Culture, No.9  Jan. 27, 2012


Photo : Fukuoka Shin-Ichi

Fukuoka Shin-Ichi

Tatsumi Yoshiko: Last year, I conducted a food lifestyle survey centered on different municipalities. I was shocked when I saw the results from 500 people aged 20 to about 60. Singles in their 20s and 30s skip breakfast, or would eat something like snack rolls or a Chinese dumpling together with a bottle of water. Lunch would be a slice of pizza. Dinner: ramen. Not once during the week did they eat cooked food or ohitashi (boiled vegetables). That’s how they live. They eat just enough so they don’t die. They don’t have a clear understanding on food, self, and life. How did we get to this point?

Fukuoka Shin-Ichi: It’s probably because as the act of eating became associated with the notion of improving nutrition, so too many people now consider food only in terms of nutrients. When you start seeing food as nutrients, you end up counting calories. Since the basal metabolic figure of humans is about 1,500 kcal a day, people think they have to eat that much, or have to take in 60 grams of protein, and so on. Those facts are important in themselves, but we are starting to reconsider the situation of, “Are we OK as long as we take in a sufficient amount of calories?”

Obstacles to counting calories

Tatsumi: So we shouldn’t be looking at food merely in terms of nutrients and calories?

Fukuoka: Even the concept of counting calories, in my opinion, is just an empty theory. We can look at the ingredients of a certain food and estimate the approximate grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein that it contains, so we simply multiple the figure by 4 kcals for carbohydrates, 9 kcals for fat and 4 kcals for protein, and merely add this up. Indeed, we can theoretically convert any food to calories. But it’s not that the food we eat will all turn into calories and be used up for physical movement, temperature control or cell metabolism. Over half the substances we eat become our bodies.

Our bodies are different from a car that runs on gas. It is a fundamental mistake to think of our body as a machine that, when supplied energy to prevent an empty tank, will burn it to produce motion energy and body temperature. The act of eating is not merely about burning calories and producing energy, but is in fact replacing each individual part; like screws, wheels and springs that comprise our body with food. Food remakes these parts.

In other words, our bodies are highly active, constantly renewing themselves while moving. We continue to eat to keep that active cycle running. Living, in effect, is about running this “active cycle.” That’s why we just can’t supply the 1,500 kcal our body needs in a day all from one meal. The dynamic equilibrium of our body is running without a single moment of rest, so when you suddenly supply it with massive energy all at once, it imposes an enormous burden.

Tatsumi: So that’s why we shouldn’t use eating as a way to stock our food. [laugh]

There is a certain cycle to eating and digesting what you ate and converting it to energy once every several hours, and our act of eating three times a day in the morning, noon and night is an extremely rational method that humans have discovered in their long existence. You can’t just ignore it, look at the nutrients and gobble up the daily-required amount all at once in space food and tablets. That may suffice in terms of classical dietetics, but that’s not what eating is all about. As you chew proteins or carbohydrates in your mouth they gradually release taste. They then enter your body and are slowly digested. During all this, your body starts preparing to convert them into energy. This is the process that runs in a cycle, so the whole process is important. In that sense, it is very important that you eat “from the mouth,” and that you chew.

Tatsumi: So the significance of eating from the mouth and chewing is in the process. Does that mean injections, infusion and gastric fistula all lack the process of the body preparing to accept the food?

Fukuoka: In terms of my theory of Dynamic Equilibrium, the human body is merely a pool of molecules that are constantly flowing.

In the same way, food is constantly moving as well. The flow of food exists in an endless function of time that starts when it was harvested to how it was stored, cooked, fermented, chewed after entering the mouth, and digested.

In other words, the act of eating, seen from the perspective of both body and food, is inseparable from the flow of time. When you ignore that and eat only by looking at the nutritional information, I feel you lose sight of an extremely important aspect of eating.

So how you eat what is more important than the calorie figures.

In terms of what you eat, protein is particularly important. This is because we humans can store carbohydrates inside our body as fat, but cannot store proteins. In other words, you can’t convert protein to calories and think of this as fuel that you can store.

Humans can store carbohydrates as fat because they used to be in a state of starvation, for several millions of years. Capturing a huge animal like a mammoth was something that happened once a year if they were lucky, so when they did, it was a festival and people simply ate, ate and ate. And they stored the carbohydrates they consumed as body or subcutaneous fat.

But as I said, we cannot store protein. This is because protein is part of the ceaseless cycle, i.e., dynamic equilibrium. So although you don’t have to eat an excessive amount, an adult would need to consume about 60 grams in dry weight of quality protein per day in order to maintain dynamic equilibrium.

