On Fiber and Food Nationalism 食物繊維と和食回帰について

Cross-posted in a somewhat less angry tone on Displaying Japan.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to a village in rural Kumamoto prefecture to play taiko at a festival there. After our performance we unwound at a community center, where a pair of posters caught my eye:

As an ardent advocate for dietary fiber, I was initially thrilled to see this kind of pro-roughage propaganda, titled Shokumotsu Sen’i de Seijinbyō Yobō 食物繊維で成人病予防 (Prevention of Adult Diseases through Dietary Fiber). The poster on the left mostly enumerates the health benefits of fiber (impedes the absorption of cholesterol, sugars, and toxins; helps prevent high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and colon cancer; and of course, it keeps us nice and regular). The second poster discusses the difference between soluble and insoluble fibers and ways to get enough of both kinds. Awesome.

But I was less pleased when I took a closer look and noticed this:

Under a heading that says “Reasons for the decline of dietary fiber intake among Japanese people,” here we have an arrow leading from “dietary Westernization” to “insufficient fiber.”

Say what?!

To be fair, the poster also blames instant and processed foods (レトルト) for the fiber crisis, but I’ll let the Family Mart people handle that blog entry. And maybe I shouldn’t let a couple of perfectly well-meaning cartoons from the Japan Family Planning Association (whoever they are) bother me this much, but I couldn’t help but see these posters as symptomatic of a broader problem: food nationalism – and its unpleasant by-product, the greedy reductionism and misrepresentation of food cultures.

The poster instantly reminded me of an article/editorial I read in Japan Now, a hardcover periodical published by the Japan National Tourist Organization, which I pilfered from our hotel room in Sapporo just in case I wanted to get angry again later. The article is printed in both Japanese and English, with the vaguely sad title 「和食を忘れた日本人・民族と食の関係性」or “The Japanese who have neglected washoku: Relations between a people and their diet.” The author is one Takeo Koizumi 小泉武夫, a professor of applied bioscience at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, whose undeniably cool specialty is fermentation science. But despite his credentials, I found the article to be atrociously stupid.

My favorite meal consists of a bowl of rice, with miso soup, natto (fermented soybeans), seasoned nori laver and broiled fish, and even today, I feel uncomfortable if I do not have washoku for all three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Koizumi writes this in his introductory paragraph, laying bare the source of his bias: he likes traditional Japanese food. Upon Googling him in English, I discovered that Koizumi is, or at least was, closely aligned with the Japan Whaling Association. In 2003 he was elected chairman of the “Group to Preserve Whale Dietary Culture.” I’d be a hypocritical bastard to condemn him for this, but it should at least give you an idea of where his culinary loyalties lie. He apparently was once called “a patriot with a pair of chopsticks.”

Anyway, I’ll play fair; I have a bias, too. And it’s for much the same reason – I like Western food. But not only that, I like pretty much all food; I think variety is generally a valuable thing, and culinary closed-mindedness irks me. Especially when it seems to be based on such egregious misconceptions as Koizumi’s.

One of the most problematic things about the article is the way Koizumi totally reduces both Western cuisine and Japanese cuisine into ultra-stereotypical compartments, which he mostly defines in terms of nutritive value. “Nowadays,” writes a somber Koizumi, “the Western-style diet, high in protein, fat, and calories, has spread widely to become the mainstream, and the Japanese are beginning to neglect washoku which is low in protein, fat, and calories.” First of all: “nowadays?” Huh? Westernization of the Japanese diet is nothing new. European food started to trickle in during the late Muromachi period with the arrival of Dutch and Portuguese traders and missionaries, and by the end of the Meiji period, urban Japanese were chowing down on beef, bread, and bastardized British bhuna.

But that’s a minor qualm. What’s really appalling is Koizumi’s grand oversimplification of “Western” food. To his credit, in the Japanese version of the article, he uses the less nebulous term ōbei 欧米, which means “European and American,” not “Western.” (Frankly, I wish we had a similar word in English.) But even so, lumping all of Europe and all of the United States into one, bite-sized culinary category defined as “high in protein, fat, and calories” is almost as worthless as defining all the cuisines of Asia as “gingery.” I would agree with Koizumi if he said that Western food is generally higher in protein, fat, and calories than traditional Japanese food, but even then, he would be turning a blind eye to the way modern Japanese people actually eat.

Why are the Japanese said to have longer intestines than Western people? This is because the Japanese have always had a plain and modest diet centered on grain products and vegetables since ancient times. Our genes have accordingly evolved so as to render our bodies suited to the effective absorption of nutrients. For this reason, it is said that the genes of the Japanese people are still inadequate for the intake of foods such as meat and dairy products which we were hardly accustomed to eating until some fifty years ago.

Longer intestines… hmm. Strange, but plausible – or so I thought. A quick romp around the interweb reveals that this theory was first espoused by Nihonjinron 日本人論 texts, and that it was used in the 1980s as an argument against the importation of American beef, and that no scientific studies have ever confirmed a racial differential for intestine length!

But even if Koizumi is right – who knows, maybe the Japanese really do have longer intestines – the assertion that Japanese gastrointestinal systems are “inadequate” to digest meat and dairy products should come as a laughable surprise to anybody who has ever strolled through the refrigerated section of a Japanese supermarket or eaten at a Japanese McDonald’s (billions of hamburgers sold, since 1971!). I know this much is true: Japanese people eat meat. Lord knows they certainly can pound down hot dogs just as feverishly as the next New Yorker. They do not stagger away from meals of Genghis Khan buckled over in stomach pain, remorsefully clutching their gut and vowing to never eat meat again. This is the land of the steak tabehōdai. This is the land of tonkotsu ramen, yakitori, and deep-fried pork chops in public school lunches. This is the land of the Mega Teriyaki Mac.

