The lowdown on sieverts and a healthy diet

by Hiroaki Sato

Gastronomic habits are hard to change. That was conventional wisdom as regards Japanese food when I arrived here more than four decades ago. After all, back then, there were said to be only about a dozen Japanese restaurants in this city.

Among them were the rather reputable one rumored to be run by the former mistress of a prime minster and also the one in the walkup building where a young Puerto Rican, Jorge Perez, kindly shared his apartment with me.

The latter, which was on the second floor — Jorge’s apartment was on the third — specialized in udon, amazingly, in retrospect. Once I ate there with Gerow Reece, a friend from my Kyoto days. A while after we started, Gerow, who had studied Japanese calligraphy for years, rested his chopsticks, smiled his puckish smile, and said: You eat noodles like a gaijin! Without making any noise, that is.

A favorite story among my American friends at the time was the one Yuichiro Kojiro told them. Kojiro, a professor of Japanese architectural history here on a grant once found a Japanese restaurant in some U.S. city. Relieved, he rushed there, ordered udon, and started eating. Then he felt something was wrong: a sudden hush. He looked up and around and saw everyone staring at him. He was eating the noodles noisily!

That, of course, was years before Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” came here and many more years before American culinary connoisseurs visiting Tokyo and other cities started reporting, in “The Washington Post” and such, on the proper way of eating noodles: slurping. It was during that decade of the ’80s, when the prevailing talk here was of Japan the “economic juggernaut” taking over the world, that I overheard more than one American ejaculating, “Yuk! Eat raw fish?!”

Or exclaiming at okaki, “Seaweed? It stinks!”

By then there were maybe more than a 100 Japanese restaurants in this city. But they mostly catered to the Japanese salarymen assigned here on a rotation system. Then Japan’s bubble burst. Japanese chefs started going back to Japan — though here my recollections are wobbly. Perhaps it was during Japan’s bubbly boom that the repatriation began, not in the ’90s, after its economy tanked.

Anyhow, it was during the last decade of the 20th century that sushi came to the Americans as a gastronomic epiphany. I began to see, in a Japanese restaurant near my office in Rockefeller Center, groups of young “money changers” (I’m guessing here) ordering astonishingly large plates of sushi for dinner and scarfing them down before going back to their office for more work. The impetus was the health food craze. Someone started saying Japanese food is healthier than its American counterpart. The notion disconcerted me.

The American Occupation had taught my generation exactly the opposite; Japanese food is unhealthy:

• The insufficient consumption of beef and other animal protein was the source of the feeble Japanese physique.

• Japanese food as a whole was too salty, which contributed to the high rate of high blood pressure among the Japanese. (I remember that Kikkoman kept losing money for decades before the supermarkets accepted its soy sauce.)

• The need to consume large quantities of rice for lack of nutritiously superior foods contributed to such illnesses as gastric distention. The sea change that occurred when it did was swift and complete. The actor Robert de Niro opened a Japanese restaurant in TriBeCa in 1994.

The latest news is the French chef David Bouley’s plan to open a three-story Japanese restaurant nearby. As the Wall Street Journal has reported it, “Unlike many Japanese eateries in the U.S., Brushstroke” — that’s the name of his new establishment — “won’t revolve around sushi.”

I thought of these things as I scanned the news headlines on the possible effects here of the damage the recent earthquake and tsunami inflicted on the Fukushima nuclear reactors. As I found in no time, after the fear of radiation across the Pacific enveloping the West Coast subsided, sushi became the prime concern.

So, on March 22, Newsvine.com talked about “some Americans wondering if they’ll have to give up sushi and other types of seafood imported from Japan.” Their answer: the risk is low.

On March 24, Newsweek used a Bloomberg dispatch to tell worried American citizens, “Fish sold in Japan’s sushi restaurants and shipped overseas has a lower risk of nuclear contamination than leafy vegetables.”

“No one could afford to consume enough sushi to get radiation damage,” said Robert Peter Gale, a hematologist who “coordinated medical relief efforts following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.” He had just visited Japan to “speak to doctors responding to radiation threats.” That was a Bloomberg article, on March 31.

The NPR correspondent in Tokyo headlined his conclusion April 5: “Sushi Science: Fear, Not Radiation, Seen As Risk.” He had talked to the “director of the Nakaminato Laboratory for Marine Radio ecology not far from Tokyo,” which studies “what happens to radioactive material that gets into the ocean.”

The April 11 article in Mother Jones was based on a simple question: “So should I steer clear of sushi?” The answer came from Andrew Maidment, a professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania: You are typically exposed to 3 mSv of “background radiation” every year; eating seafood from near the Fukushima plant for a year would up your radiation exposure by 0.6 mSv.

What’s that? Well, GOOD — “a media platform to move the world forward” — had foreseen early on that bandying about radiation measuring units would be inevitable. So, on March 21, it had carried an article, “Chart: How Eating a Banana Compares With the Radiation Exposure Around Japan’s Fukushima Plant.” Why banana? Because the “banana equivalent dose” was created to put radiation exposure in perspective.

This may or may not have prompted The New York Times to carry an article on April 11, “Is This the Poster Food for a Radiation Menace?” The poster food was a banana, of course, and the banana for illustration had a nuclear sign.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.