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Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

Budget cuts dooming diners to plumpness


"The destiny of a nation depends on the manner in which it feeds itself," wrote French epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) in his famous treatise, "The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy."

If Brillat-Savarin were living today, one wonders what he might say about Japan, where three-star establishments in the Michelin Guide to Japan receive less media coverage these days than rival chains specializing in gyudon (stewed beef over rice), a staple food of Japan's hoi polloi.

Frontline dispatches from the ongoing war note that the deflationary spiral has seen Matsuya, Sukiya and Yoshinoya drop their prices to levels approximating those of the pre-"bubble" years in the 1980s. At the start of this month, said J-Cast News (Sept. 2), Yoshinoya, which had reported slumping sales for 17 consecutive months, began a campaign to commemorate its 111th anniversary with Gyunabe-don — a dish of imported beef, tofu and vegetables from its 1899 menu — priced at ¥280.

Another topic widely covered in the vernacular media of late has been the popularity of izayaka (Japanese pubs) that apply a new system in which all dishes on the menu are priced uniformly — the working man's version of the ¥100 shop.

Needless to say, dietary experts have long been warning that dietary trends toward over-salted, fat-laden, calorie- heavy meals do not bode well for people's continued physical well being. As far back as 1990, Shinya Nishizawa, a prolific author, explorer, mountaineer and authority on nutrition, published a controversial work titled "Yonjuissai Tanmei-setsu" ("The Theory of a Short Life span of 41 Years").

Forty-one was the average life expectancy of Japanese at the end of the Pacific War. Through huge strides in public health and improved living standards, Japanese men and women now rank near or at the top of the world's longest life expectancies, but Nishizawa predicts it won't last. In a 2008 book titled "Koware Yuku Nihon e" ("Toward the Breakup of Japan"), he renewed his warning that the deteriorating environment and declining quality of the average person's diet hold disastrous implications for the nation's future.

The current recession has almost certainly exacerbated the decline. In May 2008 — several months after pesticide-laced frozen gyoza dumplings imported from China sickened several people — 41.3 percent of respondents to a nationwide survey of 2,000 adults conducted by the quasi-governmental Japan Finance Corporation gave "safety of foods" as their prime concern when purchasing comestibles.

Then came the Lehman Shock. In a survey conducted one year later, only 19.8 percent of respondents still made food safety their prime concern — a single-year drop of 21.5 percentage points. The survey showed a similar shift in attitudes regarding the source of foods, with preferences for items from Japan (as opposed to imports), eclipsed by cost factors. In other words, affordability became the respondents' prime concern.

Monthly magazine Takarajima devotes 34 pages of its October issue to a special report titled "Inochi wo odorokasu!! Gekiyasu shokuzai no kyofu" ("A threat to life!! The fear of super-cheap food ingredients)." After considering the possible presence of carcinogens in the oils used for frying foods such as tempura, potatoes, chicken, korokke (croquettes) and tonkatsu (pork cutlets), it moves on to bash fast foods. Data on juvenile crime from the Ibaraki prefectural police suggests a correlation between proper nutrition and crime. Overdosing on fast food, the magazine suggests, deprives growing youths of minerals, possibly causing psychological imbalances.

Page after page, Takarajima pulls no punches. The flavoring ingredients in popular foods such as ramen (noodles in soup) and snacks may contribute to atopic dermatitis; imported seafood served in rotary sushi shops and other low-priced restaurants may contain unacceptably high levels of dioxin; the meat in low-priced barbecue restaurants is injected with artificial coloring and fats; food items in cheap izakaya may carry high levels of residual pesticides; and so on, ad nauseam.

And alcohol is no solace, as the ultra-cheap imported spirits many restaurants use in their chuhai mixed drinks may contain additives or impurities. Which might be the reason why, Osamu Ezaki of the National Institute of Health and Nutrition tells the magazine, you wake up with a splitting headache the next morning.

Shukan Economist (Aug. 31) joined the fray with a report on the worldwide explosion of obesity, which is reaching epidemic proportions in the United States and other developed economies and, while still low in Japan, is threatening to become a serious problem, if education ministry statistics are any indication.

"It's a certainty that the time will come," Yumiko Arimoto of the Mitsubishi UFG Research tells Shukan Economist, "that worker health will need to be positioned not in terms of social welfare, but as an aspect of a company's management strategy."

Thus, opportunity knocks once again for completely different types of businesses — diagnostics, medications, diet foods, exercise and other weight-reduction programs — which currently boast an annual market estimated at ¥2.5 trillion.



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