(As an aside, isn’t it odd that Koizumi so readily encourages his countrymen to eat whale? After all, it’s the red meat to end all red meat! Or did he also learn from the Nihonjinron that whale is actually a type of fish?)

Of course, Koizumi would be basically correct to say that meat and dairy are not part of the traditional (pre-Meiji) Japanese diet. But the Japanese gastronomy has changed, and continues to change today. The Japanese Wikipedia articles on Japanese food and Western food both note that what is called yōshoku 洋食 (a sort of Japanized Western cuisine) is actually a kind of Japanese food. Obviously, this definition is not authoritative, but it is certainly telling.

As further “evidence” that Western food = nothing but trouble, Koizumi reports that since the 1945 US occupation of Okinawa and the subsequent influx of American food, “life expectancy in Okinawa has steadily been on the decline.” But guess what? This handy chart says quite the opposite! (And yes, I know that chart is from a site promoting the traditional Okinawan diet, but the point is, Koizumi is a liar, or a moron.) He also writes: “Changes have recently been identified in the physical and mental make-up of the Japanese, especially of the younger generation, with increasing cases of children breaking their bones during the athletic meets held at elementary schools or suffering from lightheadedness while standing during morning assembly…. it can be said that such changes are, to a large extent, cause by our more westernized [sic] eating habits.” I don’t know whether or not these statistics are true or not, and I don’t really care, but I will say this: the wide world of Western food offers plenty of foods that improve bone density and circulation. Even the Japanese government is with me on this; milk is now a mandatory part of lunch for every student in Japanese public schools – which, I might add, are littered with pro-dairy posters similar to the pro-fiber posters above.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not think “Western food” is as healthy as Japanese food. I agree with Koizumi that a diet full of fish, natto, burdock, and tea is probably better for you than a diet full of beef, cheese, curry, and coffee. But Koizumi has a very narrow view of what “Western food” and “Japanese food” actually are; Western food is not all bad, and Japanese food is not all good – even among the traditional stuff. Finally, Koizumi’s flagrant exceptionalism (“The Japanese can only eat Japanese food!”) is kind of disturbing, especially when you consider that high-ranking officials in the Japanese government often maintain similar views, which is why this country has some remarkably aggravating aggricultural trade laws.

It is similarly unfair to blame a national fiber crisis on dietary Westernization when Westernization is predetermined to be unhealthy. Sure, Western food can be defined as fried chicken, burgers, Kraft singles, and mayonnaise – all easily identified as “non-Japanese.” But the image of Western food could just as easily include such popular (and traditional!) items as whole-grain bread, wild rice, breakfast cereal, and apples and grapes with the skin on – as all of these, too, are largely absent from the Japanese diet.

What I’m trying to say is simple: don’t blame your constipation on my food. In America, we eat bran muffins… and God damn it, we like ’em!

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13 thoughts on “On Fiber and Food Nationalism 食物繊維と和食回帰について

  1. Vonnegurl says:

    Wow! Well said, and very informative.

    I wonder how Koizumi accounts for the epidemic of hunchbacks in Japan. Even the stickers that suggests that bus seats should be surrendered to the elderly depict them as 90 degree angles, slouched on canes, with their backs nearly parallel to the floor. It makes me glad to see that milk magnet on the junior high school schedule everyday!

  2. Tim says:

    Actually, I did some research on that. Discovery number one: the rate of osteoporosis in Japan is, surprisingly, about the same as it is in America. Discovery number two: osteoporosis is only one cause of hunchbacks. They can also result from either bad posture (often caused by weakness brought on by aging) or a genetic anomaly.

    But Koizumi is still bad and wrong.

  3. Justin says:

    I really hope you wrote all of this off of the top of your head, simply because that would be awesome seeing how this is extremely well informed, but it seems that you did your research. I still think that school lunch is probably the healthiest meal I eat every day, but I don’t see myself living on just those foods. There’s such a difference between what we grew up eating, that the absence seems more like a “lack of” rather than “a difference”. I did, however, stop drinking milk at school, because it’s whole milk x5. I get by just fine with my low-fat milk.

    Also, someone needs to tell Koizumi that evolution doesn’t work that way.

  4. Xander says:

    How could Koizumi possibly neglect to remember the westernizing influences on the Japanese diet during the Muromachi period? Bordeaux and I were just discussing that topic during a commercial break during Ugly Betty the other day.

    I love your food journalism, as always Tim. This entry is exactly the reason I read ‘I am a Viking’. -X

  5. Seiko says:

    This is my first time to write a comment, but I always enjoy reading your blog.
    I think that alot of Japanese people are quite open-minded about food and accepts different kinds of food from different countries. But it is also true that there are some people like Mr. Koizumi, and people who try desparately to make us eat rice and fish to protect the primary industry. There is no way that we will be eating three meals of rice, fish and miso soup everyday in the future though. It is not realistic. But it is real that the health problems are becoming more serious in Japan and there is a possibility to prevent them from what we eat, and I think this kind of field is more progressed in America. So I think that though the poster blames “western food” for constipation, in just a few years we will be learning alot more of healthy eating from them. I think that is a much more realistic way of improving Japanese people’s health because we are too used to the tastes that are not originally Japanese and there are lots of open-minded people, which means people love to see what (fashionable food)people in other countries eat and try to eat the same(and maybe also Japanize some,, not even knowing)!

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