nbunce

Breeding Bluefin Tuna in captivity: A recipe for success?

When I went over to Japan- I went there with an open mind to try as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the first 3 weeks were a sort of ignorant bliss- I ate, enjoyed but frequently was at a loss to identify what I was eating. With one exception- I knew very well of the Japanese love of Bluefin tuna and despite the oft repeated exclamations of its wonderful taste and fondant texture, it was one fish I actively tried to avoid. Why? As one of the most endangered, or arguably the most endangered fish in the world with currently only 20 years’ worth of stock left in the wild, I could not comfortably eat and enjoy fish that would leave a taste of guilt in my mouth.

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

The Bluefin tuna is known as the “tiger of the sea”- a hefty sized fish which can grow up to 635 kg and measure 5 metres long- that is a lot of sushis. They can be found in the Northern Atlantic, and the Mediterranean but are increasingly commercially cultivated off the coasts of Japan, which I will expand upon further. Although Bluefin tunas have fascinated and fed humans for centuries, they only became a global foodstuff towards the end of the 20th century. Their delectable taste has led to a global boom and demand which has made Bluefin tuna a profitable business which has succumbed to overfishing and hence the now endangered state of Bluefin tuna. Quotas do little to control this problem since they are difficult to enforce, and scientists estimate we only have 20 years of stock left in the oceans, and if they are to recover fully there needs to be total ban on fishing of Bluefin tuna for at least a generation.

Tuna, tuna, tuna

Before leaving to go to Japan I attempted to learn the Japanese word for Bluefin tuna to avoid any crises of conscience when chomping on some sushi.  However this proved more difficult then I initially thought, and the vocabulary is still not clear-cut for me. Generally Bluefin tuna will be labelled as “Maguro” pronounced (mah-goo-roh). However Yellowfin tuna may also be labelled as Maguro, though more often than not this will still refer to Bluefin tuna. Then there are the different names for the cuts of the tuna:

  • Akami (ah-kah-me)- the leaner parts of the tuna from the side of the fish
  • Toro (toh-roh) literally translating as the fatty part of the tuna found in the belly portion of the fish, which is then sometimes further subdivided into different cuts of the fatty belly which fetch even higher prices:
    • Chutoro (choo-toh-roh)- from the fatty part of the belly portion of the fish which is usually preferred since it is less fatty than Oturo.
    • Oturo (oh-toh-roh)- the fattiest part of the fish found on the underside and so will melt in the mouth.

 

Source: http://read.bi/J5s0aH

Are you still with me? Now I am unsure if these cuts refer uniquely to Bluefin tuna or to all types of tuna, so it was a tricky water to navigate as a non-speaker of Japanese trying to stick to my ethics! Fortunately in almost all sushi bars in Tokyo (except the most traditional, hidden ones) the Latin script and spelling was provided alongside the plate descriptions. Sushi bars are where (but not exclusively) you will most frequently encounter Bluefin tuna so it was when eyeing up the conveyor belt of fishy delights whizzing past me that I was at my most vigilant. In any case, the easiest way to avoid Bluefin tuna was to stick to my travelling budget and choose the cheaper sushis and tuna! Bluefin tuna will always be among the most expensive tuna sushis on the sushi conveyor belt.

It seemed a great shame that due to my personal guilt and ethical wrangles I was not able to sample this very popular and local delicacy but equally it seemed ridiculous to want to eat something which is so dramatically overfished it is not going to survive into the next century. I was therefore extremely curious to stumble upon a documentary by France 24 about Bluefin Tuna fish farms. The thought or concept had never crossed my mind, but seemed logical if they can make salmon farms work. However that is another kettle of fish altogether (excuse the pun) and I’m not a huge proponent of salmon farms either, which in my view produce lower quality, intensively farmed, worst tasting and unhealthier fish which have a bigger environmental impact than wild salmon. However this is the toss-up between Western societies eating as much salmon as they friggin’ well want to, or as a society forgoing and reducing our salmon intake, and hence reduce our intake of those all-important brain boosting Omega 3’s which are so out of whack with our Western processed diets which are heavily reliant on too many Omega 6’s. I should address this in a separate post- but this link adequately explains the importance of balancing our ‘Omegas’.

The concept of farmed tuna has actually existed for some time but in a structure whereby wild Bluefin tuna are caught and then fattened on farms, which does not resolve the issue of rapidly diminishing stock of Bluefin. A new concept of tuna farms, highlighted in the above France 24 report, have been set up on the western coast of Japan to breed tuna from eggs so that there are raised in captivity their whole lives. This may seem the somewhat logical step seeing since other fish such as salmon and catfish are already bred in captivity, but Bluefin are notoriously difficult to breed and for years it was assumed to be impossible. Until now.

“Impossibilities are merely things which we have not yet learned.
– Charles W. Chesnutt

So why are our fast-disappearing tasty tuna friends so tricky to breed in these glorified ponds that we are bestowing upon them? Well, when it is put like that, would you prefer to be swimming, having sexy time and indulging in your preferred behaviours in the big blue ocean, or in an artificial, confined pool of water? Apparently the 5 star floating sea cages or giant tanks are not harbouring the right environmental cues to switch on sex hormones needed for reproduction. A European Union project focusing on this issue has been using drug implants mimicking the lacking sex hormones to incite Bluefin to produce fertilised eggs in captivity. It is hoped this technique will be useful to get tunas to breed at a younger age than they currently do. In experiments conducted only 1% of tuna babies have survived demonstrating the difficulty of breeding the tuna. A more recent experiment from Kinki university for Pacific Bluefin had a 6% survival rate from eggs hatched, which is a good number of tuna surviving since the average tuna lays tens of millions of eggs; and these survival rates are steadily increasing.

 

Source: http://on.msnbc.com/KAA97g

Another challenge of these tuna compared to other farmed fish are that they reach sexual maturity at a much higher age of 12 years compared to other fish such as catfish which are mature around 3 years. Bluefin also need a tremendous amount of space owing to their size and their method of oxygen extraction which requires them to swim very rapidly to absorb oxygen into their gills. They have an enormous appetite, so much so that if this was to become a more widespread commercial endeavour, it could extinguish other fish species such as anchovies and sardines, or other cheaper fishes which are currently principal food sources for developing countries. Feeds have been developed which are made of fishmeal, oils and nutrients, claimed to be less polluting and more fattening than a diet of small fish, and with an aim to develop vegetarian feeds. However I do question how dramatically this must affect the quality and taste of the fish since I adhere to the philosophy of “you are what you eat”. Do we really want to be eating fish fed on artificial processed pellets?

The sizes of the Bluefin also pose another challenge for drug delivery such as antibiotics, sex hormones, and other medication. To dose a salmon, a man can pick it up to do so; this is not so easy with a Bluefin tuna unless you are currently competing for the World’s Strongest Man competition. Scuba divers therefore shoot time-release implants with spear guns into the tuna, and the drug then spreads through the tunas’ bodies over a week.

Bluefin tuna breeding has been strongly researched for the past 30 years in Japan but had been a fruitless endeavour due to the long wait for sexual maturity. However with improved techniques, a rapidly depleting stock of wild Bluefin tuna; it would seem the potential financial gains are auspicious. Indeed a Japanese firm which has been working on the prized Pacific Bluefin tuna aims to begin sales by 2013 with a sale of 10,000 fish by 2015.

