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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Culture or Cruelty

Culture or Cruelty
Originally uploaded by timtak.
I ate them while they were living, wriggling, and looking at me. They wriggled as they went down before wriggling their last as they where burnt to death by my stomach acids.

The practice of eating small "shirao" fish live is a traditional way to celebrate the arrival of spring in Japan.

Is it cruel? Is it any more or less cruel than a beefburger?

I think that there are a lot of issues here.
1) The intelligence and ability to appreciate pain or suffering of the species that one is eating. I am not sure, but I think that there is a continuum between plants and animals. Are vegetables, viri, (yoghurt) baterial, algae, plankton, shripm, fish, sheep, cows, horses, pigs, dogs, whales, apes, okay to eat? I have probably got the order wrong and I think that some of these are of a similar level of intelligence, ability to appreciate pain or suffering. Here we are talking about a small fish. I am not sure of their level of awareness.

2) The suffering of the food. This is factored by the speed with which one kills the food, and the stress that the food suffers prior to its demise. There are laws about this in various countries that obviously relate to the criteria (1) above. Here we are talking about a fairly painful, slow, stressful method of killing.

3) Secondary impact of eating the food. Shiroibasket shoes mentions that he does not drink milk. Milk in itself probably does not suffer but the secondary impact of drinking milk is that cows or their offspring are slaughtered.

4) The reasons for eating the food. This is complex. I would like to point out two factors.
4.1) The nutritional importance to the eater. If the eater is going to starve then we are more likely, I think, to allow eating further up the food chain, even to the point where one might accept canibalism when there are three men in a boat and no food? Perhaps.
4.2) The symbolic factor. By this I mean to extent to which the food is eaten for...hmm...the significance that the food and its preparation has. There are all sorts of things going on here and I am not sure whether they are mitigating or incriminating. For example,
4.2.1) Eating steak because it is deemed manly, preditorial, strong to do so.
4.2.2) Eating dog because (perhaps) in part it is defying a tabuu, daredevil, radical, virile.
4.2.3) Eating cow that has been bleed to death due to beliefs about the purity of the food.
4.2.4) Eating these small fish for the awareness of the season and that one is an ominvore, or to return to ones nature.
4.2.4) Eating fish eggs (caviar) because they are expensive and by so doing we express our wealth.
4.2.5) Eating an animal as part of a ritual.
4.2.6) Eating a piece of bread that is believed to be a part of a human being, as in the Catholic Mass.
I do not know about how significance effects our appraisals of consumption but it is bound to depend upon whether that significance is shared. Significance is notoriously culturally determined, but perhaps there are ways appreciating the significance factor of others, by analogy from an awareness of the significance of ones own. In other words, someone that eats steak might think that eating fish live is brutal, until they become aware of the fact that their own steak eating is, like the fish eating, a symbolic act.

5) Cruelty for the sake of awareness of cruelty. (for a lack of a better way of putting it)
This is really a part of (4 - the significance) above but it interests me and I think that it bears upon the eating of these fish. First of all, I do not mean to assert the existance of universal "cruelty." Perceptions of cruetly are varied. However, I merely that there is a question in everyone's mind, "Is it okay to eat this?" Now, let us say that there are times when the answer is a mitigated "no." But one might still go ahead and do it in order to be aware of wider situation.

I think that perhaps, eating these fish live draws ones awareness to the fact that the bacon, steak, fish that one is eating are living. It draws ones attention to the horror of what one is doing. And by drawing attention to that horror, it causes the eater to be more wary and appreciative of the "cruelty" of their behaviour.

One might for example demand that all those that eat steak kill a cow with a sword every x years. Killing a cow with a sword, by ones own hand would be painful for the cow and the eater. But, it may result in a more balanced view of eating cow.

Personallly, I would like to insist that all those that eat steak and fish and any living thing, do it in the flesh every now and again.

In the extreme, it might be profitable to have people bite the cows neck, or if not bite it, then slit the throat of the cow with their own hand, or if not do that then at least whatch the cow being slaughtered. The act would brings home the reality of that which is otherwise taken for granted. Even it is an act that we might not approve of - slitting a cows throat is probably more painful for the cow than the present method of killing - but I think that if beefburger eaters were required to do this "cruetly" then they might more wary and aware of the consequences of ordering a Big Mac. And in that situation, perhaps, humans would eat animals at a more "acceptable" (this is my personal preference) rate.

So, I think that by drinking live fish the Japanese maintain an awareness of results their culinary preferences. When the Japanese stop eating live fish they may eat beefburgers as much as Britons and Americans. When this comes to pass, and we are on the way there, I think that it will be sad. So here is to cruelty for the sake of an awareness of cruelty.


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Excellent post and very interesting. I think cruelty and suffering should be avoided if possible but death is always going to be a part of life.
Thank you Alex-san.

The Japanese seem to go in for the occasional bit of cruelty in order to remind themselves perhaps that death is always going to be a part of life.
Japanese cruelty is a shame and weakness... It shows a lack of depth in their understanding of civility despite an elaborate and ritualistic culture.
Why do you think it is a weakness? I think that it is a strength. I find it very difficult anyway.

I am not sure why it shows a lack of understanding either.

But then, Jains avoid stepping on bugs.
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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.