Give the green light to supporting Japan's foods
The news last week that the Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyer Atago had collided with the fishing boat Seitoku Maru came as a shock. For most people, it was also likely the first time they had ever heard of the rules of the sea.
According to these maritime navigation rules, vessels at sea at night are required to have a red light on their left, and a green one on their right. When two ships cross paths, the one that sees the other vessel's red light must give way. I surmise the colors mimic those of land traffic lights, where motorists must stop for a red light and may advance on the green.
On land, red lights are also an indicator for entertainment districts. Big and small red lanterns beckon to passersby. Late into the night, drunken customers with red faces come and go. I read recently a story in The Asahi Shimbun that restaurants with green lanterns are the latest trend. Green lanterns are a sign that they are willing to use Japan-grown ingredients in their dishes.
I went to one, a Tokyo restaurant that specializes in local cuisine. As he sliced a tiger prawn, a cook said, "If we only aim to cut costs, it will ruin the culture of Japanese food." Still, the eatery can't ignore its customers' pocketbooks. The proprietress admitted the restaurant uses imported matsutake mushrooms.
There are more than 300 restaurants with green lanterns nationwide. The idea came from agricultural researcher Kiyoaki Maruyama. The lanterns signify that at least 50 percent of the ingredients used at the restaurant are grown in Japan.
The homegrown percentage is illustrated in stars--an amusing ranking that each restaurant is left to come up with on its own. The one I ate at gave itself four stars, which means 80 percent of the ingredients it uses are domestically produced.
Volunteers chip in to pay for the lanterns. The only rule the support group members are required to observe is "If one sees two eateries side by side, one with a red lantern and one with a green, one must eat at the green lantern restaurant."
If this rule spreads to all of Japan's neon-lit restaurant districts, the country's food self-sufficiency rate, which has plunged to 40 percent, may rebound.
Homemade food has more impact than restaurant food. The food scandal caused by pesticide-tainted Chinese-made frozen gyoza dumplings prompted consumers to take a second look at the worth of domestic foodstuffs and home cooking.
We don't have to go so far as to hang lanterns in our kitchens, but when we go grocery shopping, we should keep in mind a green warning light. Consumers have sensitive radar.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 27(IHT/Asahi: February 28,2008)