The Foodie critique:

So is the result worthwhile? The farmed tuna from Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. (Japan’s biggest seafood company) Pacific Bluefin tuna farms still commands a significantly lower price than wild Bluefin which is somewhat disappointing when the years of research, development and investment that have gone into these farmed varieties is taken into account. It is criticised for lacking a ‘fish’ taste and the colour does not have that rich-red colour we expect to see in Bluefin tuna, demonstrating a white colour.  However as many Japanese concede, they cannot rely on wild tuna forever and expect significant improvements in the quality of farmed Bluefin tuna.

Is this the solution?

I am hesitant to regard this as a perfect solution, since as many emphasise, it does not resolve the problem of overfishing, it only

Source: http://bit.ly/hyWfH

diverts attention to breeding efforts in a highly costly manner. By using small fish as feed, this creates the same problem of other farmed fish- that we risk depleting other fish species stock at the expense of raising other ‘favoured’ fish such as salmon and Bluefin in captivity. And to replace the feed by a special meal mix does not seem to be a healthy alternative to me, and I do not feel we will extract the same health benefits eating farmed fish as we do from wild fish. Of course if we continue eating Bluefin fish at the current rate we do now, there will be no more of these beautiful fish left to eat, and also to admire. Others point out that breeding studies still need to continue, if not for feeding our appetites, but simply to tackle the problem of diminishing wild Bluefin tuna, and perhaps eventually boost wild stocks with tuna bred in captivity.


Sources:

 

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HiNGEd on Unique Stories

 “i’d rather wear a unique story…”- Boticca

I’ve always been fascinated with the origin of the product I am using, eating, wearing, smelling or consuming in some way or another. I am curious about the intricate relations, history and most importantly the story that lies behind a product. I assume this is what lends itself to my passion for sustainability, and ethical issues since full transparency and honesty is integral to a product to be considered as “green” or ethical. How else does one know if the product they are using has been crafted by happy workers, in an ecologically friendly (or not so eco-friendly) manner, without probing into the complex relations of a product’s naissance and creation?

Little Bird out of the Cage by Manolo at Boticca

So for me, what is more enticing than a company which brands itself on wearing unique stories? Where a sparkly necklace or funky leather bag is more than just an attractive addendum to an outfit, it in fact reflects an entire journey of creation, inspiration, design, toil, travels, and emotion intricately interwoven. Boticca gathers these unique stories together, from around the world and then presents a stunning smorgasbord of these to the gleeful visitor of this online boutique.

So where did my story with Boticca begin? Ahhh Boticca, Boticca…it reduces me to the typical female cliché within a wink of an eye when I click on to their site, I transform into a hopping erm…grasshopper of hopping joy (ok not the sexiest of images but adequate in evoking my elated state) in looking at all the pretty bags and delectable jewellery. Boticca was a chance discovery, whilst I was surfing the highways of the internet one evening (ok, ok I was procrastinating, doesn’t sound as jazzy as surfing…) and I was instantly struck by the unusual and distinctive designs which Boticca offered. I soon realised that Boticca was more than just an online accessories store- it was a hub of distinctive design and unique jewellery from around the world. And what’s more, each designer tells their story so whilst browsing their products you also get a deeper insight into the

designer’s process, and their tale. It’s hard to believe that Boticca has only just celebrated its first birthday seeing as there is such an extensive range on offer (a few of my favourites dotted around this post) and it is a beautiful experience meandering through the different designers, products and stories. Boticca actively celebrates difference in design and came into being thanks to

Tapestry Crossbody Clutch by Vanessa Boulton at Boticca.

founders Kiyan Foroughi and Avid Larizadeh. Kiyan, on a trip to Morocco met a designer named Miriam and was not only enthralled by her beautiful pieces but also what lay behind the designs- what Miriam’s works truly expressed and their tale. Kiyan and Avid were frustrated that only the lucky few would ever get to experience Miriam’s pieces, from which blossomed the beginnings of Boticca which actively sought to change this and provide a platform to showcase top emerging  independent designers and their ‘story’.

Twig Stacking Ring Set by Michello Oh, one of Boticca’s featured ethical designers

On another evening, a further exploration of Boticca’s site revealed to me that they also have an entire section dedicated to ethical designers, which in itself is not exhaustive, as I later discovered since there are many other designers who are also committed to ethical and sustainable practices in their own ways.  One of these discoveries was the Japanese company HiNGE-Dept. Accessory a wonderful ensemble of earthy, rustic yet at the same time ethereal jewellery. And it turns out I’m pretty spot on, the founder and designer, Liisa Hashimoto from Osaka in Japan, cites her inspiration as channelled from nature, inspired by seeds, mosses,  and branches amongst other beauties which Mother Nature throws her way. Liisa adds that:

They have a very interesting shapes and forms and are never the same. My works, especially melting silver, hammered copper and brass, evolve on their own. I never know what kind of shapes these materials will become. The shapes are made naturally and different each time. This is what makes them similar to processes in nature, and the beauty of nature is where I get my inspiration from.”

Shoe Necklace by HiNGE Dept. Accessory at Boticca.

It’s hard to pick out a favourite from Hinge-Dept. Accessory’s collection, but I think the child ballerina pirouettes out of me when I see this shoe necklace which reminds me of my ballet shoes as a child and evokes strong nostalgia for my dancing lesson days, the pink leotards and my mum’s failure at ever accomplishing a ‘proper ballet’ hair bun. By this I mean that she would stick about 5000 hairpins into my hair, fashioning a bird nest like construction upon the crown of my head prior to my ballet lessons, for it all to fall apart within 5 minutes of arabesques and glissades. Consequently my dance teacher would grudgingly have to re-do my hair each lesson. Ahhh memories. Reminiscing aside, I am also keen beans on this little number, the image is inspired from a water bay with little seeds growing all around:

Hoop red mebae earrings by HiNGE-Dept. Accessory at Boticca

Liisa Hashimoto has been making jewellery for over 20 years, a passion stemming from her school days, with a heating torch as a key tool of her trade for forging the 3 different metals she employs. Liisa’s other principal tool is the hammer which she uses to shape the metals, particularly the scraps of silver which she has been collecting for over 20 years and then recycles into interesting textures and organic shapes. Her latest creations using silver, from her collection of contemporary jewellery are wholly made from these recycled silver pieces, whilst the rest of her works are organic.

This is the unique story of Liisa Hashimoto; her inspiration is nature, her passion is contemporary jewellery, her process is fluid and organic with the materials to match, and she expresses her extraordinary talent through her creations with the aim of making others happy. It certainly pleases me, and I can’t help but fall in love with HiNGE-Dept. Accessory a bit more now I understand the story behind the designs and jewellery just that little bit better.

Visit Boticca to see more unique necklaces and earrings for women created by inspiring, independent designers. I’ll join you there.

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Free Money + Sloths= a better life?

