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Food for thought

by Masami Ito

Yukio Hattori, ‘one of Japan’s busiest men,’ takes time to chew over the issue of food and other meaty social matters with staff writer Masami Ito.

He’s on television all the time — usually being paid to eat delicious-looking food created by Japan’s top chefs. In his high-collared jacket it’s difficult to guess his profession. Is he a chef? A food critic? Or a TV personality?

The answer: none of the above. He is Yukio Hattori, a graduate of Showa University Medical School, president of the Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori — and probably one of the busiest men in Japan.

Hattori, who succeeded to his position in 1977, is the fifth generation of his family to head the nutrition school, which was founded in 1939. Astonishingly, in those 26 years he has only taken 23 days off from a busy schedule that keeps the 57-year-old constantly flying around Japan, and the world, guesting on TV shows, lecturing at symposiums, judging food contests, visiting schools and hospitals and so on.

Although he has long been known in the world of cooking and nutrition, Hattori first became a household name in Japan after he started to appear as a commentator on the “cooking battle” TV program “Ryori no Tetsujin (Iron Chef).” The enormously popular show ran from 1993 to 1999 and created such a stir that it was screened, suitably dubbed, on U.S. TV before a U.S.-made version, titled “Iron Chef,” took over in 2001.

But showbiz is only the tip of the Hattori iceberg.

For 12 years, the Tokyo native has also been actively involved in spreading the gospel of shokuiku (food education). At present, Japan’s education system is built on three pillars – chiiku (intellectual training), tokuiku (moral education) and taiiku (physical education). If Hattori had his way, though, he’d likely add shokuiku to that triumvirate, since he regards it not only as teaching about food, table manners and discipline, but also about environmental and population issues. Now, more than ever, in fact, Hattori stresses the need for shokuiku, due to the “critical” state of the nation’s food culture and the dying art of ofukuro no aji (handing down the taste of home cooking) as more and more children are brought up on a diet of ready-made food from restaurants or convenience stores.

Meanwhile, on another plane altogether, Hattori is also trying to create tastier food for astronauts, urging hospitals to improve patients’ food (and the atmosphere in which they eat it) and advising chefs at hotels and ryokan how to create menus using more natural ingredients.

Despite all this, Hattori found time recently to sit down and ruminate awhile with The Japan Times.

In what ways have Japanese people’s eating habits changed?

The rise of the nuclear family is bringing to an end the tradition of handing down knowledge generation after generation. Before, grandparents would teach their grandchildren various things through food culture, such as how to hold chopsticks. Nine years ago and then again four years ago, I examined how people hold chopsticks, and I found that nearly 40 percent cannot use them properly. That is a big problem. Over the past 20 or 30 years, the 1,300-year history of chopsticks has been drawing to an end because of the lack of guidance at home and at school.

Now, also, in many families where both parents work, no-one is cookign at home anymore. If you ask Japanese children to recreate ofukuro no aji in their cooking, they can’t, because they don’t know the taste of it, whereas students from Korea, China or Southeast Asia can all prepare home cooking. Japanese children only know ready-made processed foods that all taste the same.

Isn’t it true that ready-made food contains a lot of chemical additives to prevent it from spoiling?

I did an experiment with rice balls. I made one myself, and bought another, and left them there at room temperature. A day and a half later, the one I made turned yellow, sticky and had mold. The one I bought was fine after three, four, five days. I tested the bento [lunchboxes] sold at stations and convenience stores. They had an average of 30 different types of synthetic chemical additives. And Japanese people consume an average of 90 types of additives a day.

Five years ago, I did an experiment by combining additives. If you combine A, B and C, the result is safe. But if you combine A, B and D, it turns into a substance that could cause cancer. These additives may be safe alone, but if you take 90 types, who knows how it is affecting your body.

I took these results and presented them to presidents of convenience stores and factory managers. I asked them to try the bento, and they said, ‘I try not to eat them, and I tell my children to stay away as well.’ So I said that that was troubling, because consumers are being treated as guinea pigs. After being shown my experiment results, some considerate convenience stores began to sell additive-free foods.

