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Hankyu Hanshin scandal is a by-product of the media’s food fetishization

by Philip Brasor

Last week, Hiroshi Desaki resigned as president of Hankyu Hanshin Hotels Co. to take responsibility for a scandal over menus at the company’s restaurants. It has been discovered that since 2006, many of the dishes served at the restaurants were misleadingly presented as containing expensive ingredients when, in fact, they were quite ordinary. Hankyu Hanshin has set aside ¥110 million to reimburse customers who purchased any of the 47 misrepresented dishes between March 2006 and September 2013. As of last Monday, the company had paid out ¥22.6 million.

Food mislabeling scandals are common in Japan. Right now there are at least three others in the news, involving Chinese eel and Chinese rice being sold as domestically grown products and horse meat from Canada being sold as horse meat from Kyushu. The hotel scandal isn’t substantively different except for one detail: Though Desaki said during his resignation press conference that his company “betrayed our customers,” he remained ambiguous about intention.

The company has insisted that the misleading information on the menus was a “mistake” and not a “deception,” which would imply purpose. Desaki said that “it can’t be helped” the public will interpret the mislabeling as deception, which is not the same thing as saying that it was.

The point of all this semantic hair-splitting is that the company doesn’t want the scandal to be seen as another case of gisō (camouflage), a term that has come to be almost exclusively associated with food that purports to be what it isn’t. The media and public think the reason for the subterfuge is money: You can charge more for food if you can convince the consumer that it’s special — an unquantifiable quality that in this case has less to do with the item’s flavor and wholesomeness than with its provenance.

Hankyu Hanshin, like any hotel chain that aspires to a reputation for refinement, charges a lot for meals in its restaurants. Patrons need justification for the high prices, so the menus have to point out where the ingredients originate from. Admitting they deliberately lied would destroy the illusion of exclusiveness that hotels encourage to maintain their lofty image. Saying that mislabeling was merely a “mistake” means that it’s easily corrected.

Also, being a fool isn’t as bad as being a liar, but the former implies that the hotel’s buyers are inexperienced or naive, since they’ve been paying high prices for materials that aren’t what they think they are. But that can’t be the case here, considering the sheer number of items that were mislabeled.

What is more likely is that the menus themselves dictated what was written in them. It’s not enough that a dish using beef simply says “beef” on the menu. It has to report where the beef is from. Otherwise the price can not be justified.

Maybe at one time the marbled meat used in that dish was raised in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture or Omi in Shiga Prefecture, but over time it became obvious that no one would know better if the beef was taken from slaughtered milk cows and then injected with fat. According to Hankyu Hanshin, this is not deception. It is a “mistake” of not changing the menu accordingly.

So, as Tokyo Shimbun pointed out in its reporting of the scandal, it follows that the longer it takes to read a menu, the more expensive a meal is going to be. As far as I can tell, no one during those seven years of mislabeling ever asked for their money back because the quality of the meal wasn’t as advertised.

As with every gisō scandal, the point isn’t necessarily that people are eating bad-tasting or unsafe food (though they very well may be) but that their pretensions have been exposed. People who seek out and pay good money for special food made with rare ingredients don’t like it when their discernment is challenged, no matter how inadvertent that challenge is, and hurt feelings are bad for business.

This mind-set is a consequence of the media’s fetishization of food, which has become so widespread and accepted that there are TV programs that make sport of it. The oldest is probably Nippon TV’s comedy show “Guruguru 99.” Since the late ’90s it has featured a segment in which the hosts, comedy duo Ninety-Nine, and their guests patronize a better-than-average restaurant and try to guess how much the dishes cost. Though there is no gisō involved — the menu items always seem to be what they purport to be — the segment’s appeal is that the member of the party whose estimate is furthest from the real price has to pick up the tab for the entire group, which, depending on the restaurant, can run upwards of ¥100,000.

“Guruguru 99″ doesn’t so much ridicule the media’s obsession with high-quality food as frame it in a context that makes sense to the average viewer. Though everybody enjoys the fare and comments approvingly on the taste and texture, they do so in an anxious mood, because one of them is going to be stuck with an enormous bill. The viewer is thus forced to think about whether or not he really wants to pay that much for cod slathered in tomato sauce, regardless of where the fish was caught or the produce grown.

Since the ’80s bubble era the media has conditioned the public to think they have just as much of a right to enjoy high-quality food as rich people do, an admirably egalitarian mission on the surface. But capitalism always finds a way of making suckers out of people who place too much value on appearances.

Another TV feature that takes even better advantage of this prejudice is the “Zero-yen Shokudo” segment on Nippon TV’s “Tetsuwan Dash,” in which members of the boy band Tokio endeavor to make restaurant-quality meals using only ingredients they cadge for free. The produce tends to be rejected, the meat castoff trim and the fish not fresh (read: dead when caught). But they always make great meals — or, at least, that’s what they want us to believe, because whether it’s expensive hotel fare or hobo campfire cooking, if it’s on TV, it all tastes the same to the viewer.