On the 15th September, in over 15 countries worldwide, people handed out their money two coins, or two notes at a time to complete strangers with one condition attached: the recipient must pass half this amount to someone else. Who are these people? Benevolent billionaires who would like to donate to my new handbag fund (a bona fide cause I assure you…)? Well, no just ordinary people who seek to kick-start conversations and awareness on the benefits of economies based on sharing. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the local event in Tervuren, Belgium so the handbag fundraising continues…However aside from materialistic aspirations, this is exactly what this event aims to challenge, to get us thinking more critically and creatively about our relationship with money and to consider alternative and new forms of economic activity. The 15th September has been chosen symbolically as Free Money Day, since 3 years ago on September 15th 2008, Lehman’s Brothers, a figurehead for interminable economic growth and one of the world’s largest investment banks, filed for bankruptcy triggering the financial crisis, with repercussions which still resonate today.   Free Money Day has been initiated by the international group the Post Growth Institute, who seeks to inspire and equip people everywhere to explore paths to global prosperity that don’t rely on economic growth. In other words they seek to re-focus our priorities away from consumerist goals and shift to simpler values in order to regain meaning and a sense of balance in life, and for us all to gain greater fulfilment from a future beyond the pursuit of economic growth with no regard to consequences. From a logical point of view, exponential growth which we could almost consider as having become a mantra for ‘success’ and happiness, is completely incompatible in a world with finite resources. This hunger of humans for more of everything is to the detriment of the environment, our communities, our social needs, our happiness. Numerous studies, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs concur that up to a certain threshold, an increase in income contributes to individual wellbeing, however once our basic needs have been satisfied, an increase in our income does not directly correlate to us as happier little beans, just a crappier environment and often a poorer work-life balance. This is leading many to re-evaluate how we live our lives.

Click to see larger image. Source: http://www.businessballs.com/images/maslow_hierarchy.htm

This is by no means a new concept and has its roots in many different movements before it, in fact my whole end of degree dissertation study was focused on this topic and as much as I would like to delve back into the roots, evolutions, nuances and different manifestations of simpler living, I feel I would probably need a whole website rather than an isolated blog post to elucidate what terms such as ‘post growth’, ‘slow living’, ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’ encompass. I feel I can only scrape at the surface when introducing this topic and in fact the ‘Post Growth Institute’ is a very clear introduction and guide on how you can understand and incorporate simpler and ‘post growth’ values into your lives. I would therefore like to frame this post in the context of Japanese culturally specific approaches towards ‘post growth’ and simpler living by looking at the organisations and movements: The Sloth Club and Slow Living Japan.

Slow is beautiful

The Post Growth Institute notes that slowly “around the globe, in many different ways, people are coming to believe a different story.”

Sloth Club Logo. Source: http://www.sloth.gr.jp

The Sloth Club is one such group of people and this NGO formed in 1999, to promote the slow movement, sustainable living, fair trade and ethical living, and a local living economy. The sloth is a fitting face to a slow way of life and adherents idolise their furry, slumber eyed friend as a model for new approaches to living. And before you envisage hundreds of Japanese hanging from trees in an attempt to embrace ‘Slow’, “the aim is to emulate some of the basic behaviors of the sloth,” in particular its “low-energy, cyclical, symbiotic and non-violent lifestyle” so we should visualise the ways of the sloth in a metaphorical rather than literal sense.   A lot of the activities of the Sloth Club seem to encompass what many would simply associate with environmental or ecological and social rights group such as their engagement in antinuclear activism, peace activism and promoting conservation by means of the Hachidori Project.  Green and ethical actions indeed form a large core of their activities and the aims of slow living. Yet the Sloth Club has also been a large advocate and instigator of ‘Slow’ activities through organising ‘voluntary blackouts’ which encourage people to lead slower lifestyles, publishing guidelines for slow business, setting up slow cafes which serve organic and sustainably produced food and provides a community centre where events are held, organising ‘slow travel’ tours, involving themselves in ‘slow design groups’ and even setting up an alternative currency and ‘Slow Business school’.

A glossary of Slow: 

Still befuddled? Here’s a quick go-to guide for those of you who are not yet slow enough to trundle through a more comprehensive albeit longer explanation of the movement:

  • Slow food– The most visible facet of the movement and catalyst for other forms of ‘Slow’. It was founded in 1989 in Italy to challenge the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s diminishing interest in the food we eat, its origins, its taste and how the modern agricultural industry and our food choices affect the world socially and environmentally. It is now a 150 country-strong organisation, represented by another symbol of ‘Slow’: the snail.
  • Slow travel/tourism– A more meaningful, interactive and ecological form of tourism which often reflect features of ‘Slow’ such as eating locally, reconnecting with oneself, others and nature, reducing environmental impact of the visit, and opting for tourism which is truly ethical: supporting communities, respecting cultures, experiencing different lifestyles without judgement.
  • Slow business– An educational and business development group which seeks to expand and promote ‘Slow Business’ in Japan and worldwide. Their main concern is with interconnectedness of the local and global, focusing on promotion of alternative lifestyles, fair trade, organic products and other core values of ‘Slow’. Key words are ‘share’ as opposed to business ‘monopoly’ in order to shift us from a greedy society to a sharing society. They have also set up a Slow Business School as part of their projects.
  • Slow design- A holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, reflective and considered approach to design.  It repositions the focus of design on individual, socio-cultural and environmental well-being as well as celebrating diversity and pluralism.
  • Other terms to watch out for: slow music, slow books, slow education, slow cities

How and why did this movement take hold?

Japan and Tokyo is probably one the fastest and busiest country and city you will meet, this is particularly true of the latter. An increasing dissatisfaction with the frenetic pace of work and life, with too little sleep and too much work has led to many to seek alternative and slower lifestyles. Many are re-evaluating their approaches to relationships with society, food and the environment. This is particularly prevalent in the context of the economic crisis and Fukishima nuclear disaster. An increase in the awareness of ‘Slow’ can also be attributed to and in response to the Japanese film ‘Oriteyuku Ikikata’ (Slow life down) released in 2009.   The gradual adoption of ‘Slow’ as a life philosophy has not been without its difficulties. It is a movement which challenges the

Source: http://sloths.org/slothnew.html

idea of never-ending consumption and exertion in Japan, which has helped develop the country and improve the material lives of the Japanese significantly since the end of World War 2. There is equally the negative association of ‘slow’ with ‘lazy’-an idea which slow advocates are working to disband. However a sign of the success of the movement points to Kakegawa City in Shizuoka Prefecture declaring itself a “Slow Life City” in December 2002, of which there are over 60 worldwide. And you never know, maybe next year we’ll see a Free Money event in Japan the next 15th September!   At this point I’m going to finish my introduction to ‘Slow’ here feeling dissatisfied that I haven’t really even begun to explain what this about. But after having completed a 10,000 word dissertation on the topic I guess a blog post isn’t really going to cover it. However this has perhaps given an adequate introduction to one manifestation of ‘simpler living’ which takes its form as ‘Slow living’ or ‘The Sloth Club’ in Japan, which thousands are shifting to worldwide, each in their different forms and foci with the global aim to live simpler, to live better, to live greener and for prosperity beyond economic growth.

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Kuromame-Cha cha cha

In other words black soybean tea; possibly my most treasured discovery during my sojourn in Japan. It all began one cold spring trip to Hakone-the mountain escape for Tokyoites for a bit of rest and relaxation. My boyfriend and I were visiting to try out my first onsen (hot natural springs/baths) and experience the calmer, more picturesque side of Japan which had somewhat evaded me during my first few weeks in Tokyo. We stayed in a traditional inn known as a ryokan in the freezing temperatures of the high altitude location. I had foolishly left Tokyo in a summer dress, leggings and a light jacket not drawing upon years of geography education: that at higher elevations, temperatures are lower. This began to dawn on me as we took the series of cable cars and funiculars to reach our Hakone getaway, and my feet began to lose sensation. This was followed by acute observations of ‘Hmmm I see snow on those trees. That’s odd…’ and culminated in a full blown blizzard in the final stage of our cable car journey, underscoring that I was somewhat under- dressed. This heralded the largest sock purchase I have ever embarked upon to shield my bare feet. Ohayo my new ‘Hello Kitty’ footwear collection.

