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Here's the beef

Sadly, vegetarian in Tokyo doesn’t always mean meat-free

“I could never go without it,” a lot of people say. It’s like an addiction. Three-square, three-sixty-five. Cigarettes? Coffee? Keitai Tetris? Nope, meat. Niku.

Some, though, are suppressing those carnivorous instincts in favor of an animal-friendly, more environmentally conscious veggie lifestyle. And if you are among these ranks, you should already be familiar with the challenges associated with being a Japan-side vegetarian.

What to do, for example, when eating out? The truth is, be it a business function, a dinner date or just a case of the munchies, there’s always a possibility of a simple meal escalating into a production on the same scale as, say, cat herding. While simply finding dishes free of fish and animal products is challenging enough, try adding a dash of language barrier—not to mention a country that seems to consider bacon a vegetable—and you begin to wonder whether its even worth all the hassle.

So before going on, the benefits of going meat-free should be addressed, and doubters given a little information to chew on.

One. Meat used to be an animal. It was Emerson who lamented, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” How true, that, for Tokyo-dwellers, the world of killing and processing that “hamburger steak” or negitoro is just that—a world away. Reconciling that is tough, but to like animals and still eat meat is an exercise in hypocrisy.

Two. Meat is not all that healthy; further, it can be downright dangerous. Ludicrous? Consider that vegetarians, on average, live longer than their omnivorous peers, and are less likely to suffer from a chorus of health conditions, including diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and, wait for it, impotency.

Three. A vegetarian diet, on the whole (grain!), does not implicitly lack in protein, iron, or any other component (flavor) of a nutritional regime. And no, not every veggie is a 98-pound wuss. Though some nutritionists say the protein in a bowl of spinach provides enough to get by, luckily, for the verdantly disinclined, Japan has done for the protein-packed soybean what G.W. Carver managed for the peanut.

Four. Nature never intended for the Denny’s Beer Barrel Challenge (Google it if you must). Meat production eats up a third of all the raw materials and fossil fuels used in the US. Rain forests are being destroyed, and the main reason is to clear new grazing land for livestock. Now the foul truth: Animals grown for food in the US alone produce a full 130 times more excrement than all the human beings on the planet.

Five. Meat is an inefficient food source. Something called the Law of Tens states that living organisms are able to convert food to energy at a ratio of ten-to-one. That is, eating from a lower trophic level (grains and greens, rather than gyudon) allows the same amount of food to feed ten times as many mouths. No one can deny that a global epidemic of hunger and chronic malnutrition exists—or that something must be done to find ways to feed the hungry. Right now, roughly 30 percent of the world’s grain supply is fed to livestock—which, if consumed directly by humans, could feed half the planet. To maximize your bottom line...eliminate the middle cow.

Convinced? That’s just the first step. Get ready for some amusing excuses for vegetarian-suitable fare in our fair city. The Tofu Burger at Subway is, more accurately, tofu-flavored chicken. A potato koroke from a convenience store or restaurant, despite the assurances that it most certainly is niku-nashi, might contain bits of bacon. Vegetable gyoza? The cook probably just decided to ratchet up the vegetable-to-pork ratio and bill it as healthy, organic or hey, vegetarian.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, though, is the absence of a porkless-broth ramen shop. While cleaning the fewest plates at a kaiten-zushi joint might be emasculating at worst, not being able to partake in that great Japanese tradition of the ramen ‘n’ beer at the neighborhood noodle shop…There’s a niche here, and it needs to be filled with wholesome goodness.

Yet as bad as things sound, we vegetarians find solace in that solitary meat-less dish on the menu; in the renegade soy “ham” that finds its way into in that batch of yakisoba (and goes undetected by avowed-carnivore-for-life dining mates); in the mom-and-pop shop selling bento with nothing in it that ever breathed through lungs or gills; or in discovering that last oinari-san on the shelf, tucked behind the fishy stuff.

Despite the obstacles—pieces of squid on a pizza here, beef in a curry there—those in this health-conscious, cruelty-free, tree-hugging eating club will keep right on grazing here in the streets of Tokyo.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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