Tokyo: Keywords For The Future Of Foods

I went to a really interesting workshop at the British Council in Tokyo sponsored by some people I know are thinking deeply about sustainability and environmental issues. The panel discussion was a bit unusual but allowed people to cue in ideas and pet topics. A good mix of unusual people joined and I had fun.

This was the first of a new series of monthly learning and networking events, The Green Leaders Forum: The Future of Food @ British Council.

- Luke Poliszcuk, eQualC Sustainability Communications
- Hiromi Matsubara, biopio inc.,
- Jacob Reiner, Earth Embassy

Photos from the event here

It was pointed out from the start that Japanese people basically did not eat meat for about 1000 years, since it was outlawed in the 680s to the early Edo era (and even then, animals like horses and cattle (oxen or cows) were too precious to eat, as they were useful for the economy in other ways). A lot of people joined the discussion to say how it can be difficult to be a strict vegan or vegetarian in Japan, as the dashi (soup sauce) often includes extracts from fish. But fish (and whales) were not part of the ancient taboo so the western-style concept of a strict vegan or vegetarian lifestyle in the modern western sense may be rather alien to Japan.

I did wonder what Shotoku Taishi and others said about food back in the 600s: It would be interesting to know more about why Japanese people avoided eating pork and beef for so long. But it may have other roots:
In 676 AD, the then Japanese emperor Tenmu proclaimed an ordinance prohibiting the eating of fish and shellfish as well as animal flesh and fowl. Subsequently, in the year 737 of the Nara period, the emperor Seimu approved the eating of fish and shellfish. During the twelve hundred years from the Nara period to the Meiji restoration in the latter half of the 19th century, Japanese people enjoyed vegetarian-style meals. They usually ate rice as staple food and beans and vegetables. It was only on special occasions or celebrations that fish was served. Under these circunstances the Japanese people developed a vegetarian cuisine, Shojin Ryori (ryori means cooking or cuisine), which was native to Japan.
Source: Vegetarian News 1998

Hiromi Matsubara said she tries to promote "green" but in a business setting, it can be difficult: "You just have to be aware of where your food is coming from and be a little more imaginative."

During the event we also talked about organic food and - there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. It was hinted that this year, Japan is about to change in a big way. Some big companies are going for the "top-down" approach and may be introducing more certified organic food during 2010. One response was that we need to look at ecosystems and consider how our food choices are affecting people and nature downstream: "Is this a problem for resources, for the ocean, for the rainforests?" Genetically modified ingredients were also mentioned as a problem, since Japan imports so much food, an several people voiced concern about Japan's low food self sufficiency and the high dependency on fossile fuels.

I liked how three Japanese concepts were highlighted as keywords to the future of food:

* Shun 旬 - the seasonal food, harvested and eaten at the prime time, the very best moment to eat that particular food
* Teikei 提携 - the direct and close relationship between farmer and consumer, based on trust, without a middleman
* Mutenka 無添加 - using no artificial chemicals or additives, getting the "pure" taste of the food

Also, don't miss the British Council E-idea Competition:

Do you have a climate change project idea for making a sustainable society? Looking for seed money funding to kick start your project?

Apply to the E-idea competition to win funding up to 800,000 yen!


Unknown said…
"It was pointed out from the start that Japanese people basically did not eat meat for about 1000 years."

This is widely reported as being de facto truth. Yes there was a ban, but yes meat eating also continued.
Martin J Frid said…
jj, thanks for your comment. The topic of the meeting was "The future of food" - it was noted that there is no way to continue the current trend of meat eating. It is both resource intensive and wasteful, and having a huge effect on lands elsewhere. Unsustainable practices such as the clearcutting of rainforests in the Amazon to cultivate soybeans for cattle feed was mentioned.

Hunting in historical Japan has nothing to do with it.
Unknown said…
Hi Martin,

Thanks for your interesting blogging.

I must say though that while I am glad to see food issues taken up thoughtfully by anyone I am disappointed that this initiative is sponsored by the British Council. Why is the cultural promotion arm of the British Empire pushing the Global Warming agenda? Did the BC ever take an interest in food before Big Government swung its weight behind the warming cause?

See this article:

This initiative is about promoting the simplistic "junk science" of AGW, something which, regardless of all the green goodness it espouses in the pursuit of an essentially political agenda is bad for greater causes such as scientific independence and integrity, and freedom from nightmarish bureaucratic snares such as emissions trading schemes, which I believe will inevitably harm the cause of sane, "small is beautiful," organic, GM-free, food production. There is plenty of evidence for this conclusion if one looks around.

Anyone involved in this BC initiative should understand the propaganda cause it is serving.

Thanks for the chance to express!
Anonymous said…
Martin, propaganda aside, good reporting as always.

