Do we dare to analyze our own diets?

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The Global Marketplace’s Effect on the Japanese Diet

Most people do not give what they eat throughout the week much thought, but not knowing what one consumes leads to ignorant, possibly harmful, purchasing decisions. In 2005, photojournalist Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio set out on a venture to document the food families have on their dinner tables around the world. In the Hungry Planet Series: What the World Eats, Menzel and his wife D’Aluisio visit twenty-four countries and thirty families around the world to photograph the food they consume throughout a typical week. One of the families featured in the series is the Ukita family, a nuclear, middle class family living in the suburbs of Tokyo, who fall into the Hungry Planet photo series’ median expenditure range (37,699 Yen or $317.25). An analysis of the portrait of the Ukita family of Kodaira City, Japan, reveals Peter Menzel uses a relevant setting (logos), an unaltered display of food choices (ethos), in conjunction with the presence of the family itself (pathos) to display the insidious decadence of the Japanese diet.

Kazuo, 53, is a “salaryman” (a white-collar worker); every day, he takes an hour-long commute to Tokyo to move boxes of books for a distribution company (Menzel & D’Aluisio, 2005). In the photo, the family sits in their relatively small living room surrounded by a television and the large variety of foods they consume throughout the week. They look up at the photographer, as they kneel on cushions placed on the floor in front of their dining room table.

At first glance, the Hungry Planet Series could be interpreted as a documentary of the foods eaten around the world. However—if one delves deeper—the varying use of the rhetorical appeals becomes apparent.  The appeal to pathos first captures the viewer’s attention. The television advertisement, located at the head of the table, dominates the family’s crowded living room and photograph. The presence of a television at meal times is common in many American households, which facilitates a bond between the Ukita family and the viewer.  By emphasizing the television, Menzel has successfully used pathos to address a key influence in the Ukita family’s eating habits, and our own.

A subtle appeal to pathos manifests in the traditional Japanese ivory above the television. This decoration exhibits a feeble attempt to retain ancient traditions in an otherwise Western living space. Its presence evokes sadness, pity, and dismay in the viewer. The family portrait forces the viewer to see what one would otherwise attempt to overlook—future generations in Japan will most likely have little to no recollection of life before the Meiji period. The Japanese culture is now merely a decorative artifact upon the television and will soon be stowed away as a distant memory.

The appeal to logos is apparent in the prominent placement of traditional Japanese foods—fresh vegetables and seafood—on the elevated table. There is a hierarchy to the photographer’s placement of the family’s weekly ration. The arrangement of food in pyramid form emphasizes the amount and types of food ingested throughout the week. At the top, lies the smallest food group—fresh, low-fat foods.  The pyramid and categorization of the foods visually display the percentage of the caloric intake consumed in the form of processed, pre-packaged foods. Aside from the few packages of fresh fruits and vegetables, there is little healthy food or whole grains present in the photograph, and most of the food on the floor is high in fat.

The food featured in the television advertisement is the photographer’s way of connecting the cause to the effect. The advertisement features a Japanese man peddling an indistinguishable processed food. Menzel emphasizes the importance of this connection by displaying the television prominently in the center of the photograph. Thus, the presence of the television serves two purposes—to establish a connection with the viewer, and to visually display the pernicious influence of the global marketplace in Japan.

If you consider the context and genre of the Hungry Planet series, Peter Menzel established ethos very skillfully. A skeptic might attempt to refute Menzel’s claim that agri-business, government, and the global food industry are hijacking the diets of people around the world, or conclude he is subscribing to a conspiracy theory. However, Menzel proves to be astute, and had the foresight to capitalize upon the indubitable nature of a photograph. He presented his research in a tangible, concrete and transparent way. Of course, he has a strong viewpoint on the matter—why else would he have chosen to study the subject in the first place? To combat the inherent suspicion of bias, he allowed the viewer to analyze what people are eating in the context of their own home. Mendez used an unaltered photograph to present his viewpoint in a detached, objective, and logical manner. Moreover, the image leaves room for the viewer to make an independent analysis. Additionally, a cynic might argue the strategic placement of an advertisement on the television damages the ethos of the photograph. Nonetheless, while that aspect of the photograph is staged; the advertisement is an accurate representation of a powerful influence in their lives that a candid photograph could not easily portray.

