Shizu Yuasa facilitates creative and journalistic projects in Tokyo. She publishes her own work and acts as a researcher and fixer for foreign journalists. She has been involved in producing and facilitating art exhibitions, festivals, and documentary and feature films.
I wake up at 7:30 and nudge my two-year-old. I prepare muesli and fruit for him, coffee for me. Then I open my laptop to check the news. These days there are two new tabs added to my morning browsing: one for the latest reports from Geiger counters around Tokyo, and the other for thermometers monitoring the Fukushima reactor containment vessels.
Two months have passed since our disaster grand slam. We’ve learned stuff we didn’t know or care about before: Iodine 131’s half-life and how to read mSv. A few days after the hydrogen explosion, the government raised the recommended environmental radiation exposure limits from 1 mSv to 20 mSv (which must mean our resistance just grew twentyfold, right?). There’s no way to know with any accuracy how contaminated the water we cook or bathe in is, much less the food we eat.
Japanese culinary culture has always been very particular about seasons and localities. At home or in restaurants, menus change weekly because we eat what’s fresh. Food is a way of celebrating the season: time and place.
Photo by Persona on Flickr
Pushed by public demand and WHO standardization pressure, Japan revised its agricultural standards in 2000 to require fresh produce to be labelled with the name and place of origin. In addition, any “organic” title requires a third party’s certification, and labeling became mandatory for all genetically modified foods. Information technology surely helped producers, distributors, and retailers to improve the food-tracking system. Consumers can also look up further information online; for instance, many co-ops offer information services. By putting lot numbers on packages, you can find farm names, addresses, produce (breed variety), numbers of farmers, a farming plan, and if or when they use pesticides. Over 80% of respondents to a Tokyo Metropolitan Government 2008 survey said they were in the habit of checking either all or certain products’ country (or for domestic foods, prefecture) of origin. In general, people checked foreign foods for safety or authenticity; in general, Chinese foods have a bad reputation, and US beef still carries the stigma of BSE. We used to check domestic foods more for taste. Those days are gone.
Above-limit radioactive contamination (or, post-Fukushima, “revised”) has been reported from the northeast (Tohoku) to the Tokyo area, Kanto. Products which fail inspection are destroyed, but those beneath the regulated limits aren’t reported and are in circulation. Since customers don’t have any way to verify, rumor destroyed produce sales from all radioactive-affected areas. In April I often saw advertising, sometimes hand-written, above a spread of fresh veggies, appealing shoppers to “support the farmers!” of Tohoku or Kanto. These days the impact is less visible; produce is once again displayed without fanfare.
Japan has one of the fastest aging populations on Earth. My mom, a 60-something, tells me, “I’m going to die in 20 years anyway, and adults’ risks from contamination is minimal, so I buy from the farmers to support them.” As a mother of a small child, I can’t risk it. I choose fish from the western Japan Sea, milk from the far north, and veggies from the far south. Of course, who knows if the packages actually contain the products advertised?
It’s early summer. I’ve been looking forward to grilled broad beans, sliced sweet spring onion salads, bamboo-shoot rice with Chinese pepper leaf buds, semi-transparent offshore-pickled firefly squid; maybe at a hot spring or beach somewhere, with a chablis. Typically we would have enjoyed this spread with seared bonito, but they are around Tokyo Bay at the moment, migrating toward the Fukushima shoreline. It’s a great year to be a bonito, but I’ll be going without this summer.
Do you make efforts to source local food? Does knowing where ingredients originate matter to you?