This was about protein that runs the cycle within and outside the human body, but I believe protein will play an increasingly important role in the global cycle as well.

Specifically, in order for us to think about food issues of the future, I believe that we should focus not on carbon (C) that composes fat and carbohydrates but on the global cycle of nitrogen (N) that primarily composes protein.

We’re getting technical here. Would you please elaborate on that idea that the cycle of N would be more important than C?

Fukuoka: N within a living being’s body is only contained in proteins and nucleic acids, which are seen only in DNA and RNA, and this is necessary for a living being to sustain life. That’s why keeping the cycle of N running is, in fact, what it means to live. Unlike C that we can temporarily store, N continues its ceaseless flow, so as I mentioned earlier, how much of what kind of N we consume becomes important.

But when we look on the global level, we find that the cycles of C and N are in fact significantly unbalanced today. This is because humans, who have continuously increased their population, are consuming massive amounts of carbohydrate from only a few varieties of grain such as rice, wheat and corn.

For example, when we grow corn, we need massive amounts of nitrogen compost. Plants usually have microbes within the soil called Rhizobium that convert nitrogen in air to compost to be supplied to the plant. But when we grow 800 million tons of corn annually, that isn’t sufficient. So humans selfishly convert nitrogen in air to compost by industrial means and pump them into the soil. But the part of the harvested corn that humans eat as grain hardly contains any protein. Other grains around the world have similar circumstances.

In other words, in order to obtain massive amounts of carbohydrates composed primarily of C, we are throwing away massive amounts of proteins composed mainly of N that plants store in their germ to use for their development. In terms of the big, global cycle, mankind is wasting massive amounts of N. This is going to be an extremely large problem.

My standard breakfast is a “super meal” that blends seven types of grains, beans and cereal germs and is preserved in yogurt. Did your explanation just now legitimize my breakfast?

Fukuoka: Of course. Relying less on meat and fish and eating a diverse variety of grains with their germs and without milling them is extremely effective in terms of properly consuming protein. Your “super meal” breakfast is indeed an ideal way of eating.

Life is not about the end balance

Tatsumi: As I mentioned earlier, the eating habits of single folks in their 20s and 30s are very poor and they don’t know what they want to eat. I think this is a truly grave concern. I can’t help but wonder how this state came about.

So a question I truly wanted to ask you was this: How can we develop people to have proper awareness about eating?

Fukuoka: We humans are living beings, so we should intuitively want to eat what we lack. When all else fails, we should trust our instincts. But when people don’t know what they want, that’s because they are not listening to their bodies very carefully. They probably haven’t acquired a fundamental awareness about eating.

Awareness is synonymous with one’s view of the world. The kanji for kan in sekaikan or seimeikan means “to see” and its how you view the world or life. I think awareness comes first from sensing before knowing.

Its “realization,” isn’t it?

Fukuoka: Yes. And that realization comes at a very early stage in life. It comes from how we came in touch with nature by the time we were five or six. How we saw flowers in our garden or the insects that came to the flowers. We may have been stung by a bee and cried. At each moment, we felt and realized something.

Tatsumi: So our childhood experiences play a major role?

Fukuoka: All living things relate to each other and run a cycle of life. A child of course would never understand the logic behind it but would see its mysteries and realize something, which may be a little too late of an experience to have as an adult. People should ideally realize those things as a child when the world can be seen very clearly.

My favorite writer Rachel Carson defines that realization as a “sense of wonder.” One is surprised by the precision of nature and bears a sense of respect. That feeling, I think, becomes the basis of our view toward nature and life. That’s why I think we need to learn various tastes while we are very young and gain proper experience about what tastes good.

What do you think is important in the process from that starting point of realization to achieving a firm awareness?

Fukuoka: I think it’s to have a greater “swing.” I understand that some people love to see the balance in their bank account, but I believe that life is more about its swing than its end balance. It’s better to have big income and big expenditures. After all, you can’t take your balance with you into your coffin. The swing is what’s important, and the greater the swing, the more fulfilling and firm awareness you will achieve.

To touch upon my own experience, my mother had strict beliefs and passion about eating, and as a child I was always told to eat this or that and was hardly ever allowed to buy snacks or eat out. Instead though, I learned the true goodness of a lot of things. But when I entered college and left home, my eating habits were a disaster.

Tatsumi: A backlash of the proper life until then, right?

