We recently had the privilege of serving as one of the host families for a student exchange program, in which high school students from Iwakuni, Japan (near Hiroshima), spend a couple weeks in the summer staying with American families here in Washington state, learning about our country’s culture, traditions and lifestyles.
To be honest, that meant the shopping excursions to Seattle’s Pike Street Market and to a suburban outlet mall were the highlights of the trip for most of the students.
They’ve got us pegged.
Our family actually hosted one of the chaperones, a supervising teacher back in Japan, who shared a wealth of information about her hometown.
Iwakuni, although a city of only 137,000 people, has a wealth of high-tech manufacturing and industrial operations, including an innovative paper mill that supposedly uses very little energy and produces minimal pollution. That was intriguing, since in the town where I live a former paper mill had just closed, and after being razed it was revealed that the contamination left behind was going to cost us taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The relatively small city where our guest lives also boasts a high-speed rail station, from which residents can travel to the major urban centers on the island of Honshu (Japan’s largest) in about the same amount of time it takes us just to straggle through security at most American airports.
But here’s another aspect of modern Japan of which I was unaware.
Did you know that the Japanese government spends nearly $100 million a year to eradicate what are described as “harmful animals that devour agricultural and other products?”
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper published in Tokyo, Osaka and other major cities, there is now a movement to try to utilize those animals as food sources.
“It is hoped that such bothersome creatures, who cause trouble for mountainous communities, will be effectively utilized for community revitalization and other purposes,” an editorial in the paper’s most recent weekend edition stated.
The story noted that wildlife annually cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Japanese farmers, mostly from wild boars and deer that destroy crops. To deal with that destruction, the newspaper explained that some 750,000 boars and deer were killed in one year alone (2014), according to data from Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
I probably wouldn’t have guessed that there were that many wild boars alive in the entire country of Japan, had anyone asked before yesterday.
But that’s not the most interesting part of this tale.
Instead of merely an eradication program, the government is now pushing to find ways to market the meat.
“Meat from boars, deer and other hunted wild animals is called ‘gibier’ in French,” the story glibly noted. “This kind of meat contains only a small amount of fat, and if properly prepared, has a distinct flavor ... popular for foods like curry and hamburger steak.”
Okay, I’m not sure what the Japanese consider a “hamburger steak,” but I suspect it’s something akin to whatever was smothered beneath that slurry of off-color “gravy” on my cafeteria tray back in high school.
Nevertheless, local governments, agricultural co-ops and restaurants are apparently collaborating to market the meat from these wild animals in the form of new specialties, such as “a hot pot dish that has only been eaten in certain areas in the mountains.”
Yeah, that’s like tempting city folk by saying “This here possum stew has only previously been eaten by residents of the more exclusive communities in Appalachia.”
Typically, most of the “exterminated animals” shot by the designated Japanese hunters are buried, incinerated or otherwise disposed of. Only about 10% of the meat is currently sold for human consumption, but that’s about to change.
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun story, the Agriculture Ministry next year intends to build 12 model facilities, in which “skilled personnel” will dismember the animals and cut and package the meat. The facilities are projected to turn a profit if they can butcher between a thousand and fifteen hundred animals a year.
There’s one other interesting wrinkle to this story: Like the USA, Japan’s cadre of hunters is shrinking. Official estimates place the number of Japanese hunters at about 200,000 nationwide. That may seem like a lot, but it’s less than half the total that were licensed in 1975.
As the article noted, “Walking in the mountains while carrying hunted animals is hard work. It is essential to train young hunters.”
Substitute the words, “producers,” “ranchers” or “farmers,” and the same imperative exists.
Like the population of hunters, the animal agriculture community is getting smaller.
And like the rest of us, getting a little older, too.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.