Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about vegetarianism as an expression of conscience. The article is not meant to advocate meat-free diets. My point is that the moral imperative which informs vegetarianism is worth discussing and it is not discussed in Japan because too many parties have something at stake. I would guess that in the developed world vegetarians are still in the minority, but I also guess their number is rising all the time. You hear of no such movement in Japan, mainly because the media indirectly brand vegetarians as being far outside the mainstream. Though less contentious, the anti-fur movement is also a touchy subject, but there are a few celebrities who have come out as being against the killing of animals simply to satisfy fashion prerogatives: Becky, who I mentioned in the column, Aya Sugimoto, Miyoko Atsuda are three who have publicized their objection to fur. The pop singer Nakano Sun Plaza is also anti-fur, and, in fact, is a vegetarian, though he never discusses it when he’s on TV. Greenpeace’s agenda is generally environmental in nature, but its anti-whaling activities are only mentioned by the press when they involve alleged illegalities, such as the theft of whale meat that prompted a criminal investigation. Though the Greenpeace activists cited in the investigation were Japanese, they were portrayed as advancing a foreign agenda that ran counter to Japanese interests.
At the heart of the whaling issue is the resentment that some Japanese feel toward outsiders who would presume to tell them how to eat, and while there is an often patronizing attitude behind the righteousness of animal welfare groups, when that pressure is translated in commercial terms it can be effective. Though it hasn’t been covered by the Japanese media at all, the cosmetics giant Shiseido has said it will stop using animals to test the safety of its products, apparently in line with an EU policy that goes into effect sometime this year. (It’s interesting to note that European cosmetics companies have been more vocal in their opposition to this law than Shiseido has been, and may succeed in postponing it for ten years) In any case, the issue is framed as an economic one, and if research whaling eventually stops it will be for that reason and not because the Japanese people suddenly feel sorry for whales. Most of the world doesn’t feel sorry for whales, either, but, to borrow a line from Dr. King, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Thanks in no small part to the media and the animal rights advocates who exploit it, more people are becoming concerned about cruelty and their own part in it. In Japan, the disregard for animal welfare has an almost comical outcome, namely the fetishization of animals that will eventually be eaten, as illustrated by ads for pork or beef or chicken that use extremely cute depictions of these creatures to sell their meat.
But if Japanese authorities and the media use culture to turn public sentiment against anti-whaling forces, they also use it to fool the public. While researching the media reaction here to the current scandal in Europe over horse meat purposely mislabeled as beef, I read some things about horse meat in Japan that I didn’t know. Here, horse meat is a delicacy, and Kumamoto Prefecture famously produces the finest basashi (horse sashimi). Consequently, Kumamoto horse meat commands high prices in Japan, but according to one report I read almost all the horses slaughtered in Kumamoto for meat purposes come from North America. They are born and, for the most part, raised abroad, and then shipped to Kumamoto where they spend the last months of their lives before being killed. Would Japanese people avoid basashi if they knew how little time the horses spent in Japan? Probably not, but they definitely wouldn’t pay as much.