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Sunday, May 30, 2010

MEDIA MIX

Does Miyazaki Pref. flap have silver lining?


The foot-and-mouth disease crisis that has ruined much of the livestock industry in Miyazaki Prefecture is akin to an apocalypse; or, at least, that's the feeling you get from the media coverage.

A pig farmer from Hyogo Prefecture, commiserating with fellow pig farmers in Miyazaki, told a TBS reporter, "If one piglet dies it's a tragedy; when they all have to die it's hell."

During a discussion of the issue on NHK radio, the announcer said the station had received calls and e-mails from listeners expressing sympathy toward the animals. He mentioned this to another pig farmer being interviewed on the show, who responded: "Yes, those animals are just like pets to us. Imagine if you had to watch your pets being killed every day."

These two men obviously understand that their beloved animals are basically born to be butchered, but that's not what they're talking about. They're talking about cows and pigs being slaughtered prematurely in order to halt the spread of the foot-and-mouth virus, and in that sense the tragedy takes on a less apocalyptic dimension, especially since in most cases when the crisis is covered on TV the report includes images of sizzling meat: This is what those dead animals should have turned into. Is "hell" the huge pits filled with carcasses, or is it all that wasted sirloin?

Unlike Taku Eto, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party member representing Miyazaki who luridly described the "hell of the killing site" to gain political points against the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, most of the people shown on TV seem genuinely devastated by the outbreak, but the tone of the coverage makes it difficult to decide how much of their emotional hardship is based on the enormity of the lives wasted and how much is based on the amount of revenue lost. In practical terms, is there a difference?

Cows and pigs cannot speak for themselves and so their circumstances are articulated by the people who raise them. These people are identified as victims, especially since it is the authorities who are ordering the premature slaughter and who have been blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.

But who speaks for livestock when there's no epidemic, when animals go to their deaths as a matter of course? Everybody knows where the steak or the pork chop or the drumstick on their plate comes from, but the cognitive dissonance that accompanies meat consumption in Japan can get pretty deafening, especially when potential livestock epidemics are involved, and on a worldwide basis they seem to occur frequently. It's to be expected when you raise animals in such "concentrated livestock areas" as Miyazaki.

There are cultural explanations for why it is taboo to discuss the processing of livestock and poultry in Japan, including Buddhist strictures against the taking of life and the general avoidance of anything tainted with death. The former "untouchable" castes of Japanese society comprised vocations that handled corpses, leather, and the slaughter of animals. Communities still put up strong opposition when a local shrine or temple endeavors to expand its graveyard or someone tries to establish a new funeral home, even if it's downwind. And it's only been in the last 10 years or so that NHK's nature shows have allowed scenes of predators catching and devouring prey, something that's so common in overseas nature programs that there are whole series dedicated to the depiction of animals killing other animals.

The shroud of silence covering slaughterhouses makes it virtually impossible to find out what methods are used. Gas? Electrocution? A bolt to the brain? A knife to the throat? The award-winning Austrian documentary "Our Daily Bread," which includes scenes of cows, pigs and chickens being slaughtered in European factories, was an art-house hit in Japan several years ago, thus indicating that some people do want to know. Instead of knowledge, the Japanese media give them euphemisms and fairy tales that effectively remove death from the equation. In advertisements for beef and pork, cows and pigs are anthropomorphized and made adorable; in some cases their cartoon cognates are even shown enjoying the flesh of their own kind.

The truth is thought to be obscene. The controversial Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove" is mainly about the way the fishermen of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, kill dolphins. All the movie's attendant arguments about "cultural relativity" and mercury poisoning are beside the point, which is that those dolphins die horrible deaths and the fishermen don't want you to see it.

Maybe the farmer who referred to his pigs as pets has never watched any of them get slaughtered, since that is done not on his farm but at a meat processing plant. Thirty years ago, before factory farming helped bring the price of meat down so that it was affordable to the average consumer, he would have likely killed the animals he raised himself. Now he has to watch them be killed on his farm in order to prevent the spread of the disease, and he's understandably upset.

So is Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, who shed tears in front of TV cameras as he unsuccessfully tried to secure pardons for the 55 stud bulls that held the key to the prefecture's reputation for top-grade beef. These bulls were held in such high esteem they were even given sacred names, like sumo wrestlers. Each required seven to 10 years to raise and before that generation after generation of breeding to become producers of sperm used to breed most of Japan's finest, tenderest beef brands — news that received as much attention as the cull itself. Last week, a Tokyo department store had a Miyazaki beef fair, and one customer told The Asahi Shimbun that she bought some prime cuts because all the media coverage had convinced her the prefecture's meat was the best. Every apocalypse has a silver lining.



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