Glad you had a good time with the 'green leaders' at the event, but at the end of the day: "keywords" for the future of foods ? Sounds like the same suit and tie, pencil-pushing strategy AEON corp. uses to conglomerate mom & pops vegetable shops in lowland Japan. Don't want to sound alarmist or purest, but thinking up a bunch of keywords and applying them to an industrial Japan that is so far from being green you'd have to cross the entire color spectrum to get back to it, isn't going to do anything. As to 'mutenka', I took a look at Earth Embassy's website, and there's a 'organic mint farm' that sells in plastic bags. What's that? As to 'teikei', I think there'll always be a middleman. And as for 'shun', are we at the point where 'shun' has now become a "keyword" (in JAPAN of all places) to get us back across that color spectrum all the way to green ?

Anonymous said…

Thanks for the great post.

jj> I am sure you were right that people continued to eat meat. I have read that there were many variants of meat-eating bans from emperors and buddhist leaders. The main point was that meat eating was likely not a highly socially acceptable practice and hence meat was probably eaten less frequently than in other countries, something which may have influenced the current diet in Japan (which is generally probably a lot healthier than most western diets with excessive fatty food consumption).

gulab> I and most of the legitimate scientific community emphatically disagree that climate change is anything less than an immediate and major issue. The only "junk science" I have read on the topic was funded by oil companies, their PR agencies, or republican think-tanks. Instead of spouting nonsense why not join with a real discussion on how we can mitigate the problem to the benefit of all?

ken> I'm sure that you have legitimate questions as to the true extent or impact of "green" products/projects around but I believe everyone is just trying to do their best in a country that does not have very good systemic incentives for better farming practices or more environmentally food production. At the very least they are working hard to raise awareness. Instead of verbally bashing them for their failures, perhaps you could offer constructive, affordable, accessible solutions to improve upon them?
Anonymous said…
equalc, not bashing. Just saying. Of course you're right about me not offering solutions -- the only place real change ever starts is with the individual. I didn't write here to offer solutions. I wrote here to question the solutions that others are offering right now. That is all.

Anonymous said…
BTW equalc,
> perhaps you could offer constructive, affordable, accessible solutions to improve upon them?

This is Martin's blog, so I'll save my ideas for where I write. I'll just say this: my big idea involves taking back to the landbase right now, practicing sound stewardship right now, and living well right now. I live in Japan, grow kids and animals and food and trees in Japan, and have just as much darn interest in Japan's future as the next man.

Martin J Frid said…
In fact, Ken's blog is on my list as one that I like (a lot) and recommend to anyone looking for ideas about real sustainability. Thanks for your comments - I should add that more "keywords" were suggested, and I agree fully that more are needed.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Martin. And I hope I didn't come off as "bashing" anything. I'm just curious and full of questions.

Hi Martin,

I liked this lively discussion.

Re historical vegetarianism in Japan. Yes, there is a traditional vegetarian/vegan cuisine: Shojin Ryori.

It's the Buddhist cuisine that is so delicious in Koya-san and Kyoto especially.

The diet is not just about non-violence to all living things but also very subtle--choosing ways to flavor that influence the body according to an Asian traditional science similar to Aryuveda. The Jains of India also follow a similar dietary philosophy which comes out of the same roots.

"Vegetables, especially soy beans and nuts are the main ingredients and these are prepared according to the season; In spring, the new sprouts that shoot out, in summer, the well grown green leaves, in autumn the nature blessed fruit and nuts, and in winter, roots that warm the body from the core. In this manner, without going against seasonal ingredients, the menu is naturally made out.

In Buddhism, "Retribution" is firmly believed and because of the conception that all things of nature have life, Shojin Ryori prohibits eating meat and it is considered virtue to make the most of vegetables and beans.

The word "Shojin" means a devotion to pursue a perfect state of mind banishing worldly thoughts and making efforts to keep striving for limitless perfection at each stage. That is to say, to prepare Shojin Ryori itself is a part of practice of Buddhism."

Several temples in Kyoto offer outstanding Shojin Ryori (in restaurants in their gardens!). The Shojin Ryori at Koya-san is out-of-this-world delicious if you like tofu.

I heard Taiwan is an incredible place for vegetarian and vegan cuisine because many devoutly Buddhist Chinese fled there to practice freedom of religion when the CP took over.

Earlier persecution of Buddhists in China resulted in great Buddhist and Zen Buddhist priests coming to Japan from China. A different variation of Shojin Ryori is served at the Chinese-influenced Obaku Zen temple, Mampukuji near Kyoto.

(I know this was not the theme of your post--but some of the commenters stirred my strong interest in this subject).

Thanks for the great post and interesting and thought-provoking comments.


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