View of passing cable car- snow blizzard on our way up to Hakone
View from the cable car further up the mountain-visibility clearly improving…

The arrival at our inn which had at least 4 onsens was a very welcome facility in our lodgings. Within 5 minutes of arrival I was happily defrosting in the hot baths and massaging life back into my blue toes. Well

Outdoor Onsen

thawed and sporting a lobster red glow from my superfluous soaking in the onsen I proceeded onto the tea facilities in our room.  A good selection of which among them featured a wonderful smoky, subtly sweet -tasting tea: Kuromame-Cha. It was love at first sip. We were served it again after dinner, upon which we asked the ryokan owners what this wonderful concoction was. The ryokan sold a number of products in their reception area, including this tea, which we did not consider buying thinking it would be easily available in retail stores in Japan. How misguided we were.

This elusive tea took us 3 weeks, many googles and innumerable shopping hours to find. Eventually we located it in a food hall of a department store on our travels in the south of Japan. I found that there were a few of these department stores who sold it. The second time we located this enigmatic infusion was in Amanohashidate (translated roughly as ‘ladder to heaven’), one of Japan’s renowned ‘Three Scenic views’- a stunning 3.6 km sandbar. This town was akin to a kuromame paradise! Beans of this proverbial gold dust laid out for us drain our bank accounts into impulsive bean buys.  Why so ‘cher’? As would say our French friends (or not…). I’m not really sure, the beans are a national produce but only account for a minority of soybeans grown in Japan, and in most other south-east Asian countries. The cheaper variety are the kuromame grown in volcanic rich soils of Hokkaido and those of apparent superior quality are from the Tanba region in Japan, which come in as the world’s priciest beans!

Kuromame-Cha in packet form. Source: http://bit.ly/n7OHYX

Ninja drink!

So what is this glorious beverage of which I speak? Explained simply Kuromame-cha is black soybean tea. Kuromame meaning black bean and cha is tea. So to be more accurate the Japanese terminology is black bean tea since this bean is never referred to as kuro daizu which means black soybean. This in fact indicates the different uses of this bean compared to the typical yellow soybean, so much so that it is almost perceived as a different food.  The black soybean is widely used in Chinese medicine for its health properties and was traditionally fed to livestock in China. In Japan, in feudal times the ninja who were skilled in the art of invisibility would carry a pouch of ground roasted kurokame and sesame due to its lightweight and nutritional properties.

For the infusion, the lightly roasted beans are steeped in hot water to release their taste and health giving antioxidants: anthocynanins, which are found in the skin of the beans (which you will also find in purple fruit and vegetables such as blueberries, grapes, cranberries). Plus according to various sources kuromame-cha also provides a whole host of other health giving goodies to turn you into a glowing, ninjaesque demi-god (dess) *:

  • Good source of cholesterol-lowering fibre–>happy arteries
  • A cornucopia of folate and magnesium–> brain food and happy heart, muscles and bones respectively
  • Rich in iron–> blood enriching & vampire friendly

Kuromame. Source: http://item.rakuten.co.jp/naraduke/624/

Traditionally these beans are eaten in a New Year’s dish, cooked with sugar (as part of Osechi Ryori) and signify the wish for good health in order to work hard in the New Year. To blacken the beans it is preferable to cook them in an iron pot or with rusty nails! Popeye eat your heart out! And if eating, rather than drinking them floats your boat more check out a few recipes here or here.

Now time to hone my ninja fighting skills… I’m off to watch an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…I know you’re humming the tune with me…

*These assumptions are based on a highly scientific survey of one person who may or may not fully understand what the survey was about. But he certainly feels like a God.

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Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

Source: Quakebook.org

I’m really sad to hear and see the terrible impact of the earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and subsequent tsunami in Japan, whose far reaching destruction is slowly revealing itself day by day. For any worried English speaking expats in Japan-a great and reassuring resource can be found here: http://www.survivingnjapan.com/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan-links-resources.html

For those on twitter you will find a number of regular tweeters who are keeping everyone up to date on the situation including: @survivingnjapan @sandrajapandra

Please support the Japanese people through the Japanese Red Cross Society or buy #Quakebook to support the Japan relief effort.

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How unique is UNIQLO?

UNIQLO is among one of Japan’s best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival.

And when I say ‘first stepped into Japan’ I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in clothes shops rapidly waned upon realisation nothing fit me there.  Perusing the clothes rails only heightened my feelings that I was in fact a giraffe-hippopotamus hybrid trying to sneak past security in a covert attempt to wriggle myself into beautiful, and very much coveted miniature clothing. Even international chains in Japan failed me quite catastrophically, leaving me resigned to the fact that clothes was not to be the focus or even on the radar during my time in Japan. Yet I still tentatively persisted in my hunt for shoes until my penultimate day in Japan, fully aware that Japanese size XXL was far too petite for my, what I always thought, modest UK size 6 feet…

It was of no surprise that my attention wandered one day whilst browsing the rails of tiny clothing in UNIQLO and my eyes fell upon a white and green leaflet displaying UNIQLO’s ‘All-Product Recycling Initiative’. A quick glance on their site informed me that all Japanese Uniqlo stores accept used and worn UNIQLO clothes which are then donated to refugee camps, or recycled to produce electricity or manufacture industrial fibres. This immediately piqued my attention- here is a company thinking about the whole life cycle of their product, and not simply considering Point-Of-Sale as the end point. It got me thinking about the ethical background, principles and actions of this international low-cost retailing brand.  Does UNIQLO’s self-proclamation as a ‘Unique clothing’ brand define itself not just through its style but also through the incorporation of strong ethical principles?

History:

UNIQLO is part of the group Fast Retailing which claims to be ‘a group of companies willing to stand up to challenge with strong conviction and clear vision in order to create an even better world’, this already sets the context for a socially responsible company. They are among one of the biggest retail stores in Japan, with over 800 stores in Japan alone, plus over 100 worldwide, mostly in China, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK. It traces its early roots back to 1949 where is traded under several names and formats until in 1984 it became known under its present day name of UNIQLO.

All-product recycling initiative:

This initiative began back in 2001 when UNIQLO offered the collection and recycling of UNIQLO fleeces from its customers, expanding the program to all its products in 2006 on a twice yearly basis. It was only in March 2010 that this became a permanent all year round programme and the focus has now shifted from recycling of clothes for fuel, to re-use of clothes for refugees worldwide, although any clothes which are of an unsuitable condition to re-use are sent for recycling into industrial fibres.

The donation of clothing is distributed via 3 international organisations:

  • the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • the Japan Relief Clothing Center (JRCC)
  • the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP)

When reading about this programme it is reassuring to see that it is a very well structured initiative in which all eventualities have been planned for. UNIQLO only deliver clothing to where there are shortages, and take into consideration the levels of demand, seasons, sizes, and religious and cultural context when donating clothing. This ensures that there are no surpluses and unnecessary deliveries. Since UNIQLO work closely with UNHCR in the distribution of clothing by going to the refugee sites themselves this avoids any theft or reselling of clothing during transit.

