Last week, entertainment-related media in the U.S. reported that the American Broadcasting Corporation had rejected an advertisement the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wanted to air during the Academy Awards ceremony, which takes place early tomorrow morning Tokyo time. The spot features Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix underwater. In voiceover he asks the viewer to imagine what it’s like to drown and then says that is what happens to 1 trillion fish every year. Caught and removed from water they die painfully, gasping for oxygen. The closing title says “Go Vegan.”
According to PETA, ABC claimed the ad was too “political.” Detractors characterize PETA as being radical, but veganism, a dedicated form of vegetarianism central to its agenda, has grown more popular and mainstream in recent years, thanks in no small part to celebrities such as Phoenix who have fan bases that extend beyond the left-wing stereotype associated with the group. What seems to have bothered ABC — as well as many Americans, judging from Internet comments — is the militant tone of the commercial: You who eat fish must realize how cruel you are. This is the main cognitive difference between vegans and more traditional vegetarians, who are usually stereotyped as being mild-mannered and withdrawn. Vegans are now as aggressive as carnivores.
Regardless of the label, people who choose not to eat meat or fish often do so because they don’t want to be complicit in the killing of animals. Health and related factors used to be prime considerations, and in Japan they are still the main ones, especially where the media is concerned. Some women become vegetarian to enhance “beauty,” but few Japanese people admit to being vegetarian for reasons of conscience. I once read that the TV personality Becky followed a meat-free diet — her work is often related to animals — but like all TV personalities she appears on food shows, and it’s almost impossible to get through one of those without eating something containing animal flesh or its derivatives. Like homosexual male actors in Hollywood, vegan TV personalities in Japan who want to keep their jobs have to stay in the closet.
Though everyone understands what happens to animals between the time they are cuddly and warm and the time they arrive at your dinner table, it’s bad form to bring it up because that would make someone uncomfortable. Japan has its own peculiar vegetarian cooking style called shōjin ryōri, traditionally eaten by Buddhist monks who, due to religious strictures, cannot kill animals, but people don’t equate shōin ryōri with animal welfare. They think of it as a rare cuisine, which, like all rare cuisines, is very expensive. To call it “vegetarian” would detract from its specialness.
Being special is important since much is made of Japan’s “food culture,” a conveniently meaningless term used to defend the government’s research-whaling program and the killing of dolphins in the whaling town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. Since this food culture is always described as being unique, it is deemed difficult for non-Japanese to understand, a generalization that has never held up under scrutiny. The media has nonetheless abided by this credo for years by supporting the thesis that Westerners are overly sentimental about the sentient characteristics of marine mammals, all the while ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Japanese don’t eat whale or dolphin because they don’t want to. Whaling is maintained to prop up a bogus sense of national entitlement, as revealed in a recent Tokyo Shimbun article that not only deflated its culture rationale but also its scientific and economic justifications. The piece provides ample proof of something the foreign press has been reporting for years: Research whaling continues only because it provides the semi-public Institute of Cetacean Research with a reason to exist.
If the vernacular media finally accepts the idea that whaling has no special relationship to Japanese culture, then it might finally accept the notion that whales and dolphins do suffer extraordinarily at the hands of the people who harvest them. One way whalers in Taiji defend their livelihood is by saying their opponents are hypocrites, since they eat animals themselves. This is true, but in most developed countries, including Japan, there are laws regulating the livestock industry so as to make killing less traumatic for the animals. The dolphins in Taiji are rounded up and hacked to death. And while most people, vegan and meat-shōjin ryōri lover alike, will concede that there is an appreciable gap in intellectual capacity between marine mammals and the average fish, the latter clearly demonstrate discomfort when being served up in iki-zukuri (live preparation) fashion to discerning gourmands.
The bedrock premise of civilization is the elimination of suffering, and while humans come first it seems inevitable that the animals with which we share our world also benefit from our enlightenment. From one culture to another, the application of this tenet is often uneven, as evidenced by the current horsemeat scandal in Europe: the French worry about chemicals and labeling, while the English gag at the thought of eating Seabiscuit. In a sense, it is the latter sensibility that vegans want to instill in everyone, but even dedicated meat eaters are coming around to the conviction that animals destined to be food should be raised and killed as humanely as possible.
Obstacles of perception remain. A vegetarian friend told me she recently called a dairy in Hokkaido to find out whether its cows were free to roam pastures or imprisoned in barn stalls. The farmer didn’t understand the question and in frustration she finally asked him if he thought the cows were “happy.” “Of course they’re happy,” he replied. “They’re milk cows. They’re fulfilling their roles.”