Do you think that children nowadays are losing their sense of taste?

Yes, many are. At my school, students are tested on their sense of taste. We take sugar, salt, vinegar, kinine, which is a bitter component, and glutamic acid (which has an intense flavor) and put it in distilled water creating solutions with concentrations of 0.001 to 0.004 percent. Kinine is very strong, so we dilute it down to 0.0001 to 0.0004 percent. Twenty or 30 years ago, 78 percent correctly identified the taste by sampling the weakest solution; 98 percent succeeded when they tasted the strongest solution. Now, only 78 percent can correctly identify the taste from the strongest solution.

That is because processed foods have a strong flavor and contain a lot of additives. They all taste the same.

I think that people need more opportunities to enjoy the natural taste of foodstuffs, say by biting into a tomato straight from the vine, or by digging up potatoes then cooking them.

What do you think about the way children are being brought up these days?

It is often said that there are an increasing number of volatile children, prone to sudden fits of anger. But that is only to be expected. Parents don’t discipline their children from a young age. If the child does something good, give them a big hug, and if they do something bad, scold them and slap them on their hand or behind. When I say that at PTA meetings, mothers are surprised because they would never dream of hitting their adorable little children. Some parents wait until the children are in their teens. Then, they start slapping, but that’s too late. Their characters have already been fixed and they will become rebellious.

Some journalists say that children have human rights and their own characters, and [hitting them] would destroy that. True, they have human rights, but they don’t have characters. A child’s character is created by the adults around them. That is why you have to teach children what is right and wrong. That is love.

What about schoolteachers?

Children don’t respect their teachers or parents anymore. Six years ago, I did a survey among ninth-graders from 20 countries and asked them if they respect their teachers and parents. In Beijing, 80.3 percent answered ‘yes’; 82.2 in the United States; 82.7 in Europe; and the highest was South Korea’s 84.9 percent. What about Japan? OECD research states that if the number falls below 50 percent, the country is in a critical state. It was 21 percent — the lowest of anywhere in the world. Even Brazil, the second-lowest country, had 79 percent.

I then asked the ninth-graders in Japan who they respected. Boys said their baseball, soccer or karate coach, and the girls said their ballet teacher, tea master or piano teacher. These teachers are all extremely strict. And because they are strict they earn the children’s respect. However, teachers at school are not so strict. If they were, parents would get angry. The teachers would then be sued by parents demanding: “What are you doing to my precious child?” It’s funny, because before, parents used to come and apologize to the teachers if the children did something wrong, asking them to continue being stern with the children.

Dieting and eating disorders appear to be on the increase, even among the very young. What do you think about this?

The most important period for growth is between the ages of 8 and 20, which is why proper shokuiku is extremely important. Dieting before the age of 18 is very dangerous, especially for women, who may experience trouble conceiving later in life.

Today’s children already have an unbalanced diet, and if they lose weight, they will consume even less nutrients. But actually, it’s the parents’ fault. The children grow up watching their parents go on diets. And it’s the parents who sometimes tell their children that they are fat and they need to lose weight.

It is often said that Japanese food is extremely healthy. Is that why many Japanese people live so long?

Japan has the world’s longest average life span. Women have been at the top since 1985, and last year’s average life expectancy was 85.23 years. Men have been wavering between first and second place, but for the past three years they have been No. 1, with last year’s average at 78.32.

But what use is longevity if you are senile or bedridden? That is why the world is now focusing on the average healthy life expectancy, which is basically the age up to when you become bedridden. The fewer the years are between the healthy life span and the total life span, the better. Unfortunately, Japan also has the longest period between them. Japanese women have 9.13 years, and men have 6.77 years. The health ministry is now trying to decrease the number of years between the two. Eating properly during adolescence is essential to achieving this.

At present, education in Japan does not include shokuiku. Do you think this is likely to change?