Food, drink and shelter are often considered as the essential elements for survival, so naturally the focus lies upon these resources for refugees. However the UNIQLO scheme contributes in another important way to refugees’ lives- it takes the focus off the struggle for survival and as UNIQLO state themselves-it enriches refugees’ lives through enabling self-expression; something not necessarily obtainable through the basic elements of survival. In fact several photo galleries hosted by UNIQLO stores in Japan depicting the harsh realities of refugee camps, and the many actions which still need to be taken, have equally illustrated how refugees have blended their own styles with UNIQLO clothing they have received.

Like many initiatives this one is not perfect, ideally it could be expanded worldwide across UNIQLO stores, but perhaps this is something in the pipeline among UNIQLO CSR strategies. And it is not a company which rests on its socially responsible laurels: UNIQLO constantly seeks to improve by acting upon local feedback as well as customer feedback on this initiative. Upon learning of this programme my immediate feelings was that this was just another ‘handout’ scheme, one which would contribute to a culture of dependency. However UNIQLO are one step ahead again and have reported of their intention to teach transferable skills of sewing enabling refugees to make their clothes independently.

And not forgetting…

UNIQLO has also been involved in a number of activities to tick under its CSR activities; it places much emphasis on what is considered as quite a unique employment programme in Japan- the integration of disabled people into the workforce. In Japan life can be tough as a disabled person: even physical disabilities which do not affect the intellectual and mental capacities of a person are often met by reluctance by companies to employ very skilled individuals.

Within its broader activities its mother group ‘Fast Retailing’ recently created a  joint venture with the Bangladeshi bank Grameen in order to establish a social business and new subsidiary in Bangladesh; the objective being ‘to solve social problems, including those related to poverty, sanitation and education issues, in Bangladesh through the planning, production and sale of clothing’. Grammeen Bank, which was founded by Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus is already the largest microcredit institution in Bangladesh with over 8 million borrowers, of which 97% are female. With this new joint venture Fast Retailing intend to generate jobs for 250 people with a target of 1500 within 3 years.

But…

Low-cost in the clothing industry tends to be associated with sweatshop labour and a focus on minimising costs. It proves very difficult to find out anything about the manufacturing conditions of UNIQLO threads, except that over 90% of their products are manufactured in China. So I can only draw upon speculations, rumours and mutterings about UNIQLO’s labour conditions.

So kudos to UNIQLO for their very unique and innovative recycling initiative, but it’s  a shame they haven’t devoted equivalent resources to the marketing and transparency of their productions processes. In my eyes, to gain true ethical credentials there needs to be traceability and transparency from start to finish.

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Ja-Pan du jour

‘This bread demands a very slow fermentation and a lot of attention. However the result is worth it; the taste is incomparable, its texture sealed in and honeycombed…an authentic, handcrafted product’ Beck Pain Gris (2010)

Toit Vert- A Japanese Bakery

The translation is not quite as poetic as when read in French, but this description on the bread paper sachet demonstrates the care, attention and consideration taken to produce that perfect loaf of bread in Belgium and as is often the case, in France; pride brimming from the crust to the crumbs. For me nothing is more sacred than that first bite into a freshly baked (warm) loaf or baguette. Having recently moved to Brussels, Belgium, and rekindled my relationship with the fine exemplars on offer here, has got me thinking about my own bread quest in Japan. I call it a quest since wherever I set foot, I will endeavour to sample the local bakery fare-seeking a ‘Paul Boulangerie’ as a key starting point. I’m a Paul geek, I even have the bag, which before you mock-is beautiful, strong, very practical and once got me a free pain au chocolat from a Paul shop assistant impressed by my dedication.

So it was only natural that I would look up the number (21 in case you were wondering), locations and opening hours of Paul’s before going over to Japan. Some may say that finding out this information 9 months before going out there, and before booking the plane tickets, a little peculiar… but hey, different strokes for different folks…Paul maybe not be the best bakery in the world, though typing that feels somewhat blasphemous, but I feel it is of consistently high quality and will guarantee me real bread wherever I may be. Or so I thought….

Didn’t I break my heart over you…

My first encounter with Paul in Tokyo was disappointing. I pleaded to go to a Paul with my boyfriend, it had been over 24 hours since my last bread fix, and I’d heard good things about Japanese bakeries. We ventured into Shinjuku, and after a 45 minute metro ride, a minor rainstorm, 3 times around the same block, and asking 2 police officers for directions, we conceded defeat. It had been 3 hours and half since we’d left our flat in Higashi jujo. And then, like a beautiful shining oasis in the middle of a desert, we stumbled upon a tiny Paul in an underground station. There were even free fromage bread samples. All was well again in the world.

Then I paid what felt like 3 months wages for 2 baguettes.

And the bread was stale.

I told myself not to fret…Japan is expensive and it’s not a country known for its bread. Sushi yes, bread no. However my ex-colleague who also happened to be moving to Tokyo around the same time as I were there had raved on about the wonderful little bakeries in Japan and I’d always felt there had been a strong link between France and Japan. Indeed when I went to the Paris ‘Salon de Chocolat’ in 2008, a great deal of chocolatiers were Japanese. There is an abundance of (often incorrectly used) French shop names in Japan and from what I understand French tends to denote quality, elegance and luxury- much admired in Japan. And whilst in Japan, other than American tourists, the second most conspicuous occidental tourists appeared to be French. Practically all my French friends and family has either a keen interest, have visited or have a family member who has been to Japan. By comparison, in the UK, I know of one person who has been to Japan. So it seems only logical that Japan has drawn inspiration from the French for their bread.

I was on the whole fairly disappointed with the bread I did encounter- pricey and seemingly chemical laden-much like the packaged bread we encounter in the UK:  full of emulsifiers, flour treatment agencies, E numbers. It lacked a crunchy, slightly bronzed crust and the beautiful airy honeycombed centre which usually denotes good quality bread. Most bread there could quite happily be classified under the ‘glorified, preservative laden sponge’ ilk.

But, and this is a giant but (no bad jokes please) – good bread does exist-you just need to hunt it down like a lion to a deer…or zebra. I did discover a wonderful Paul on my way to a picnic in Shinjuku-Gyoen Park on a beautiful May day. If I could actually remember where it is- I would actually be useful…

Again, it cost me about a year’s worth of sushi for a loaf of bread-but for some things in life I manage to fully justify their price (bread withdrawal symptoms?).  Another high quality bakery is Kayser – a French bakery present on a few continents, and who produce quite a few unique takes on your daily bread such as Cocoa bread- looks like chocolate, smells like chocolate, tastes like erm…bread. Fauchon was another bakery I spotted, and these all tended to cluster in the food halls of department stores-the type where you demand permission from your bank manager before making a purchase.

Outside of Tokyo, I did have a rather splendid bread experience in the train station bakery/café located in Hakone, which was wonderfully accompanied by one of Owakudani’s famous black eggs (eggs poached Japanese style in the volcanic springs of Owakudani) which I bought that day.

What was left of the Owakudani egg.

