The Japanese consider themselves a compassionate people when it comes to an animal’s fate. Memorial stones have been erected in whaling villages since the early Edo Period (1603-1867), as they are today at slaughterhouses. Buddhist priests are hired to read the sutras before altars set with incense and piled with fruit to pray for the souls of animals killed for food.

These rituals, which actually have their roots in Shinto beliefs that gods reside in all things, are called ireisai (memorial services) or kanshasai (thanksgiving services). They testify to the deep sentiment of gratitude that Japanese people feel toward the animals that sustain them.

Well, they may feel gratitude to animals they kill, and the affection lavished on pets is also obvious at every turn, but are they conscious of cows, pigs and chickens as creatures deserving of humane treatment while alive?

I have many Japanese friends who go to great lengths to buy organic vegetable produce, but they haven’t a clue what goes into the meat they buy. The media make an almighty fuss about safe beef, turning it into a diplomatic event. But how many of the consumers in supermarkets I have seen interviewed on the television news realize that the welfare of the animals they eat is inextricably tied to the state of their own health?

Chickens are fed the waste products of fish processing and other feed — such as bone meal, blood meal and feather meal — that they were never intended to eat. They are pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Egg-producing hens are debeaked with hot blades and housed in hideously cramped cages, less than three-quarters the size of an A4 sheet of paper for each bird. They can’t walk or stretch their wings; nor do they ever see daylight in their short lives. Japan, in fact, has the highest battery-cage stacking in the developed world, at 18 tiers. (The European Union is phasing out battery cages and has banned their use by 2012, but no such legislation exists here.)

So seemingly fussy

As for pigs, breeding sows are generally kept in individual stalls where they virtually cannot move at all. Pigs are intelligent, social animals that need to move about a pasture, or at least a dirt yard. Cramming them into stalls without even straw to lie on gives them osteoporosis and leads to neurotic behavior. (Sow tethers and stalls are being eliminated in Britain, and by 2014 all pigs will be free range or housed in straw yards.)

Are the Japanese, so seemingly fussy about every detail of food safety, oblivious to the fate of the animals they consume? Do they know that millions of suffering animals are overdrugged, overcrowded and over here?

The first Japanese legislation on animal welfare, the Law for the Protection and Management of Animals, was passed in 1973. That law, however, was no more than a token gesture, and was viewed primarily as applying to people and their pets. Subsequently the “Guidelines for Rearing and Managing Industrial Animals” recommended practices for minimizing maltreatment of farm animals, but these had no teeth. There was no checking mechanism or penalties. Then the 1973 law was amended, and went into effect in 2001, renamed as the Law for Humane Management of Animals. There are presently penalties in place, but the expectation is that the industry will self-regulate. The law is on the books, but authorities do not look at the pages.

Japanese have a lovely word to cover animal welfare and humane management (the word for human welfare, fukushi, does not apply to animals). It is aigo, which is composed of the characters for “love” and “protection.” The implication is that people not only protect animals but give them much tender loving care. But this hardly extends to farm animals.

Traditionally, TLC of farm animals all over the world has not been the common practice. But it has been particularly lacking in Japan, where there was no large-scale animal husbandry before the Meiji Era began in 1868. Prior to then, Japanese were an agrarian people who had little or no close contact with farm animals. Their Buddhist precepts kept them from eating the flesh of these animals, save on occasion wild ones such as boar and deer. Very few Japanese people think about farm animals and how they live. Animal welfare has been, and still is, a gigantic nonissue in this country.

In most of the developed world, however, animal welfare is an increasingly serious issue. The relative number of vegetarians in the West far exceeds that in Japan, despite the fact that shojin ryori — the meatless cuisine eaten traditionally by Buddhist monks in Japan — is one of the world’s original vegetarian diets.

‘Tortured’ lobsters

Many people in the West have sworn off veal, due to the cruel treatment dealt to veal calves. The French are under attack for the force-feeding of cornmeal to geese to obtain one of their national delicacies, pa^te de fois gras. And there is a movement in the United States to boycott restaurants where live lobsters are “tortured to death.” ( Whole Foods, America’s leading natural-food chain, has recently taken live lobsters off their shelves.)

In September 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi delivered a policy speech to an extraordinary session of the Diet urging “the promotion of food awareness education.” But this merely encouraged people to make informed dietary choices in terms of nutrition and food safety, stressing the importance of traditional Japanese foods to ensure that they are passed on to future generations. Animal welfare didn’t get a look in.

I shop for food nearly every day of the week in Tokyo supermarkets, but I cannot remember ever seeing organically farmed chicken, pork or beef, though these are readily available in supermarkets in many developed countries.

Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer has said, “In suffering, the animals are our equals.” That statement should resonate with Japanese, whose Buddhist philosophy teaches compassion toward all creatures on Earth.

Since the beginning of the Meiji Era, Japanese people have studiously avoided this vital aspect of the faith. By erecting memorial stones at slaughterhouses and holding thanksgiving services, they may be assuaging their own consciences. But these rituals don’t do the animals a bit of good. They merely give people the illusion that they themselves are caring beings.

Modern agribusiness has turned animals into production units. If you pervert nature in the inhumane treatment of animals, you inevitably pay a very high human price, be it with BSE in cows or avian viruses that cross the species barrier to attack humans.

Japanese people will eventually be obliged to become conscious of the welfare of farm animals for the first time in their history. If they don’t, they might be asking themselves the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the flu?”

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