An old Chinese saying goes: “His people are of the utmost importance to a king, food is of the utmost importance to people.” As well as meaning that wellbeing of his people should be of utmost concern for a ruler, this saying points out the Chinese people’s respect for their food culture.
There is a similar saying shoku wa nuchigusui in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, meaning food is medicine that gives people the power to live. In Okinawa, not only farmers but ordinary people cultivate gardens, sow seeds and harvest crops. Respect for food is handed down from generation to generation.
However, recent situation regarding food is in a critical state. People have less interest in eating and put priority on affordability and convenience.
Self-centered eating habits leading to increase of solitary diners
“Mothers who don’t get up in the morning, families eating snacks for breakfast, a mother and a child buying boxed lunches at convenience stores, family members coming home each with food he or she wants to eat for dinner …” Nobuko Iwamura writes in her book “Changing Families, Changing Meals.” Iwamura, an adviser to food company Kewpie Corp., has surveyed weekly eating habits of a total of some 400 households over 18 years..
The survey results show that Japanese people’s eating habits have become largely self-centered. According to the survey, only about one out of 100 families sits at the table together for breakfast every day to eat the same food. Many people only have cereals or sweet pastries for breakfast. For dinner, they choose what they like to eat from various kinds of food on the table, such as sandwiches, ramen noodles and rice balls. Meals have quickly become a solitary affair, and keeping home-cooked vegetables in a fridge has become an outdated habit.
In today’s society where more priority is put on individual needs and circumstances, people are less interested in food compared with fashion and hobbies, and when they want to save money, the first thing they refrain from buying is fresh produce such as fish and vegetables.
Industrialized food production system has enabled rich supply of convenient food products throughout the year. Along with such a trend comes the increasing use of additives and genetically modified foods, and the rising risk of health problems caused by irregular eating habits. We should now think seriously about what food means to us human beings.
Washoku serving as a model for the rest of the world
Nancy Hachisu, an American woman who is married to a farmer in Kamikawa, Saitama Prefecture, is trying to spread the splendor of washoku Japanese cuisine abroad. Her book written in English about Japanese recipes and a life in a Japanese farm is attracting readers in the United States.
What she focuses on is local production for local consumption. She offers English lessons with homemade lunches six days a week for preschool children. The lunches are completely Japanese dishes, such as rice, miso soup, natto fermented soybeans, tofu and boiled vegetables with soy sauce. All the ingredients she uses are locally produced.
A girl who could not eat rice now eats every grain of what is served. “Soup stock made from konbu (dried kelp) and katsuo (dried bonito flakes) and fermented foods are Japan’s treasures,” says Hachisu. “I strongly hope Japanese traditional family recipes will be handed down.”
Soy sauce, miso and natto have been the foundations of traditional local food in Japan. Japanese cuisine is attracting global attention thanks to the unbroken tradition of fermented soy food making.
The year 2016 is designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Pulses. Pulses, which include beans such as soybeans, are important crops in terms of food security and in shaping traditional local diet as they are low-priced, highly nutritious and rich in micronutrients. The nitrogen-fixing capability of bean crops has helped improve soil fertility and farmland productivity, as well as facilitating building of underground biodiversity.
The Japanese cuisine is based on two sustainable crops – soybeans and rice. We have a global role model for a locally adapted diet right on our doorstep.
Many worry the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement threatens not only food safety and farmlands but also traditional cuisine of the member countries.
The Asian Population and Development Association warns that if Japan becomes more dependent on foreign food products along with market liberalization under the TPP agreement, global food prices will rise, forcing many people in Asia to starve. Yoshinori Ikezumi, former professor of Rikkyo University Graduate School, describes the situation as the “harmfulness” of the TPP agreement.
Consumers have the freedom to choose between domestically-produced foods and imported products, but it is also important to think of the influence it could give on the global society. It is necessary to think how to build among Japanese people determination to support agriculture.
Building consumer awareness
Two years ago, the price of rice hit a record low level, with agricultural co-operatives’ payments to farmers in Miyagi Prefecture marking ¥8,400 per 60 kg. This is not enough even to pay farmers’ wages.
The Naruko Rice Project, conducted in a mountainous area in Miyagi, is aimed at producing rice which enables farmers to make ¥800 per hour. Tomio Yuuki, a folklorist who led the project, began with speaking to students at a local junior high school about the importance of food.
“Farmers take care of rice plants like their babies. They worry that the plants might catch a cold by meltwater,” Yuuki said, describing the work of farmers who go to rice fields every morning.
After hearing Yuuki’s stories, the students started bowing to farmers when they see them at the rice fields. They experience rice farming by helping farmers to plant rice seedlings and cultivate rice. Local residents make pre-orders for the harvested rice, priced at ¥24,000 per 60 kg.
Yuuki says he has high hopes for future consumers. The current situation surrounding food culture will be improved if people change from those who only consume foods, caring only about price and safety, to those who really care about agriculture, nature and lives.
Many consumers are not taught about how agricultural items are grown. Lack of interest in agriculture leads to the trend of “the cheaper the better.” Let us actively encourage people to strengthen relationship with farmers. Farmers themselves should also reconsider ways to promote agriculture and food culture.
(Jan. 3, 2016)