The decadence of Japanese culinary tradition might seem unrelated to the adoption of a Western, unhealthy diet, but research by Bestor has revealed otherwise, “Since the late nineteenth century, tastes have been influenced by foreign cuisines, many of which have been adapted and absorbed into the national diet. Since World War II, consumption of dairy products, beef, bread, and other Western foods has increased dramatically” (2001).  Therefore, the military presence of the United States has significantly changed the diet, health, and culture of Japan. To understand the effect, you must understand the cause. The U.S presence in Japan affected food choices, which in turn affects culture. In a cyclical process, the shift in culture shaped the media, and the media affects the food choices.

“For decades, Japan had the healthiest diet of any developed country. That is changing, as the young and affluent shun traditional foods for hamburgers, pizza and French cuisine” (Finley, 2002). The Japanese culinary traditions present today originated thousands of years ago. Due to the island’s location in the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese utilized the fertile fishing grounds the offshore currents provided (Bestor, 2001). Thus, products of the sea (fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables) became the logical staples of the Japanese diet (White, 2002).

This photograph exemplifies both Finley and Bestor’s analysis of the Japanese diet. As White depicted, the majority of protein is provided by fresh fish and one of the family’s favorite foods—sashimi. Additionally, the photo shows a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, apples, bananas, and carrots. What is troubling, however, is what is not on the dining room table. Some of the untraditional foods include several bags of potato chips, at least four packages of dried pasta, two loafs of bread, a box of pancake mix, and large amounts of dairy.

Perhaps the most concerning of these changes is the influence of the media. The VHS tapes signify the television has been a long-term presence in the Ukita dining room. This has undoubtedly inhibited communication behavior over time.  Like in the United States, the ubiquitous presence of the media is not only affecting the types of food eaten, but also the family’s (especially the children) lifestyle. The family is not overweight, but they are not healthy. With Mio and Maya having the most visible signs of an unhealthy diet. Not surprisingly, in 2003, a longitudinal study of American adolescents determined those who watched more than two hours of television a day were twice as likely to be overweight at the follow-up study as those who watched less than two hours (Kaur & Choi & Mayo & Jo). Watching television is inherently a sedentary activity. Additionally, the advertisements—that make up fifty percent of the viewing experience—feature a paradoxical mixture of fattening foods and fit bodies. Thus, the media presence is damaging not only bodies, but also self-concepts.

In summation, Peter Menzel effectively uses the rhetorical appeals in the photograph of the Ukita family to display the effects the global food market has upon a middle class family’s food choices, and the culture they live in. The dissipation of the Japanese tradition is perhaps most apparent in the physical and emotional distance the Ukita family presents in their portrait. They are all sitting rigidly, there is at least six inches of space between the husband and wife. Mio, 17, sits separately on the opposite side of the room. This placement indicates a chasm between Mio and the rest of the family; at 17, she is likely rebelling against traditional Japanese values, and embracing the American culture and diet.

Additionally, Menzel uses the rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, logos) to bring the viewer’s attention to the global significance of the dissipation of the Japanese culinary tradition. To elaborate upon the significance of this information in a global context, research by Gehlar and Regmi (2005) concluded that the United States, the European Union, and Japan consume two-thirds of the processed foods sold globally. Moreover, the globalization of the food market is not an American problem or a Japanese problem. As citizens of the world, each individual has a responsibility to address the wanton collusion of the government and global market place, not just in Japan, but also right here at home.

References

Bestor, T. C. (2001). Japan. In C. R. Ember, & M. Ember (Eds.), Countries and their cultures. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 1140-1158.

Finley, D. (2002). Rising rate of obesity causes alarm in Japan. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A.4.

Gehlhar, M., & Regmi, A. (2005). Factors shaping global food markets. New directions in global food markets,17.

Kaur, H., Choi, W. S., Mayo, M. S., & Jo Harris, K. (2003). Duration of television watching is

associated with increased body mass index. The Journal of Pediatrics, 143(4), 506-511.

doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/10.1067/S0022-3476(03)00418-9

Menzel, P., & D’Aluisio, F. (2005). Hungry planet: What the world eats. Napa, California: Material World Press.

White, M. I. (2002). Cuisine—Japan. In K. Christensen, & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of

        modern.Asia. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 197-201.

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