Food waste in Japan: Don’t leave a grain of rice, but strawberries come at a high price

This story was by Mai Misaki
Image by Erin Chapman | @erins_illustrations

‘Mottainai’ is one of the first Japanese expressions that many foreigners learn. It means ‘don’t be wasteful’, expressing regret for things and values that go in vain. Originating in a Buddhist concept, it is also a reminiscence of poverty and difficult living conditions that many people underwent before Japan’s post-war economic growth. Today, this concept still governs much of Japan’s domestic life.

In Chinese culture, a guest is expected to leave some food on their plate, or it implies that they are still hungry and the host did not make enough food. But finishing every grain of rice is considered good etiquette in Japan. In school and even in kindergarten, I was not allowed to leave any food on my lunch plate. It was cruel, as I had an aversion to some food. My complaint was immediately dismissed, usually with some reference to either fishers’ hard work or starving people during the war. This kind of incident always just ended up with me forcing to stuff some dried fish in my mouth in tears while trying to hypnotise myself it was just some fishy crackers. As much as I hated this virtue in my childhood, I realise that the guilt for ‘wasting’ has grown deep roots in me. Thankfully, now that I have full agency in choosing what I eat as an adult, not wasting food does not seem that much of a trouble anymore—at least once the food is on a plate.

Contrary to the widespread belief that Japanese culture loves minimalism, consumer life in this country can be rather extra. The traditional wrapping custom encourages excessive plastic packaging of any purchased product, but it does not end there. You open a plastic bag of rice crackers to find individual rice crackers wrapped in another layer of small plastic sachets, each with a sign indicating which side of the bag you should rip to take out the product effortlessly. Just pull where it says pull, and your snack elegantly strips off its plastic garment.

When it comes to selling raw food too, comfort and convenience for consumers seem to be the foremost priority. Supermarkets are where you can visually experience this. Like in the UK, you will find bags of salads that are already cut up and washed, and sometimes even bags of sliced and cooked vegetables for the purpose of reducing the cooking time. But you will also find meat and fish which are already thin-sliced and placed nicely on a wrapped plastic tray. This is so ubiquitous that there is even an urban legend of a child asking mother whether a piece of sashimi swims in the sea as ‘a fish’. Strawberries are thoroughly cleaned and wrapped individually in styrene foam, resembling jewels of some sort. As you look around, you realise; everything here is in perfect condition. With their bountifulness and aesthetic perfection, you’d be forgiven for thinking that vegetables and fruits exhibit no natural oddness on farms.

It makes me wonder, at what point does this forced perfection become obviously unnatural? After reading the ‘Happy endings’ article on this blog, I also tried regrowing leeks from the roots. When I was in in Europe, it succeeded without any special care. They might not have grown as thick as the originals, but still perfectly edible.

Being confident in my leek-growing skill, I tried to recreate the little leek corner in my Japanese kitchen. Japanese leeks are much bigger and thicker in nature, and I was looking forward to the outcome. I waited and waited, and after some days, I realised that my leeks were not growing at all. It was only then that I realised that the leek roots were already chopped off when I had purchased them, and therefore would never be able to regrow.

At that moment, I learned two things: my knowledge about growing plants was poorer than I thought, and my understanding of ‘waste’ was different to that of the supermarkets. I use leek roots for making kimchi jjigae, a comforting Korean soup dish, but the supermarkets deemed these parts as having no value, and now Japanese people usually buy a ready-made stock for the same dish. It was the supermarkets’, if not farmers’, cultural decision to classify leek roots as ‘waste’ before they even get to our households.  

This experience had me thinking about what our cultural knowledge does in pre-determining the value of some foods and how it influences what we cannot bear to waste. In the UK, you might consider strawberries commonplace and not special at all, but in Japan they are revered. I recall when I was sitting at home very ill, I had to cancel the planned visit of my friend. She kept insisting that she had to drop by, even just at the door. I eventually accepted her offer, and she came round and dropped off a big gift box. I opened it to find six large strawberries. Plump and ripe, each row had three of them individually wrapped, equally distanced, and fixed on the box. ‘How pretty,’ I thought, ‘this must have cost her some 30 quid’.

I understood why she insisted so much on dropping by my house; it would have been a waste not to deliver these special strawberries if she had already bought them. I had no appetite, but there was no way that I would waste this precious gift. I enjoyed all six of them, thinking what cost the farmers to produce this fruity perfection and what happened to the ones that never make it to the jewel box.

Most products in our current food system are modified to some extent before they reach the consumer, whether in their pre-selection, processing, or presentation. The industry modifies them according to the specific cultural norms about food and eating. There are cultural ideas about how a leek should look, how a fish should be sliced and how strawberries should be presented. While these ideas sometimes involve such wasteful processes—in chopping off roots, discarding certain edible parts of animal bodies, and throwing away ‘imperfect’ fruits—they are hidden behind staff-only doors of intermediary agents, or sometimes we perform them ourselves in our kitchens. 

If we are happy finishing off every single rice grain in our rice bowls and we call it culture, then it is also our culture to waste leek roots that Koreans use for making broth, or taro leaves that Polynesians eat as a soup. After all, the concept of ‘mottainnai’ only applies to things that we think we should not waste. There are norms of ‘not wasting’ and ‘wasting’, and messing up that boundary seems too odd for those who live within that cultural order. While the food industry continues to have a large impact on our ideas about what can go to waste and what cannot, we could think again about what truly counts as ‘mottainai’ before the food gets on our plates.

Published by foodwastestories

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