Can Japan Recover?

The New Fear of Food
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 1 2011 7:49 PM

Can Japan Recover?

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Slide Show: The New Japanese Fear of Food. Click image to launch.

"We were very fortunate that there wasn't much damage," Elizabeth Andoh says as she walks me through her small Tokyo apartment, pointing out the traces left behind by the March 11 earthquake—a tiny crack near the ceiling, a floating shelf adrift and knocked off its anchor. In Tokyo, more than 200 miles from the earthquake's epicenter, the visible signs of disaster are subtle and easy to miss, especially if you've just arrived, as I have, from touring the staggeringly devastated northeast coast near Sendai.

I've known Elizabeth for more than 10 years, but this is the first time I've been to her home, which doubles as the headquarters and test kitchen of her culinary school. Elizabeth is Japan's Julia Child, Diana Kennedy, and Elizabeth David rolled into one, the English-language authority on Japanese cuisine. A petite, sixtysomething New Yorker, she came to Japan in the 1960s as a graduate student and stayed on to study with one of Japan's leading culinary scholars. The first time I met Elizabeth, on a busy street corner in Tokyo's Ginza, I was struck by how difficult it was to spot her; from a distance, she melts into the Japanese crowd. After 40 years in the country (she married a Japanese businessman), she's effortlessly fluent in everything Japanese, right down to the body language.

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When I called Elizabeth to tell her the Japan National Tourism Organization had invited me to visit the country to observe the disaster recovery, she graciously offered to help with my research, and then she invited me over to her place on the Saturday of my Tokyo stay: "We're doing a pickle workshop!" Considering the timing, and my reason for traveling to Japan, a class on tsukemono making might seem like an odd thing to propose. But for Elizabeth, who's spent a lifetime passionately thinking about how the Japanese relate to food, viewing the crisis through a culinary lens was a natural reflex. (In the weeks just after the tsunami, in shock and sorrow, she'd hammered out a proposal for her next book, on the food culture of the affected region, Tohoku.)

On previous trips to Tokyo, Elizabeth had introduced me to a Japanese culinary universe light years beyond the sushi, yakitori, and ramen joints I knew from New York. In Isetan's wondrous basement food court, she helped me make sense of the confusing abundance (rice balls! tofu skins! 25 different types of miso pastes!), and in Takashimaya's kitchenware department, she decoded all those mysterious, aesthetically perfect gadgets (ginger graters! pickle presses!) no Japanese housewife can live without. Thanks to our Tokyo field trips, I began to understand that in matters culinary, the Japanese are the French of Asia—meticulous about detail and quality, but especially about provenance. Long before the words artisanal and locavore began popping up in foodie lingo, the Japanese were savoring their mountain-water tofus, their regional specialty pickles, the bean-paste sweets sold only at a remote temple.

The most important thing I took home from Elizabeth's generous lessons is this: Food in Japan is entwined, inextricably, with place. So what happens when the place gets contaminated? The city of Tokyo survived the earthquake and missed the tsunami, and its background radiation level is safe—in fact it's even lower than Hong Kong's. But the Fukushima radiation, like a malevolent genie in a bottle, had slipped out and insinuated itself into Japan's cultural pride and lifeblood. It had gotten into the rice and even the tea leaves. Low levels, to be sure, but what, exactly, are safe levels?

When I started talking to my Tokyo friends, I realized that the March 11 triple disaster had left deep cracks in the city; they just weren't the kind you find in buildings or sidewalks. For instance, when I invited my usually reserved and reticent friend Mariko to dinner one night, she shocked me with her very blunt, un-Japanese answer: "I don't feel comfortable going to that restaurant, because I don't know where they are getting their vegetables from. It's not something you need to worry about, because you're here for a short time. But I'm going to be eating in Japan over the rest of my lifetime, and I have to be concerned." At another gathering, a worried-looking woman pulled me aside: Had I heard the latest? Radiation-contaminated Fukushima cows had accidentally shipped out to market. They disappeared into the consumer food chain; their meat could be anywhere.

What was particularly puzzling about these fear-of-food exchanges is that they occurred in a capital city that, at least officially and on the surface, had snapped into stiff-upper-lip mode. At the beginning of the summer, the Japanese government told businesses and factories to cut power consumption by 15 percent to compensate for the closed nuclear plants. Most responded patriotically by exceeding the requirement. In Tokyo's post-disaster summer, air conditioners were set at 80 degrees Fahrenheit; citizens sweltered stoically in offices and shops, then rushed down into Tokyo's stifling subway in the spooky, gray-green glow of dimmed flourescent lights, filing past posters exhorting them to "Support Tohoku! Save Electricity!"

On one of our department-store forays, Elizabeth had explained to me something she said was deeply important about Japanese culture: the concept of duality. In Japan, a person's inner (honne) and public (tatemae) selves could be radically different. You could be boiling mad, deeply hurt, embarrassed, or fearful in private, while putting on a brave, or jolly, or dutiful face to the world—and that was perfectly acceptable, even desirable. I wondered if Japanese duality explained the simmering private anxiety and gung-ho public cooperation I was witnessing in Japan's Disaster Summer.

What I am sure of is that I witnessed something else during one of those sweltering disaster summer nights in Tokyo, something that seemed very new. I was eating dinner at a fashionable restaurant called Roppongi Nouen. The word nouen means farm, and as locavore restaurants go, this place wore its loca on its sleeve; every dish from the tomato tofu to the Miyaji pork sausage was organic, curated, and pedigreed. The menu not only listed the places where every food item came from, it also had pictures and biographies of the farmers. There was no fear of food in evidence at this restaurant: Roppongi Nouen was packed.

After dinner, I asked to speak to the owner, Hima Furuta. He came over to the table, a large, portly guy, around 30, with longish hair. And when I asked him my questions about food and Fukushima, safety and radiation, he did not smile and make the polite tatemae public niceties I've come to expect in Japan. The earthquake had opened a crack, a wide one, in Furuta-san's duality and opened his honne. It was very, very angry.

"The government of Japan has to step up and declare what the real situation is. They need to tell everyone—Japanese, and the international community—the truth about what food is contaminated, and what the real dangers are. Then we need to stop selling Japanese food outside of the country. We need to sell our food only to ourselves, for three to five years."

"We can't just blame the government. We're all responsible for this problem. Our desire created it. Our generation must change it."

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