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Japanese families’ nutritional values pay dearly for ‘progress’

by Roger Pulvers

Last year, a gut-wrenching book by Nobuko Iwamura was published by Shinchosha titled “Kazoku no Katte Desho!” (“It’s My Kitchen and I’ll Do What I Like in It!”). Gut-wrenching because it describes, with the help of 274 highly unpalatable photos, the kinds of breakfasts, lunches and dinners ordinary Japanese people eat at home over a week’s time.

The gap in quality, nutrition and presentation between these meals and the ones most people associate with Japanese cuisine is of Grand Canyon proportions.

Iwamura sees the dining table as “a mirror on Japanese family relationships and society.” Are Japanese people deluding themselves by holding up such unappetizing daily fare to this mirror and asking, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s got the healthiest cuisine of all?” The assumed answer, of course, still being: “Japan has.”

The data analyzed in “It’s My Kitchen” compares meals served on the first and last days of visits to the families’ homes over the surveyed week. Generally, the cook — invariably, the mother — prepared a small feast on day one, and all family members ate together. By day seven most families’ members were eating separately what Iwamura says can only be described as “glorified prison food.”

The resulting consequences for family health and well-being are dire. This is a national emergency graver than the ones potentially posed by North Korean missiles, Chinese submarines or Australian anti-whaling ships!

“The amount of vegetables served (in the Japanese home) has been dwindling at an alarming rate,” writes Iwamura. “Even when they are served, it is one or two cherry tomatoes, a few slices of cucumber, a lettuce leaf. . . . Over 40 percent of mothers claim that their children suffer from constipation, but the figure must be higher, considering that there are cases that the mothers are not aware of.”

The reasons that mothers are giving for not serving vegetables include: Takes too much time to prepare; too expensive; can’t use them all up at once; don’t want to buy them; don’t want to store them; too much trouble cutting and washing them.

This survey has been conducted for the past 13 years, and Iwamura notes a marked increase in the incidence of obesity, impaired liver function, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes among the Japanese, attributing this in part to deterioration in the quality and balance in home cooking.

Women in particular seem to be in denial about this, attributing the bad health of their husband to “his family’s DNA, stress at work, his constitution, the awful food served at his company, too much drinking with other people, etc.” Not one wife surveyed so much as referred to her own cooking as a possible reason.

A big change has taken place over recent years in the consumption of instant food. Mothers are serving their children instant ramen, pasta, fried noodles and the like, without any sauce or additional ingredients.

“The children don’t like it if I add anything . . . they ask for it plain . . . it’s too much bother to go adding things in,” say the mothers. Some of them put vegetables or sauce in their own pasta but not in their children’s.

Undoubtedly the preparation of traditional Japanese meals takes time. They require fresh-bought ingredients, sliced, chopped, grated or ground. There are heaps of little round and rectangular plates to wash. As a result, many modern homemakers have taken the course of least resistance and “modernized” their family fare.

In the old days, people used to say, “We eat out a lot so we don’t get enough vegetables.” Now the cry around the country is, “We eat at home a lot so we don’t get any vegetables.”

Yet as reported last week, on the nights when dad eats dinner at home, more effort is made to serve a balanced meal.

The Japanese are consuming fattening sweets in the form of cakes, pies and doughnuts at an alarming rate. Said one mother of a 10-year-old daughter, “She is the type who doesn’t eat breakfast. All I fed her for breakfast when she was little was candy.” When it comes to nausea-inducing images, the photos in the book of breakfasts consisting of what is essentially sugar-coated fat take the cake.

Back at the end of the 1990s, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recommended that people eat a variety of 30 different ingredients every day. Iwamura writes that, “in the last five years, this has become a rare thing to see.” The increased consumption of processed foods has cut into that of fresh foods. But above that, there is now broad catering to the likes and dislikes of everyone in the family, so mothers are not serving foods that might “offend” their children.

As for what used to be a staple of the Japanese diet, namely fish, those surveyed paid ample lip service to its importance. But, reports Iwamura, “the variety of fish hitting the dining table is much lower than before.” One mother laments, “I have to scream at my kids to get them to eat fish, and I just don’t have the energy.”

Japanese homemakers these days don’t want to face a big clean-up after a meal; and “foods are chosen on the basis of how little mess they make.” This has led to a boom in frozen and processed foods bought at convenience stores. Once you’re finished, you just toss out the container. Easy as pie.

“Since 2005,” writes Iwamura, “meals made up entirely of processed food dishes have comprised over 40 percent of all meals. We even visited homes where every meal for a week was made up of them.” One 33-year-old mother boasted, “I’ve got a Seven-11, a Lawson, a Familia and a Ministop convenience store near the house, so I can really vary where I buy my meals and not get tired of them!”

This sort of practice has given rise to an apt term: tenuki shufu, meaning “get-by homemaker.”

There’s much, much more in “It’s My Kitchen and I’ll Do What I Like in It!” — and most of it will give you instant reflux just reading about it. The “get-by” kinds of bento (packed lunches) that mothers make for their children to take to school; the pandering to mealtime tantrums (which Iwamura calls “neglect”); the supreme efforts that parents make to give their kids all sorts of lessons at the expense of a proper diet; the skipped meals (“Oh, they’ll get a good lunch at school anyway”); the mothers who are “too tired” to cook for their children but whip up a huge dinner for “papa” on the nights he comes home.

In such ways the Japanese home has been turned, according to Iwamura, into an “Internet cafe.” One mother, who spends all her time at home surfing the Net for bargains and hot scoops on entertainers, told her teenage daughter to go and eat dinner. “Shut up about everything, will you?!” said the daughter.

Another trend that the survey has revealed is the loosening up of times at which meals are eaten by each member of the family. In more and more homes, breakfast is “served” between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., lunch between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and dinner . . . whenever. It sounds like living in a hotel; but Iwamura likens the dining table to a feeding table at a zoo. Hotel or zoo, a home it’s not.

Japan is rightly proud of its shokubunka (food culture). But has this come to resemble the much-acclaimed Japanese love of nature . . . as something which exists more as a figment of the imagination than an everyday reality?