Let’s get historical

It was in fact the Portuguese who introduced bread to Japan over 400 years, from which the Japanese word for bread ‘Pan’ is derived from. Followed later by other European arrivals including the Dutch, French and English. However the real turning point for bread’s establishment in Japan came about in the 19th Century thanks to Kimura Yasubei, who opened a bakery in Tokyo, influenced by his work experience within a Dutch household. Yeast was substituted for sake kasu by another baker Kodo Katsuzo due to his unsuccessful attempts with European breads. This later evolved into a dough married with the sweet aduki paste filling to create an pan which has now become a staple, among the Japanese. Their increasing popularity led to an increasing range of fillings including kuri (chestnut paste), matcha (ceremonial tea), miso (fermented soy bean) and cream cheese.  And a favourite with my boyfriend Curry Pan– fried bread with spicy curry inside. I always felt with the sugary variations such as An Pan, to be more of a heavy sweet treat rather than ‘bread’, however cultural differences and historical developments demonstrate the myriad of different breads which have developed worldwide and how Japan now has its own traditional bread.

The increasing popularity of goods which not only include bread, but other Western goods such as pasta and croissants has consequentially had a detrimental effect on rice farmers’ fortunes. However a recently released bread machine which uses rice to bake fresh loaves may reverse farmers’ luck, heralded as a solution to increase Japan’s self-sufficiency rate.

Bread, Pain, Pan, Can?

Canned Bread in a vending machine!

Adhering to Japan’s fondness for aliments in a can- I present to you canned bread! Joining its friends canned coffee, coffee jelly, cake in a cone, and ramen in a can…Though I draw the line at calling a product ‘bread’ if it presents itself to you in a can.

However despite my views on bread in Japan, one thing I did enjoy was going into bakeries and individually picking out my bread rolls with tiny tongs from the vast array of bread rolls and placing it on a mini tray which I carried around with me until I reached the cashier and paid.

I’ve probably not enlightened you to many of the decent bakeries in Japan, because quite frankly it is a really expensive pursuit. And in a land which offers me fresh fish, ramen, gyozas, takiyakis, onigiris, and sushis among many a culinary delight…my cravings were subdued by other tasty morsels.

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Ain’t no Blue Mountain high enough

“Coffee should be as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love”- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

And that’s exactly how I take mine. Coffee and I have had their ups and down, I briefly abandoned my caffeinated companion following my dissertation induced sleep deprivation, in the final year of my degree. It would be more accurate to describe this period as a brief sulk with all of coffee-dom. It had failed to keep me wide awake for 4 continuous days prior to my dissertation hand in, and thus thoroughly disappointed me by not achieving the ambitious goal I set it. However once I had slept and recovered from end of degree stress I resumed an amicable (ok deep set love) relationship with one of my favoured hot beverages and learnt not to abuse it so much…you know of the heart palpitating kind.  Also lessons learnt from living on my own in Bordeaux, France for a year, and running a whole machine of coffee in the morning (partly in enthusiasm for having my own coffee machine) before proceeding to drink it all throughout the morning and sending insane emails to my friends induced by the caffeinated shakes, taught me to drink in moderation. I could expend a whole blog post on my relationship with coffee but I would prefer to take you on a little journey and glimpse into the coffee market in Japan.

Plethora of coffee advertisements in Tokyo

Tea for two, and two for… a double shot espresso please

In terms of hot beverages, green tea and tea ceremonies are considered synonymous with the Japanese culture, more so than the oft-considered European beverage of choice, coffee. However Japan is the third largest importer of coffee worldwide, to the increasing detriment of their tea sales. On the consumer landscape nowhere is this more obvious than in the proliferation of coffee shops: Doutour, Starbucks and Starbucks inspired copies: Tully’s and Italian chain Excelsior. Starbucks has been particularly popular with a staggering 217 chains in Tokyo alone. Indeed Japan is the biggest market outside of North America for Starbucks, who established the first branch in 1996, in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Although Starbucks is often cast as one of the big daddy’s of multinational corporations, an evil, all encompassing, invasive capitalist force, you cannot knock ’em for their efforts in introducing Fairtrade coffee, and one of the best examples of waste recycling I saw. But then again that may be the local influences of Japanese legislation and culture towards recycling, rather than initiative taken by the chain itself. Furthermore the increasing interest in speciality coffee in Japan has been attributed to Starbuck’s arrival. Speciality coffee is of particular interest to coffee growers since it is a much more lucrative market in an industry which traditionally suffers from low commodity prices; growers can command a much higher price for the Arabica beans used for this type of coffee.

Unfortunately instant coffee sales still reign, and calling that stuff ‘coffee’ is somewhat a stretch of the imagination…powdered, reconstituted watery mud which once resembled a coffee bean in days of yore is how I perceive it, much like ‘Dairylea’ is ‘cheese’. And I don’t expect Starbuck’s aggressive marketing of their new ‘instant coffee’ VIA® is doing much to buck this trend either. However the fresh coffee market is a growing one, by Japanese wishing to emulate that café experience at home. Although Nestlé is king of instant coffee, 4 main Japanese brands exist; the most established being UCC who source their famous Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. Blue Mountain denoting the region in which the coffee is grown and is noted for its high quality, mild flavour and expensive price, of which over 80% is imported to Japan.

Interestingly fresh coffee appears to be a phenomenon among young women, and Japanese males are more likely to choose RTD’s (Ready To Drink) coffees, espressos or lattes such as instant, pre-prepared in bottles or cans. Don’t want to comment on gender differences here…but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions… 🙂

The canned revolution

So far, nothing remarkable about coffee in Japan, right? Think again, Japan is the home and founder of canned coffee. Weird, wacky Japan strikes again. Yup coffee in a can, found on supermarket shelves or in a vending machine along with all the usual sodas, water and soft drinks you would come to expect. And what’s more it comes hot and cold, introduced into vending machines by Pokka Coffee in 1973. However canned coffee made its first, albeit brief, appearance in 1965 as Mira coffee and have since expanded in terms of brands, design and coffee type: black, café au lait/ milk coffee, flavoured coffee and most bizarrely coffee jelly. And according to sources, that really is as disgusting as that sounds, especially when you’ve misread the label and are expecting a liquid hot coffee.

Source: Japan Fairtrade Label

And how does canned coffee taste, I hear you ask? Well of the 3 I sampled, definitely not Barista standard, and some lingering nuances of metal. There also seemed to be a significant absence of organic, or Fairtrade standard coffees, although my research has yielded evidence of some Fairtrade canned coffees, from the cooperative Agricultural Fedekokagua, however I cannot guarantee that this is the correct name of the organisation. Yet again my lack of Japanese linguistic skills stumps me.

Blue Mountain

Blue Mountain coffee is an interesting case, unlike its poorer counterparts; this coffee has established a reputation for high quality and thus has a high demand which has pushed its prices up to 10 times more than your average coffee. Its fortunate location, climate, strong marketing thanks to Japanese company UCC and consistent attention to quality have all contributed to Blue Mountain’s advantageous market position. Indeed the strong tie with the Japan is what guarantees its market endurance and good prices. When Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica in 1988 much of the island was left devastated, with much of their crops destroyed. However Japan responded by helping the growers as much as possible, and in the meantime prices soared in Japan. A gesture which was not forgotten in Jamaica, and thus explains the monopoly which the Japanese have on this high quality coffee.

Fair or unfair trade coffee?

In Japan, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here) Fairtrade is generally low on the radar. Coffee is no exception and did not appear in a Fairtrade form until 2002 in Japan, again thanks to a Starbuck’s initiative.