Fukuoka: All my meals were at fast food restaurants. Meals at the busy lab were solely cup noodles. It was a terrible eating habit, and as it turned out, I eventually got tired of it – the taste of all the fat and seasoning in those kinds of food. So around the end of my graduate school days, I decided to change things and attended a cooking class at the YWCA and studied cooking. So did that studying get put to good use? I had to leave for the United States immediately after graduation, so I got busy again and spent my days with hamburgers and fried chicken. [laugh]

But having experienced so many tastes in so many different periods of my life, that huge swing of experience played a huge role in the process of confirming all the things I realized during my childhood. So I now believe that the important part about awareness is in the initial realization and also in the “swing road” of sorts where you question that realization or take a different view of it.

Tatsumi: So it’s the road of realization and huge swings that we need to take.

Fukuoka: I heard that the Tatsumi family has a delicacy called konjo tekkamiso (gutsy miso). What exactly is it?

Tatsumi: It’s something that my mother came up with during the war. It is basically haccho miso with a variety of roots and dried bonito shavings. You stir-fry them, add ginger, and simply keep stir-frying patiently for at least an hour and a half, until the whole thing turns into dry powder. You have to have some determination to stir-fry that long; hence the name “gutsy miso.” [laugh] It’s a sort of rojoshoku (wartime food in castles).

Fukuoka: That itself sounds like an excellent side dish for sake. Take some on your finger and lick on it as you drink… mmm, that could keep me going for a long time. [laugh]

Tatsumi: It’s good when you sprinkle it on steaming rice; you can have it in your onigiri (rice ball); it’s even good as a dip for daikon radish, cucumber or Chinese yam cut into sticks. I said it was a rojoshoku, but you could stock it as emergency food in case there’s a disaster. I am sure that our konjo tekkamiso was valuable lifesaving food back in those days when food was short.

Japanese politicians do not see food from the perspective of life

Fukuoka: I believe food made through proper effort and time has time “folded into it.”

Time, and also the love of the person who made it.

Fukuoka: In most foods today, we see that time has stopped inside the package. The vacuum packages and instantaneous sterilization has halted all action, so they lack the excitement of food we find in its time-based activities such as rotting, fermenting or maturing. Such foods lack the thrill of waiting for the right moment to eat them.

These current times are when we must really understand the importance of viewing the basics of food from a firm perspective on life. Without this, we will eventually lose sight of even the simple difference of what’s artificial and what’s real.

Tatsumi: I honestly think that the people who control Japan’s food – in other words, our politicians – have a very poor awareness about seeing food fundamentally from the perspective of life.

Fukuoka: Indeed, even the issue of our nation’s critical level of self-sufficiency goes back to seeing things in terms of our lives. What does it mean to “be alive”? This question boils down to the synonym “to eat,” so unless we are secure in our act of eating, all bases of life are at risk. It seems that Japan, unfortunately, lacks proper awareness of that fact as a philosophy.

Tatsumi: The nuclear power plant incident had also revealed the lack of life-based perspectives among politicians. Everything the government said on where was a safe place to live or what is safe to eat were just makeshift answers without any clear standards. We must keep a strict eye on such behaviors.

Fukuoka: We must also oversee the government on the essential problem of whether the country needs nuclear power plants.

In terms of nuclear power plants, I believe that ethicists should work harder. We need more people who can say, “We can’t have it because it’s plain wrong.” The basis of that is, again, seeing things from a life perspective.

I want to ask you, Mr. Fukuoka. What is your stand, as a scientist, on religion?

Fukuoka: Notions on nature and life are not issues solely reserved for science; I think religion could offer answers as well. I tend to sort this out largely as follows.

Science cannot answer questions of “why?” These are questions such as “Why do we exist?” or “Why did living beings come to be on this Earth?”

Rather, I try to think that science offers answers to “how?” Science can explain the “how” for matters such as, “This is how life is; that’s why food is important,” or, “Nature exists under such dynamic equilibrium; that’s why food is important.” And that’s what I believe I should be doing.

Science cannot really answer the “Why.” I only wish that religion would offer some hints there, but even explaining that “why” would require sufficient knowledge on “how” to make it convincing.

Tatsumi: I think so too.

Fukuoka: “Why do we exist?” “Because God created this universe.”

It ends right there. For us to discuss a “why” that will convince everyone, we must first discuss the “how” in the most precise and high-resolution words of the time. That’s how I’ve sorted out the issue, and I, as a scientist, hope to continue my efforts to explain concepts of nature and life in the highest resolution words I could possibly find.

Tatsumi: Mr. Fukuoka, I honestly think that science and religion will eventually be one.

Translated from “Tabemono ha nenryo deha nai (food is not fuel)” for the series of ‘Shoku to Inochi – hito ga hito to narutameni,’ Bungeishunju, November 2011, pp. 351-356. (Courtesy of Bungeishunju Ltd.)