics. In the Asahi article, an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said that Japanese people not only eat more "extravagantly" now than at any time in their history, but that they eat more extravagantly than any people in world history, including kings and tyrants.

Part of the reason for this waste is that the media has convinced people that access to great food is their right, and that no one has to put up with sub-standard cuisine. This is the precept behind the whale-hunting controversy, which says that Japan's "unique culture" gives it the right to consume whale meat regardless of the ecological effects and the fact that there are other sources of protein available. It is this same precept that is currently decimating tuna populations in the world's oceans and which is behind the American-instigated obsession with cheap beef, of which the Japanese were once the biggest importers.

The precept has been reinforced by decades of television that obsesses over food in the form of either cooking programs or travelogues that center on local cuisines and famous eateries, and which all boil down to the money shot of some celebrity eating and enthusing over taste and texture. The upshot is a consumer culture that demands only the best, and while many people say this attitude leads to better quality food, it also encourages waste.

The nadir of this cultural phenomenon is "Ai no Apron" (The Apron of Love)" (TV Asahi, 7 p.m.), a cooking show that not only deems food-waste acceptable, but attempts to make it entertaining.

Though the program has angered people -- mainly for its embrace of gender stereotypes -- the fact that it was moved more than a year ago from a late-night slot to prime time indicates that a lot of people watch it. The premise is simple: Several female tarento each charged with making a certain dish in the studio. They then serve it to male celebrities who pass judgment on it.

The original show had less to do with food than with showcasing cleavage, which is one of the missions of late-night TV. The prime-time version still features ditsy nubile girls, but most of the female guests are older and famous for other things. The idea is to see whether or not they are truly "feminine"; in other words, can they cook well enough to please a man.

One can never overstate Japanese TV's penchant for simple-minded sexism, but the entertainment of "Apron" is predicated on something else, namely the expectation that awful dishes will be produced sometime during the show. The purpose, however, is not instructional. No attempt is made to teach viewers how to cook. The only aim is to show people writhing in agony after downing badly prepared food.

These interludes climax in what is euphemistically called "etiquette time." As the judge, unable to swallow the horrible concoction in his mouth, runs offstage to discharge it, an insert showing that particular dish in its ideally prepared form is flashed on the screen. On last week's two-hour special, comedian Ken Shimura passed judgment on a Taiwanese idol's attempt at cooked squid. "It tastes like sewage," he said. Everybody laughed.

"Ai no Apron" has attracted criticism for such antics, but at least it's upfront about the food it wastes. It's impossible to watch other, ostensibly more respectable cooking and travel shows and not wonder what happens to all the food that's so lovingly prepared for celebrities, who usually only eat a mouthful or two. If the crew doesn't finish it off, then it too probably ends up in the garbage. Since food is treated as nothing more than a prop, in the final analysis it doesn't make any difference if it's good or bad. It's food for the eye, not the stomach.



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