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Mad cows reveal meaty contradictions


Two weeks ago, the Asahi Shimbun ran opposing editorials by an assistant professor at Kanazawa University and the president of a municipal board of education in Akita Prefecture. The two educators faced off over a program that had been proposed by an idealistic elementary school teacher.

The teacher’s idea was to have his fifth-grade class raise chickens from birth and then, after they reached maturity, kill the birds and use the meat in a curry that the students would prepare and eat.

Though the teacher’s plan was radical by normal school standards, his purpose was very plain. Young people have no real idea of where the food they eat comes from, and having them experience firsthand the process by which that package of meat reaches the supermarket shelf would make them appreciate it better and, thus, give them a greater sense of responsibility about their consumption habits.

The local board of education nipped the program in the bud. Its view, as stated by the president of the board in his half of the editorial, was that “there is no need” for children to go through what will likely turn out to be a traumatic experience for at least some of them. He said that “killing” for whatever reason is “inappropriate to an educational environment.” It is enough just to tell the children where meat comes from.

The Kanazawa professor, on the other hand, felt that this sort of program is exactly what young people need. According to the professor, who has written a book about meat, children must be made to understand that “we eat life,” in both animal and vegetable forms. Modern society, he claims, effectively “isolates death.” The Akita program would truly show children “how precious life is.”

The debate would be a worthy one even outside the context of the mad cow disease problem, but the immediacy of that problem makes the editorial even more compelling and timely.

As it’s reported in Japan, the mad cow “story” is not so much about the cows themselves or how they got sick, but rather the effect that the “outbreak” (only two positive cases in Japan so far) has had on the marketplace. The majority of stories in the press and on television are about consumers giving up beef, even though the authorities have stated repeatedly that Japanese beef is safe. A day doesn’t seem to go by without some politician eating burgers before the cameras, smacking his lips and showing everyone at home that doing so didn’t make him dead or crazy.

If the media reported in detail how livestock is raised and slaughtered, and then showed how mad cow disease is the possible outcome of treating animals as products, then even more people would probably swear off beef. They might give up chicken and pork, too.

As the Akita teacher tried to show, knowledge and experience make for more responsible citizens. But it’s also true that many people choose to remain ignorant about certain things that touch their lives. People who enjoy meat know where it comes from, but they would prefer that the messy details be kept under wraps. The industry is only too happy to do so, and the media plays along so as not to offend advertisers.

Beef has a rather weak foothold in Japanese culture, anyway. As recently as the 1970s, many people here found it malodorous and unappetizing. It took a concerted effort on the part of the media and the meat industry to break down this resistance. Den Fujita, the tireless CEO of McDonald’s Japan, was particularly instrumental in this regard.

And owing to Japan’s overly refined food culture, domestic beef is still seen as more or less a luxury. Kobe beef and Matsuzaka-gyu are considered special products, more appropriate as an expensive gift than as a source of protein.

The mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Europe converted a lot of people to vegetarianism, not so much because these people wanted to avoid getting sick, but because the news surrounding the outbreaks presented stark proof of the basic inhumanity of the livestock industry, as well as the gross inefficiency of beef production in terms of energy and resources. These people could no longer live with the contradiction.

The Japanese, however, have never really been bothered by contradiction. Steak houses and beef-package labels invariably feature the faces of happy cartoon cows. Kobe beef cattle supposedly receive massages, but never roam free. Last week, various news shows carried a PR item about a prize cow in Mie that was valued at 30 million yen. The news footage showed the proud handlers standing next to the cow, named Yuki, which was wearing a big blue ribbon. One anchorman said, “If Yuki was made into sukiyaki, I wonder how much each serving would cost.”

It was the Akita teacher’s aim to clarify the contradiction for his students by having them kill and eat an animal that they had raised and, presumably, formed an emotional attachment to. It’s a contradiction that children who grow up on farms have to live with every day, but as agriculture increasingly becomes the preserve of big corporations, people will move farther and farther away from the source of their food, both physically and spiritually. This is what’s called “progress,” a term that carries its own contradictions.