September 22, 2016

Carnivorous vegetarians


The Japanese may be the most pragmatic people on the planet. Going all-in on half-of-the-world domination and then losing everything knocked the stuffing out of that sort of zealotry. And unlike the Germans, they decided not to dwell on it.

Well, except when silly westerners try to ratchet up their own virtue signaling by apologizing for beating them.

And unlike the Germans, the ultra-nationalists and their rhetoric aren't banned. Some even get elected to high office. Then there's that whole Yasukuni Shrine business, which prime ministers pretend to be "sensitive" about.

Until the cameras are turned off, that is.

All the paeans to pacifism are pragmatic as well. In a neighborhood full of angry bulls, it's a good idea not run around waving a red flag. But at home, disturb the social order and the kid gloves come off. Japan has the death penalty and uses it.

And they don't pay much real attention to foreigners who complain about such things. Frankly, I think the Japanese government sticks to that whole whale hunting thing (it's for "research," don't you know) because foreigners complain about it.

It's a passive-aggressive way of asserting Japan's sovereignty and national prerogatives.

Japan's eating habits are doing a lot worse to the unagi, but when's the last time you heard anybody campaigning to "Save the eels!"


As Homer Simpson would put it: "Mmmm . . . eels."

Which brings us to the subject of another bunch of virtue-signaling westerners that amuse the Japanese when they're not bemusing them: vegetarians. Long story short: the best way to be a vegetarian in Japan is to not ask about the ingredients.

Eryk points out in his This Japanese Life blog that the

long life expectancy of Japanese people isn't from a vegetarian diet, because none of them are vegetarians. Okinawans are usually singled out—longest life expectancy in the world—but Okinawans actually eat taco rice and chicken.

The same goes for cancer rates. Japan's cancer rates aren't low because they avoid meat. Japan's diet is heavy on meat and soy—tofu, in particular—and soy can lower the risk of certain cancers. But tofu in Japan is usually served alongside meat, not in place of it.

Far from utopian, Japan is one of the least vegetarian-friendly places on Earth.

Vegan visitors in particular are warned that it is almost impossible to strictly adhere to a vegan diet in Japan. Even in vegetable dishes, the dashi (broth) that is a ubiquitous component of Japanese cuisine almost certainly contains pork or fish.

Courtesy Nami.

Laments Anne Lauenroth at GaijinPot, dashi is commonly made from bonito (related to tuna), and it is everywhere,

from sauces, salad dressings and miso soup to udon and soba noodles being boiled in it. Better restaurants pride themselves on making their own dashi, and they will be inclined to cook even their vegetables in this special broth instead of lovely, ordinary water.

But as far as Japanese cooks are concerned, dashi doesn't count as "meat," regardless of what it's made from. If you can't see the meat, there isn't any meat. Warns a site called the Vegetarian Resource Group,

It may be difficult to explain to Japanese people what you cannot have, because the concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood. For example, if you say you are vegetarian, they may offer you beef or chicken soup without meat itself.

Agrees Peter Payne,

One special challenge is being a vegetarian in Japan, since the country generally doesn't understand the lifestyle. One restaurant even advertised "vegetarian" bacon-wrapped asparagus, as if the presence of a vegetable was enough to make it vegetarian.

He advises sticking to shoujin ryori, the food traditionally eaten by Buddhist priests. Which could be tough for the typical tourist to arrange alone. So the Inside Japan Tours website "will advise all your accommodation of your dietary needs in advance."

 Why? Because it is

decidedly more difficult to be a full vegetarian or vegan due to the ubiquity of fish in the Japanese diet. In fact, it is so rare in Japan that you will find many restaurants that do not offer any vegetarian dishes at all.

Protecting tourists from vegetarian dishes that aren't really is a great example of what Tyler Cowen calls "Markets in Everything."

Granted, I find actual "travel" utterly unappealing as a hobby, let alone a necessity. (Fun to watch on television, though.) But this strikes me as an odd tourism mentality. It's a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: "Don't do as the Roman do."

Then why go to Rome in the first place?

When it comes joining the culinary globetrotting set, I think Phil Rosenthal has the right idea in I'll Have What Phil's Having. He travels the world and eats whatever he is served with great elan and with barely a care about where it came from.

After all, all those other people are eating it and they didn't fall down dead. Yet.

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