Yet Fairtrade is a contentious issue, and more so with coffee than other Fairtrade products. Coffee is the commodity where I have seen the greatest discussion and doubt cast over the actual benefits of it being Fairtrade. The basic premise of Fairtrade is to guarantee coffee growers minimum prices, above market price, as well as additional benefits such as development of educational, health and community resources. For their part growers must implement crop management, environmentally friendly practices, belong to cooperatives and not use child labour. However it is argued that by guaranteeing minimum prices this would only encourage greater production, on an already saturated market, and thus cause greater oversupply and weakening of market prices. It is for this reason that Japan initially rejected the idea of Fairtrade. Others argue that by creating a two-tier market this enables farmers to sell their lower quality beans to Fairtrade where they are guaranteed a minimum price, and sell their higher quality beans to the open market which is solely determined by quality. In other cases, some farmers may seek to improve the quality of their produce, however since they sell to cooperatives; their beans are mixed with other farmer’s produce which may be of lower quality, so this does little to encourage individual improvement. There are a lot more discussions and complexities related to Fairtrade and I only seek to give you a brief overview here. There are  Fairtrade companies who ensure high quality of their coffee beans, and indeed some of the best coffees I have tried have been of the ethical variety, and it is for this reason alone that the Japanese began to engage with the Fairtrade market. They recognised the coffee beans are also of quality and are thus worth the premium paid for them.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions, but urge you all to do further research. I admit I have difficulties coming to solid conclusions, and this mixed with the fact I generally prefer the taste of coffee grown in Africa somewhat influences my choice. However in my eyes, Fairtrade is a short term solution to a current worldwide problem of agricultural tariff barriers set by many Western governments. If subsidies were stopped and the markets were to set the price of commodities, then there would technically be no need for Fairtrade, since prices would increase. However if unfair trade rules continue to exist, then a need for fairer trade is necessary to help those in the most vulnerable positions.

There is also some awareness of Rainforest Alliance labelled coffee in Japan and its sales currently outstrip those of Fairtrade, but market share still remains small. Counterparts such as ‘Bird Friendly’ are also fairly minority; however they were a label I stumbled upon several times during my foray into coffee products in Japan. The Rainforest Alliance fits in well with Japanese demands for safe and high quality foods through its focus upon social and environmental issues and therefore is a label which has potential to do well. However I was pleased to see the range of organic coffee available in Japanese stores, and can wholeheartedly conclude it was the best tasting coffee I brewed in Japan. But be warned the brands I chose are of a strong character: they sent me and my boyfriend into a coffee spin; we spent a good hour in Asakusa one morning with symptoms of dizziness, light headedness, palpitations and a caffeine fog. We reduced the dose the next day.

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Toilets …a metaphor for Japan?

Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia.

Juxtaposition of a traditional Inari shrine in Kyoto and a modern drinks vending machine.

And of course no blog about Japan would be complete without at least one post about the toilets in Japan. In fact I would say that it was pretty much the first thing I noticed when arriving in Narita airport, after a long 11 and half hour flight, and much glugging of water in the aeroplane; Japanese toilets are a commodity of extremes.

In Japan, there are  generally 2 types of toilet: the super duper, hi-tech, cooks your food, answers your emails and makes your bed type of toilet….and the one I affectionately like to refer to as ‘hole in the floor’. The latter are apparently more adapted to how human beings are supposed to, ahem, powder one’s nose…that is to say, squat. And in all my time in Japan, they were the ones I actively avoided when possible, steering towards the helpfully labelled ‘Western style toilets’ (yoshiki). I never quite worked out how they were supposed to be used and found them to be a general inconvenience, particularly when they were the only option available. Sources now inform me that you are supposed to face the plumbing, but whichever way I looked at it, impracticality screamed out each time I paid a visit.

A typical Squat toilet. Source: Richard Seamen

This is not to say I fully embraced the hi-tech toilets either. In fact I would say I had just as much, if not more difficulty in using these toilets. Females retain the reputation among men for taking an extraordinarily long time in toilets and I feel in Japan, I broke all records. Having finished my business, I was faced with an array of buttons (below):

For a non-Japanese speaker like myself, I ask you, what would you press? My concern was that I would inadvertently press one of the spray or deodoriser buttons and receive a jet straight into my face. Equally I could, and did not want to leave the toilet without flushing. I feel that I would be bringing shame upon Europeans by leaving the toilet unflushed particularly as Japan is such a clean and polite nation. After a 5 minute deliberation, and logical deductions, I correctly answered the ‘Toto Toilet Multiple Choice’ and escaped dry and feeling somewhat accomplished.

The toilet…my holiday romance…

No trip abroad is complete without that special encounter…no disrespect to my boyfriend, but I did kindle a love affair in Japan… the heated toilet seat in our flat. That first week back in England was a shock, how I howled on my first rendez vous with the ceramic, freezing cold toilet seat! I lamented to my boyfriend of my sorrows and warned him of the misery he would experience on his return back to France. Of course, he being of a practical nature, had already put preparations in place, he was starting the adaptation process by gradually lowering the heat of the toilet seat. What a brain eh?

So what has this got to do with ethical and green issues? Well a lot more than you’d think. Not only do I believe toilets to be a metaphor of the Japanese culture, they are also another symbol of the hyper consumerism in Japan. As much as I loved the toilet in our flat, and felt it to be a true blessing on night time visits, I also knew that this was a dreadful waste of electricity. We weren’t obliged to have the toilet seat heating switched on…but ashamedly we did for our comfort, even on those scorching days in May. And I’m pretty sure most of the Japanese probably do the same. And then there are all those public conveniences, which not only heat, they squirt, clean, dry, deodorise, and even play a flushing sound for those who don’t want their tinkles (or plops) to be heard. My personal favourite was upon entering the toilet in a restaurant in Hakone, the lid lifted up in greeting to me. Completely unnecessary but amusing, and somewhat endearing.

These BlackBerrys of the toilet world are more commonly known as washlets and are manufactured by the company Toto. First introduced in the 1980s, they have evolved to become bigger and better and include features to adjust squirt strength, jet pattern, water temperature and deodoriser power!

Conversely the squat style toilets are unsurprisingly much more ecologically and also economically sound, since not only are they cheaper to manufacture, they use less water and consume no electricity. There are also, unbelievably, numerous health benefits attributed to the use of squat toilets. The more hi-tech toilets have led to problems known as ‘Washlet syndrome‘, where a person gets too emotionally attached to the washlet, and overuses the spray function which leads to rashes among other things. Nice.

A rare poster explaining the toilet buttons.

Sound Princess

As I mentioned, it is not uncommon for flushing sounds to either play automatically or on demand. This technology developed in response to failed education campaigns to stop Japanese women flushing the toilet numerous times to disguise urination sounds. So at first glance, although it may seem like another ridiculous use of electricity, Otohime or the Sound Princess, as it is known, is in fact a water saving device to stop toilets being flushed unnecessarily and is claimed to save up to 20 litres per visit. Although some Japanese women find these sounds too artificial and so continue to flush the toilet several times.

Another environmental advantage of the washlets is the supposed assumption that it uses less toilet paper, however many Japanese still use a combination of the water jets and paper. And if you are like me…I avoid jet cleaning altogether, so no saving of paper here. My reaction is perhaps typical of a European and part of the reason why these toilets have not taken off in Europe. Another strong contributory factor is that due to legal and health and safety restrictions in much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand electric outlets near to sources of water are prohibited.

