Tonight I was having dinner at kushi no kura in Shinjuku with a friend, and we noticed the mysterious oddity of shinshu salmon on the menu. For those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of Japanese food culture , shinshu is an area of inland Japan roughly encompassing the Prefecture of Nagano, and its snowy mountains. I have previously visited Matsumoto in the shinshu region, and reported on the Kaichi school, an interesting museum about Japanese education, but I don’t have any particular sense of what does or does not constitute food from the region, but I naturally assumed it would be sansai, vegetables from the mountains.
So my friend and I were a little confused by shinshu salmon. How can a mountainous inland region have salmon? That doesn’t make any sense! Looking around the restaurant we saw a poster for chicken from the area, and for the salmon, with a picture of … a salmon. Are they laying claim to fish that swim to shinshu from the sea? And surely they can’t do that in January, those salmon rock up in July or something. What’s going on?
Naturally I googled it, and discovered that shinshu salmon has its own webpage (in Japanese) and is basically a genetically engineered food. It is bred from rainbow trout and brown trout, which when combined produce a sterile offspring called shinshu salmon that is apparently great in a ceasar salad (you may doubt; I know enough about how good Japanese chefs are to recognize the genius of this idea). This fish has been around for 10 years or so, and is a kind of famous food of the shinshu area. It has its own FAQ, which features a young woman asking a much older scientist questions about his invention (Frankenstein would have gotten the same treatment if he’d been invented by a Japanese dude). The second question – which the woman, who is wearing an apron to indicate she is a serious housewife, asks while reading a very serious book – is “since it’s artificial life does it risk damage to the natural environment?” to which of course the answer is no since it’s sterile. What could possibly go wrong?!
This is an example of how Japanese people have a very different attitude towards science to westerners. They’re concerned about the environment, much more so I think than westerners, so they check in on that, but they just aren’t able to get mystical about scientific risk, and they really aren’t concerned about GMOs. What restaurant in the west would broadcast that it has genetically modified meat on the menu? It’s the kind of thing that you need to slip by your customers in the west whereas in Japan it’s a selling point. Japanese people are in general very concerned about global warming, the health of bees, pollution and recycling, rubbish rules here are very strict, and things that might affect the environment are taken very seriously – but there is no magical thinking about genetics. OH! Someone designed a new fish! Let’s eat it! It’s as if, if someone could convince a kangaroo to fuck a whale, there’d be a restaurant in Tokyo selling Kangawhale (deliciously cooked no doubt). I think this also explains Japanese peoples’ much more sanguine approach to nuclear power; they’re more comfortable with scientific assessments of risk than westerners are.
This isn’t to say there aren’t anti-GMO folks in Japan, there are (I live in a suburb that is probably over-represented in this regard), but I think it doesn’t have the same salience as it does in the west. Which is interesting, because Japan has a very protected rice industry and despite this openness to science it’s my guess that Japanese people are much less likely to eat GMO rice than are the rest of the world, due to the protected nature of the Japanese industry. This is pure surmise, however.
I am not opposed to GMO per se, though I have previously posted about how I think GMOs are over-rated as a solution to world hunger or specific nutritional deficiencies, and I think GMO’s boosters tend to ignore practical issues that dilute the importance of GMOs in the world food system; I also don’t believe for a moment that GMOs will solve “world hunger”, and I find the silence of GMO’s supporters on this issue very disturbing. I think shinshu salmon is an example of this issue in practice: it’s not solving any food security or health issues, it’s just some dudes in Nagano decided to create a new industry to take advantage of Japan’s hunger for “local” foods. This is what I think happens with a lot of GMOs, that some biotech company decides it has an interest in a new product purely for profit, and when it runs up against seemingly nonsensical local opposition it post-dates some broader justification for the food based on food security or something. But basically there is no difference between roundup ready corn and shinshu salmon: it’s food designed for profit. The difference is that whoever designed shinshu salmon had the good taste to advertise it as a luxury food product, rather than pretending they’re solving world hunger. And in Japan no one cares, because a cartoon science dude says it’s okay.
If only things could be so simple in the west …
fn1: There is a huge whale restaurant in Shibuya actually, it has a big sign out front warning foreigners in English that it sells whale; recently I passed it and saw through the window a group of white foreigners eating whale. When I was in Iceland I noticed all the whale restaurants have English signs saying they serve whale. English-speakers may make a big fuss about non-English speakers eating whale, but they’re more than happy to tuck in when they’re overseas. Racist do-gooding? You be the judge.
fn2: This is obviously a somewhat false distinction, since all rice is hugely genetically modified; but I assume that my readers understand “GMO” applies to sudden, rapid, laboratory-induced genetic advances, as opposed to those achieved slowly through crop breeding, and we all understand that this is simultaneously an arbitrary but important difference.
fn3: Japan’s “local” foods are an interesting issue. Generally Japanese people seem to assume that every town has its own specialty and that this specialty is built on ancient tradition, but it’s my suspicion that these “specialties” were invented to take advantage of the post-war tourism boom that saw Japanese travelling internally back in the 1970s when getting a passport was really tough. It’s a modern, completely invented tradition, built on some kind of previously-existing and real notion of regional difference in food cultures. Originally there were a few broad, regional food cultures but in the cut throat tourist market of the 1970s every town started making its own specialty. My suspicion is that economic necessity drove the creation of “traditional” food cultures to attract tourism.
fn1: you losers! You are missing out on one of the world’s great cuisines!