A series of food-safety scandals in the early and mid 2000s — involving, among other scares, bacteria-infected milk and poisonous Chinese dumplings — have made many more people in Japan aware of the need to know — and the danger of not knowing — the origins of their daily fare.
The scandals also forced the government to be more proactive, leading to the 2005 implementation of the Basic Act on Food Education, which has given the public the right to learn more about the importance of food’s effect on our physical and mental well-being, as well as encouraging citizens to improve their eating habits.
But when it comes to learning how we source our meat, the story gets a little more complicated, and delicate, especially in Japan.
That’s because, on top of the fact that the production of meat involves the unpleasant and bloody reality of killing animals, which is not something most people are used to seeing, Japan has a long history of ostracizing and discriminating against those people engaged in the slaughter business and related trades such as leather tanning.
For centuries in Japan, the slaughtering, skinning and other processing of cows, pigs and other livestock has been assigned to social outcasts — known as burakumin — who, prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1867, had their rights severely restricted and were segregated into exclusive communities. But then, even after the modernizing Meiji government abolished the caste system, discrimination against the burakumin lingered on. And as the national demand for meat has grown dramatically, many of the descendants of burakumin have taken over the trade.
Nobuo Onishi, a photographer and director of an award-winning 2007 documentary film titled “Mizu ni Natta Mura” (“The Village that Became Water”), which chronicled the lives of villagers forced to relocate due to the construction of a dam, confessed that, like most other Japanese, he had been ignorant of issues related to the nation’s livestock industry until five years ago. That was when he was asked by a friend if he wanted to take pictures of pigs at a farm in Kagoshima Prefecture in the south of Kyushu.
“I had very little knowledge of pigs, even though I eat pork so often,” Onishi said. “I became curious about them. All I knew of them back then was through the packaged sliced pork meat in supermarkets. I had only looked at them from the viewpoint of, ‘Is that meat fresh or not?’ “
After five years and at least six trips to the pig farm, run by Yukari Gakuen, a live-in facility for mentally disabled people, in January Onishi published a picture book for children, titled “Buta Niku” (“Pig Meat”), which gives readers a rare glimpse into the animals’ life cycle from birth to death.
Although several books have been written in Japan about how we source our food, few photo books are available to describe the process of how pigs are turned into pork and bacon and sausages and all the rest.
When he started taking photographs of pigs, Onishi recalled, he had no clear idea what kind of book he would want to create. So he said he decided to spend many hours with them, chasing them with his camera, often bending down and crawling in the grass to catch their expressions from low angles.
The fruits of his labors are evident in the book, which shows page after page of cute piglets growing up through their 10-month-long lives, as they play and nap with other piglets and munch enthusiastically on school lunch leftovers fed to them by the facility’s staff. The picture on the book’s front cover is particularly adorable — featuring a black pig with big curious eyes peeking out from its pen.
Onishi also captured some crucial moments in the lives of pigs, including when a sow gets restless in the wee hours of the night as she prepares to give birth to a litter.
“A typical mother pig gives birth two or three times a year, repeating that for four years,” he writes on one page, accompanied by a closeup shot of an expectant sow. “In the course of a female pig’s life, she normally gives birth to more than 80 piglets.”
Then the tone of the book changes — inevitably — as the grown animals are loaded into trucks and taken to a nearby slaughterhouse. When they leave the farm, Onishi explains, they weigh around 120 kg each — 100 times their birth weight. The book shows how a staffer of the Yukari Gakuen facility nudges a pig into a pen at the slaughterhouse. Then on the next page a line of headless, limbless, skinned pigs is shown hanging from steel hooks. The picture also shows blood still dripping onto the floor after the pigs were electrocuted and numbed, and — still living — had their bodies cut up after their throats were slit and most of their blood gushed out. But that’s about as gory as the pictures get.
Onishi, who admits he could get permission from the slaughterhouse to photograph only the “clean zone” — after the animals have been cut up, with their blood drained out and their heads and limbs removed — said he is still happy with his result because his intention was not to put readers off eating pig meat.
Even with such a restrained approach, however, the process of how the cute pigs meet their ultimate fate — and then get transformed into shiny, appetizing pork sausages, as featured on the back cover of the book — is astoundingly clear.
Indeed, the fact Onishi could publish even those few photos from the slaughterhouse is an accomplishment, considering that most such establishments in Japan are still off-limits to photo/video journalists.
Tatsuya Mori, a noted documentary filmmaker, recalls in his 2004 book “Inochi no Tabekata” (“How to Eat Life”) — a children’s book which describes the process of meat production in words and cartoon-like illustrations — how his attempt to shoot a TV documentary about a meat-processing factory run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in the city’s Minato Ward, met with resistance from both the TV media and the slaughterhouse officials. The TV executives were wary of dealing with such a touchy subject, and the slaughterhouse workers feared that exposure on TV would threaten their livelihood, he said, and as a result he ended up abandoning the project.
Even today, photography is banned throughout the facility, commonly known as Shibaura Tojo (Shibaura Slaughterhouse), though it now has a small on-site library open to the public. The library, named Oniku no Johokan (The Information Center on Meat), stocks a 28-minute video that explains the slaughtering process step by step. It also has a “human rights” section, which displays copies of hate letters and e-mails addressed to the facility.
“The Japanese people, I think, have a tendency to turn a blind eye to what they don’t want to see,” Mori told The Japan Times by phone last week. “We sacrifice (animal) lives for food, so I think it’s our obligation to learn how pigs are turned into pork at the slaughterhouses. The same goes for our approach to the death penalty. I think people who support capital punishment should at least know how we execute people.”
Onishi, for his part, says that his experience of creating the photo book has brought the role of pigs in society much closer to home. “Unlike egg-laying chickens and milk-producing cows, pigs are bred just to be eaten by humans,” he said. “Now, when I see pork at a supermarket, I think of the pigs.
“And after learning that some of the pigs are fed leftover food that contains pig meat, I realized how much energy we are wasting. Maybe, if we cut down on food waste, we might be able to do with killing just 40,000 pigs a day — instead of the 60,000 currently slaughtered across the nation every day.”