Yes. Three ministries included money for shokuiku in their budgets for 2003. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare allocated 80 million yen, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology has 700 million yen, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has 1.5 billion yen. These three ministries, from their different angles, are trying to include shokuiku at elementary and junior high schools. If Japan does not recover its traditional and ancient food culture, I am afraid that we are going to lose our identities.

So is Japan taking the initiative by introducing shokuiku to classrooms?

No, in a way Japan has actually fallen behind. The slow-food movement got off the ground in Europe in the 1980s, but actually, it all started back in the ’60s in Scandinavia. That northern region is health-conscious so it is copied by Americans and other Europeans. Scandinavia is the land of the midnight sun. They spend half of the year in darkness. That is why they are very careful about their health. In America, they call this movement “food education.” And finally, it has arrived in Japan.

This movement needs to be pushed forward as soon as possible. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, from the time he was health minister, has been keen on the spread of shokuiku, and includes it when talking about education. I am hopeful that the government will take more action to support it.

You include environmental issues in the teaching of shokuiku. Why is that?

Japan has the largest amount of leftover garbage, stuff that’s worth a total of 11,100 billion yen if converted into money. Considering that the degree of self-sufficiency in food is 40 percent — worth a total of 12,400 billion yen — we are basically throwing out 80 percent of self-sufficient food and importing 60 percent from abroad. If you go around to Ginza at dawn, you’ll see many animals roaming about — stray cats and dogs, sewer rats and crows. And they are all diabetic because of the leftover food [laughs].

One of your activities is trying to improve hospital food and eating practices. What do you think needs to change?

First of all, the lighting. This goes for regular families as well. Ninety percent of Japanese people eat under fluorescent light. At my school there are no fluorescent lights. That is because they make the color red look purple. Fresh, raw tuna looks like it is four or five days old under these lights. Just that is enough to make you lose your appetite.

And the scent of hospitals. As soon as you enter a hospital you are hit with the scent of disinfectant. Furthermore, in Japanese hospitals, people eat in their beds, under which lays a bedpan. Just a curtain away, somebody is relieving themself while you are trying to eat. But as I visited hospitals in the United States, I found that they have separate places for treatment and eating. Women brush their hair, put on makeup and go to the cafeteria. The awareness that they are being watched gives them energy, resulting in rehabilitation.

At Duke University in North Carolina, they conducted a clinical experiment. They divided patients into two groups — one was put in a bad environment with unpleasant food, the other in a good environment with tasty food. The average time it took for the patients in a bad environment to recover was three weeks, while the other group took only two weeks. This proves that being in a good environment with good-tasting food helps you recover much faster.

Japan seems to have a lot of cooking programs on TV. Why do you think that is?

There are 90 cooking programs a week, but that is not because people are especially interested. The producers don’t have much money anymore and it doesn’t cost much to create a cooking program, for which they can get fairly good viewing figures. However, that’s just because there is nothing else worth watching — on variety programs you see the same people doing and saying the same stupid things. I don’t think there is any other country that airs cooking programs morning, noon and night even on nonspecialist channels.

You seem to be unbelievably busy. How do you maintain your health?

Because of my profession, there are days when I eat a large amount of food. That is why I balance my meals according to what I had the day before. For example, yesterday, I was a judge at a food contest held by a department store, something I do about 30 times a year. There were 50 different plates, which I had to narrow down to 13 at first, and then to three at the next stage. I ate and ate. The total amount was about 2.5 kg. That is why today I had a light breakfast — which you need for energy — skipped lunch, and for dinner had a bite of a dish made by a teacher at my school. A total of 1,500 kcal, whereas yesterday, I had about 4,000 kcal. If I ate like that today as well, that would be absurd.

And my secret? Every night before I go to bed, I take six lemons and squeeze them. I mix the lemon juice with tonic water, making two big glasses. It is very, very sour. I do this because when you are tired, the level of lactic acid goes up and citric acid decomposes it. So when I wake up the next morning, I feel completely refreshed!