Japan Eats

Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 4, “Is it safe?”

This week we discuss the ongoing effects of the Tohoku earthquake and a food poisoning scare

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt, and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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In this week’s Japan Eats Podcast, Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt, and Christopher Pellegrini discuss how the Tohoku earthquake has affected the food we eat in Japan and the recent E coli scare.

Here are some links to the issues we discussed this week:

Intro/outro: “Aguamala” by Carne Cruda

You can e-mail us at lovitt@japaneats.tv

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Update: Why We’re Having Hanami

In April of 2003, near the beginning of a trek through China optimally-timed to coincide with the outbreak of SARS and the resulting hooplah and chaos, I paid a visit to Nanjing and, being a resident of Japan, to its massacre memorial and museum. The effect was striking: the setting was bare and bleak, sculptures of hands and cowering mothers dotted an unbroken expanse of white gravel. The first indication of oversell was the need of Chinese museums to drive in nails with sledgehammers: piped in scary music. Wordless choral wails over an ill-fitting drum beat emerged tinnily from behind every large rock.

I chided myself for approaching such a memorial from the perspective of a film critic and braced myself for the excavation site, where the remains of tens of thousands of victims have been and are still being uncovered. As I descended the stairs, I noticed that not only had the music not stopped, stage directions flanked the doors. In Chinese and English, signs directing visitors to be somber, respectful, and more were placed periodically in front of the glass walls of the corridor.

What I realized then was that the government agency that built and laid out the memorial had blown it by trying to dictate how people experienced it. They had taken an event that would elicit sadness and sympathy from anyone and then taken responsibility off the visitors’ shoulders and blunted the discomfort, fear, sorrow, and sympathy people would naturally feel by telling them how to feel and when to feel it, then how to show it.

What on Earth does this have to do with Japan Eats?

Well, as one of Japan’s most-celebrated seasons begins its all-too-brief roll up over the country, Governor Shintaro Ishihara asked Tokyoites to refrain from the centuries-old custom of picnicking under the city’s sakura trees and from drinking alcohol in public.

“Why,” you might reasonably ask, “would he make such a recommendation when so many voters have been cooped up indoors, upset by the relentless news of the country’s worst recorded natural disaster, or even worse? Don’t people need some icon of normalcy?”

Well, the 78-year-old Ishihara, never known to have considered another person’s feelings before, has decided that Tokyoites need to show that they are in mourning for the dead and missing and in sympathy with the bereaved in Tohoku.

See where I’m going?

Ishihara, who was quick to call the earthquake and tsunami divine retribution upon a selfish, greedy people and slow to insincerely retract his remarks, needs such instructions. Ishihara, who has a decades-long record of boastful ignorance and gratuitous offense seldom mitigated by any expression of sympathy or human decency, needs to be told how to feel, when to feel it, and how to display it. The people of and in Tokyo do not.

Governor Ishihara, I shall hold my metaphorical tongue.

In addition to celebrating the coming of Spring and the beauty of nature, hanami has long been also a collective appreciation of that beauty’s ephemerality and the fragility of that which we all love and admire. Hanami is marked not only be the enjoyment of the season and the moment, but by nostalgia for the seasons past and wonderings on the seasons yet to come.

What better symbol could there be for our present moment?

No one (except the Governor, who may be trying to make up for his gaffe in hopes of being reelected) needs to be reminded of the suffering of our compatriots in Tohoku. It holds a prominent place in almost every conversation, it dominates all media, it tugs with an awful weight in every heart.

Hundreds of Tokyoites are volunteering every day to go to the stricken areas to help. Thousands more are helping from Tokyo. Millions more are donating money, blood, and supplies. Everyone is in mourning. Everyone sympathizes.

It helps no one to focus on your own appearance, to make a show of how sorry and sad you are. That is self-centered.

Merchants, vendors, brewers, cooks, and people in blue plastic tarp factories still have and need jobs. Tokyo is not dead and won’t be dead until its people decide to make it so.

The people of Tohoku are in our hearts and on our minds. We are giving all we can and we urge all of you to do the same. However, we are going to the park, drinking sake from Tohoku, eating delicious Japanese fruits and vegetables, and appreciating another hanami season, just as people throughout Japan have done, in good years and bad, for centuries. We might even attempt some bad poetry. We hope you’ll do the same.

