State College, PA | Summer, 2006 | 21 years old
It took me a long time to realize this, perhaps longer than it should have, but it’s finally occurred to me that the reason the Japanese eat so little compared to Americans is because they love food. Stories abound of Japanese businessmen whose life goal was to try some local specialty in some far-flung corner of some obscure little island in southern Japan, or to visit every independent ramen shop in the nation, or other such lofty goals. Is there an American equivalent? People will drive pretty far for a White Castle, but even then, you have to acknowledge that it’s still a chain restaurant, and the biggest difference you’ll find from region to region beyond “is there a White Castle nearby?” is whether they give you ketchup on your tiny oniony hamburgers without the customer having to ask for it.
The United States is the land of fast food commercials that use, as a primary selling point, the amount of food you receive. Taco Bell advertises the fact that you can “get full off a value menu.” Burger King has a sandwich called the Stacker, advertising that you can get as much as a pound of beef on it. Hungry Man frozen dinners proudly shout from their labels: “1 lb. of food!” There can be absolutely no mistaking who won in the fight between “quantity” and “quality” in the United States, and it can be pretty easy to cynically assume that the consumer has, in many ways, lost out as well.
Contrast that, then, to Japan’s television commercials for any sort of edible product. Not only is it rather uncommon to be exposed to any mention of how much you get, and certainly not in terms of “your burrito will weigh half a pound,” but in fact the most common sentiment expressed – in fact, the most common adjective used – in these advertisements is some form of “delicious.”
The fact that it is an unconditional, asterisk-less “delicious!” is something the United States’ consumers are unaccustomed to: it is perhaps rather telling that that seems like a somewhat novel concept to the American consumer, because advertising food products based on their taste is simply not done here. You advertise the amount the consumer gets, or you sell an experience, but you never tell the consumer, “Buy our product on the sole merit that it is delicious!” unless it has some sort of qualifier.
“Delicious, and yet reduced-fat!”
“Delicious and only a dollar (plus tax)!”
“So delicious, you wouldn’t think it was good for you!”
Of course, perhaps there’s something more to it, as that last sentiment reflects: in America, more so than most any other part of the world, you’re going to see moral judgments associated with foodstuffs in what is quite frankly a rather bizarre manner. Self-control is ignored, and instead we project onto what we eat whether we should be eating it. There is no moderation expected of anyone, anywhere, except for the people who make the products. Indeed, food is treated like any other guilty pleasure: long periods of self-denial because of the misguided belief that it is inherently “bad” (rather than that there are portion sizes that are “bad”) followed by binges, followed by even more guilt.
In Japan, on the other hand, people seem to tend to be a whole lot more willing to accept that they probably shouldn’t sit down and eat a whole package of Oreos in a single sitting, or that they should order the biggest item on the menu at a given restaurant. The emphasis is, as I’d mentioned before, what tastes good, and due to historical tendencies, the Japanese tend to be much more into subtler flavors and less rich foods. There are no “bad” foods, except in terms of flavor – there are simply those that you have eaten too much of.
I am by no means trying to suggest here that either country’s population is homogeneous, of course, because that would be silly. However, the next time you watch television, pay careful attention to what, specifically, the advertisements for food are selling about their products – you may find yourself rather surprised by what you see.