I never really considered the safety risks of these heated toilet seats near water, and fortunately never sustained any electrical shocks. However many a toilet would warn of the potentials risks of scalds from heated toilet seats…So along with the continuing guilt I would accrue from the gratuitous consumption of electricity, I guess it’s just as well I’m back to the cold hard reality of a European toilet seat.

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Bling bling fruit and bargain bananas

When we think of bananas and the Japanese, the heralded ‘Morning banana diet’ may come to mind. Indeed a banana buying craze broke out in Japan when this diet debuted in March 2008. In a week, sales increased by 70% causing a price spike and pressure on imports.  The basic premise is that by only consuming bananas for breakfast with a glass of room temperature water, you will lose weight, providing you have regular meals, snacks in moderation and eat dinner before 8pm. There are probably more ins and outs to it, and I suggest you check out the official site if you want further information. My interest lies not in diet crazes, but in the provenance of these bananas.

Even prior to this banana diet frenzy, which has been unique simply due to its endurance; bananas were the fruit of choice among the Japanese-consuming  970,000 tonnes in 2007.  They are among the top 10 countries who import bananas, accounting for 7 % of worldwide banana imports between 2002-2006, the third largest import market after the US and Europe. Some of this may be due to bananas being much lower priced than their fruity counterparts. Indeed during my time in Japan (I’m now back in Europe for the time being) bananas were pretty much the only fruit I ate due to the extortionate prices of other fruit there. Difficult times lay ahead for me as a self confessed fruit junkie, and led to much raisin rationing. Thankfully a whole platter of fruit (or so it seemed in my fruit deprived and somewhat jet lag state) awaited me on arrival back home, in response to my cries of fruit deficiency. So an arigato to the mother there.

Diamond encrusted fruit?

This begs the question of why fruit is so expensive in Japan. Part of this can be explained by Japan’s very protective agricultural regulations; the prices reflect the high tariffs imposed on fruit imports. This enables stronger protection of domestic producers and in the context of increasing concerns over food miles, this approach can only be applauded. The Japanese are also stringent on quality, so if the quality of the import is not competitive with local quality, it is likely to be rejected. And then there is the case of ‘gift fruiting’, in which fruit is chosen for their aesthetic value then polished, boxed and lovingly presented as a perfect gift for one’s family, friends, boss… Oh and a giant price tag is slapped on for good measure. However many Japanese producers tend to be small scale farmers who produce in small quantities and will take great care over their fruit, to the extent that in some cases apples are individually wrapped on the trees to protect them! This goes some way to justifying this premium on some fruit.

So why the ‘bargain bin’ banana prices?

  1. Firstly there has been a downward trend towards fruit consumption among the younger generation. Why? Many people find it a pain to peel and cut fruit, and prefer supplements or fruit based beverages. However if you ask me, eating a pear or an apple is not overly troublesome…But in Japan, the mindset tends to be that apples, or grapes for example must be peeled and chopped. The only fruit which seem to have bucked this downward trend are pineapples, kiwifruit and yes, bananas. And whilst the import restrictions remain so severe the prices will remain high, also contributing to the falling consumption of fruit.
  2. Unlike fruits such as apples, there is no domestic production of edible bananas, and the worldwide oversupply of bananas has led to depression in banana prices everywhere. This was caused in part by the establishment of the EU Banana Regime market in the nineties, and wrangling with the WTO and the US who disputed the EU’s protection of former colonies who produced bananas. This consequently created uncertainties in the banana market and overproduction, thus saturating the market and depressing prices. This was compounded by the financial crisis in Asia towards the end of the nineties and the poor economic situation of the Russian Federation, which led to lower than expected market demands for bananas.

As mentioned in my previous post there does seem to be a great gaping hole in the Japanese Fairtrade market, and this was equally reflected with the bananas I saw on my shopping expeditions. Dole seems to be the main contender, or should I say monopoly on the banana market. Dole I equate to dollar bananas i.e. cheap bananas sourced from the blood and sweat of oppressed underpaid plantation workers. Strong imagery perhaps, but not entirely far from the truth…Coming from the UK where Fairtrade bananas (and organic) has become the norm, where leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose only stock Fairtrade, further emphasised to me the lack of ethical provenance of bananas in Japan.

Facts and figures:

But these are just initial observations, and as any researcher worth their soya sauce should know, one should not take observations at face value. The Philippines has consistently been Japan’s primary source of bananas, accounting for 60% -90% of their fresh banana export (depending on which sources you read). Yet despite the exports accounting for a good proportion of Filipino earnings, it hasn’t necessarily been a cosy relationship for the workers, who have reported health problems due to the application of dangerous pesticides during its cultivation. In 1986, ‘The Stop the Philippine Banana Pesticides Campaign’ was set up to apply pressure on multinationals.  A survey found 26 different chemicals being used which included World Health Organisation (WHO) class A (extremely hazardous) pesticides aldicarb, phenamiphos and ethoprop. Although the Japanese government have set a limit on pesticide residues, this applies to Japanese products, and not those imported.

Part of the problem of banana cultivation is that historically it is a form of agriculture which expanded to the detriment of forests and natural vegetation, which reduced biodiversity due to its monoculture plantations, and thus required large inputs of artificial fertilisers and pesticides to prevent disease and maximise productivity.

On a human level, the conventional banana industry is well known for its abuse of labour laws: child labour, low pay, excessively long working hours, discrimination, sexual harassment and the ignorance of health and safety regulations.

The slightly less depressing news…

Due to overproduction, the expansion of areas for banana cultivation has stabilised thus reducing the threat to primary forest since the focus is now upon increasing yields on existing farms. However this does not negate the problem of intensive agrochemical use on monocultures (and its enormously polluting effect), nor the danger it poses to workers health who in the vast majority of cases still remain unprotected and exploited.

However a few environmental and social certifications and labels do exist in the world of bananas, the most recognised being:

  • Organic farming
  • Fair Trade
  • Rainforest Alliance

The main impasse to organic production is the fungal disease Black Sigatoka, which remains a large threat to the banana crop, as well as its ability to mutate and develop resistance to fungicides. Furthermore, in Japan, their strict phytosanitary rules and inspections also create difficulties for traders attempting to import organic bananas, a similar situation they face in the US and New Zealand.

In terms of Fairtrade, Japan has been importing small quantities of the ‘balangon’ bananas from the Philippines since 1989, through the company Alter Trade. However this still remains a minority activity which is somewhat surprising when you discover that the production of bananas by Fairtrade producers currently exceeds market demand, and there is therefore a surplus. This has led to FLO International (Fairtrade Labelling Organization International) restricting new producer groups from registering for Fairtrade status, unless they can prove they are able to sell to a new Fairtrade market. This is to prevent existing Fairtrade producers losing business due to a glut of new Fairtrade producers. The alternative proposed is a Fairtrade quota system.

Bin the bargain bananas!

Perhaps this seems a simplistic or naive conclusion, but as one of the biggest banana importers in the world, wouldn’t it make sense for the Fairtrade market to expand in Japan, to go some way towards rectifying the lack of market demand for Fairtrade? Yet as long as Japan continues to rely on bananas as a cheap source of food, and fuel for their weight loss regimes, challenging the ubiquitous, unethically low priced bananas will prove difficult, particularly as the price of other fruit remains so high.

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