After the Disaster: How You Can Help

Everyone reading this knows, probably far better than they’d like, that the Eastern coast of Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami with waves in excess of ten meters on the afternoon of March 11th. In the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster, Japan has endured roughly 600 further quakes, of which nearly half have been of magnitude 5.0 or greater, ranging from the area surrounding the epicenter of the original temblor, off the coast of Sendai, in the North, to Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo.

First and foremost, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to ask after our well-being and to offer help. All of us here at Japan Eats and, as far as we have been able to ascertain, our friends and colleagues, were spared the worst.

As of this writing, on the evening of March 24th, Tokyo is inconvenienced more than anything. Insofar as you worry, do so for the people up North who are no different from us but that they are undergoing a trial that even their friends and compatriots but a short distance away can barely begin to imagine.

Readers outside of Japan may have come close to having the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history pushed out of their minds by one of its pernicious side effects: the extensive damage to and ongoing emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite what you see on TV, it is inarguably the horrific loss of life, livelihood, property, and peace of mind in Tohoku that is the larger tragedy.

Japan, as anyone reading, watching, or listening to the Anglophone media knows, was just about as well-prepared as it could have been and is a wealthy country with the infrastructure and know-how to get back on its feet as fast as any other place on Earth. The earthquake itself was a triumph for Japanese engineering. It is safe to say that the time, money, and effort spent designing buildings and infrastructure to withstand earthquakes saved thousands of lives and allowed for a better response to those areas in which the truth that mankind will always be smaller than the inexorable forces of nature was brought so relentlessly to bear.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people need your help. Young and old; men, women, and children; rich and poor – they have lost, in some cases, everything, and in nearly all cases are suffering through the bitter Tohoku winter without power, without water, without sanitation, without privacy, without creature comforts and, in far too many cases, without information about their situation and prospects, or even all of their friends and relatives.

Japan Eats is a food and drink site and we, as much as anyone, know the value and rewards of seeking quality, but in these extreme circumstances, we join many, many others in asking everyone who is able to give as much as possible. People in Japan’s Kansai region are cutting down on power consumption and donating the savings to disaster relief. Bars and restaurants in the country’s more fortunate locales have hosted parties and donated the entire day’s takings, and more, to the people who need it most.

Right now, aid organizations say money is the most effective gift as transportation is difficult and needs change from place to place, day to day. There are things most of us can do to squeeze a bit more out. Maybe the reverse-Jesus, for example. Pass on buying that lovely bottle of wine you’d been dreaming of and turn that money into clean water for the people who need it. Or a change of (warm) clothes. Or a book to read to stave off the tedium and fear. Whatever you can do, it will help.

Here’s a list of groups doing good work in Japan who could use your help:

  • Japanese Red Cross Society – Primarily focused on disaster relief, emergency medical treatment, and health and sanitation issues.
  • Oxfam Japan – Primarily focused on mothers and children, as well as on getting assistance to foreigners/non-Japanese speakers.
  • Second Harvest Japan – A foodbank distributing food to shelters and serving meals to disaster victims and the homeless.
  • The Salvation Army – Primarily focused on the provision of basic needs and coordination with other groups to get victims’ more specific needs taken care of.
  • Rescue Japan – A specific relief coordination effort begun by a group of Tokyo-based small businesses. Primarily focused on getting daily necessities, such as drinking water, toiletries, and clean underwear to shelters in addition to distributing items such as books and toys.
  • Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support – A coordination effort between three established animal protection groups in Japan. They do just what it sounds like.

Of course, another way to help that might appeal to our readers is to remember that the people in unaffected areas of Japan are doing all they can to help their stricken compatriots and, while they don’t need charity per se, normalcy helps them. So, if you were considering a trip to Tokyo or anywhere West of Tokyo, or to Hokkaido, please come – it’s still one of the safest, cleanest, best-functioning places in the world. The hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops still have employees and Japan’s economic recovery will only be helped.

We will be back very soon with more specific information about the situation in the Tokyo area, particularly as it relates to safety and, our favorite, food and drink.