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Cheap BBQ meat boss pays a high price for being variety show favorite

by Philip Brasor

Since the earthquake of March 11, there’s been a lot of bowing and kneeling on TV. Everywhere the executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. go in the Tohoku region, they are compelled to not only bend over for residents of the area, but in some cases get down on the ground and perform dogeza, the act of kneeling before someone upon whom you are not worthy to gaze, and one that tends to lose significance with repetition. When the president of Tepco, Masataka Shimizu, did it in front of some angry Fukushima evacuees, he said, “We understand your situation and will address it,” a statement that prompted one observer to remark to the Sankei Shimbun, “It sounds like something you’d hear from Customer Service.”

Symbolically, there isn’t much else Shimizu can do the next step in the process would be seppuku (ritual suicide).

Bowing and kneeling can be interpreted many ways, especially when it’s the media doing the interpreting. Whenever the Imperial couple visit an evacuation center, reporters always whisper in awe how they kneel before their refugee interlocutors, without pointing out that the interlocutors are already on the ground. When Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited the governor of Fukushima Prefecture, he bowed low but placed his hand on his lower back. The tabloids called it an insult, but it was obvious that Kan has back problems.

The most extreme recent example of groveling was the demonstration of dogeza by Yasuhiro Kanzaka, the president of Foods Forus, in front of his company headquarters in Kanazawa on May 5. Kanzaka was apologizing for his company’s responsibility in the deaths of four people who succumbed to E. coli food poisoning after eating yukke (raw beef) at his Yakiniku-zakaya Ebisu chain restaurants in April. Kanzaka’s prostrating himself in front of the cameras was difficult to watch, having followed an apology that was delivered in a painfully high voice. It all seemed so comically exaggerated.

Which isn’t to say it wasn’t sincere. When TV outlets aired the apology they preceded it with another one that Kanzaka delivered on May 2, when it still wasn’t clear exactly who was to blame for the food poisoning, Foods Forus or the Tokyo-based meat wholesaler Yamatoya Shoten, which sold the allegedly tainted beef to the chain. In that statement, Kanzaka used a gruff, businesslike but nevertheless stentorian dramatic tone, indicating that while he took responsibility for the food poisoning, he believed the wholesaler was more at fault. Kanzaka is clearly a passionate man, and one who understands how that passion should be expressed on TV, since his career as a businessman is a by-product of television’s constant need for cheap content.

By now every news outlet has explained Kanzaka’s rise in the restaurant industry; how he learned to appreciate the idea of “customer service” working in a disco during his university days and then toiled in a factory for two years to save money to start his own company. He opened his first yakiniku (barbecued meat) restaurant in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, when he was 28. As he told the many reporters who chronicled his rise before the scandal, he didn’t just want to develop a successful chain of restaurants, he wanted to become a “legend,” and in 15 years the Ebisu chain grew to 20 restaurants in four prefectures, with 10 of them opening in the last two years alone. Foods Forus made ¥1.7 billion in fiscal 2010.

The choice of yakiniku for his restaurant’s fare was a strategic one. Until recently, yakiniku restaurants were smoky, dirty establishments for working men. Those that weren’t smoky and dirty were invariably expensive. It was Kanzaka’s ambition to find a successful medium, a yakiniku chain that was elegant enough for women and cheap enough for families.

Such restaurants are irresistible to TV production companies, and Kanzaka knew this. In addition to buying air time on local TV for infomercials that featured himself as a “charismatic” pitch man, he actively courted variety shows and evening news segments that cover consumer topics. Since the scandal broke, one of the most frequently watched YouTube videos is a Nihon TV variety show segment in which celebrities express shock and awe at how cheap Ebisu’s dishes are — in many cases only ¥100. The kicker is the Korean raw beef dish yukke, which is only ¥280. At other yakiniku chains, it costs around ¥800.

As experts have said in hindsight, customers should be suspicious of food that is abnormally inexpensive. It’s now obvious that there was a serious breach of common sense in terms of sanitation, but while Foods Forus and Yamatoya may have violated their own in-house guidelines in order to realize the former’s low-price aims, the fact is there are no laws regulating the distribution of meat that is meant to be eaten raw. In Tokyo, health officials simply issue a caution to parents that uncooked meat might make their children sick.

What the experts neglect to add, however, is that when TV says it’s OK, people believe it. Kanzaka saw himself as a go-go food services entrepreneur in the mold of Kenichi Toyozaki, president of the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi chain Sushiro, and Miki Watanabe, founder of the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese pubs). Both these men have parlayed financial success into ancillary gigs as TV pundits by opening their businesses to media scrutiny. The producers are too grateful for the free content to be critical in their coverage. When Nihon TV celebrated Ebisu on its variety show, it wasn’t in the program’s purview to question the wisdom of allowing chefs to handle raw yukke beef with their bare hands.

Kanzaka’s discomfiting form of bowing and scraping is thus understandable, not so much as a demonstration of remorse but as a personal acknowledgement of how far he has fallen in his own mind. He’ll be a legend all right, just not the sort he envisioned.

Philip Brasor blogs at http://philipbrasor.com.