I’ve had the idea for a while now that Australia and Japan think about animals differently. Both countries keep animals as pets, eat animals, and get excited about exotic animals. If I could sum up the difference, it might be something like: Australia thinks humans have a responsibility to treat animals humanely, whereas Japan thinks humans can do what we want, so if it brings us pleasure, that’s what we do. (Please note that this is, as always, a generalisation! Plenty of people feel differently in both countries.)
I think Australia’s opinion of animals is that they’re similar to humans and should be treated humanely, and that because humans have power over them, we have a kind of duty of care to respect animals and their environment, and not to abuse them. This means that whether it’s in the zoo, a waiting room, a Chinese restaurant or your own house, Australian kids are not allowed to tap on the glass of a fish tank. It’s common knowledge that it’s not good for the fish, right? Any adult will tell kids not to tap on the glass. But Japanese kids do it all the time, with whatever creature they’ve got in a tank in their classroom. I’ve never seen an adult blink at it, let alone say anything. And then you get people who take their dog for a walk in the pram, or dress up their dogs and dye their ears different colours. Whether the dogs like it or not, who knows, but there’s no doubt some of the people who do this really love their dogs.
So. In today’s post, I share observations on a few topics: the eating of animals, treatment of animals, and the ways they are observed, kept, fed and touched in Australian and Japanese culture. Is this too much like a school essay? Hope not. Here we go.
Vegetarianism and ethical eating
In case you wanted to know, the Australian colloquialism for vegetarian is ‘veggo’ (pronounced ‘vedge-O’).
Although Australians on the whole eat a lot of meat, there are also quite a few vegetarians, many of my friends among them. People have a variety of reasons for being whatever version of vegetarian they choose, such as:
- Wanting to reduce carbon emissions
- Not wanting to support the meat (or egg or dairy) industries because of farming methods
- Not wanting to kill or hurt animals
- Seeing vegetarianism as a healthier lifestyle (in some cases, as a way to be skinnier)
Whatever the reality is of how many vegetarians there are in Australia, it would be quite rare to find somewhere that doesn’t offer some sort of vegetarian option, especially in big cities, where there are also plenty of eateries that are entirely vegetarian.
Free range eggs and meat (especially poultry) has become increasingly popular and easy to get in recent years. There’s an app you can get now for smartphones that tells you whether eggs you’re buying are really free range or not.
As I may have mentioned before, vegetarianism is not really a thing in Japan, except for some Buddhists at some times of the year. Vegetarian restaurants do exist, but are rare, and most restaurants don’t have vegetarian options.
Incidentally, I haven’t heard about sustainable or ethical eating in Japan. Sometimes places advertise that they use seasonal and local produce, but more from the ‘it’s delicious’ perspective than being environmentally friendly. I’ve also heard that the city where I work serves whale for school lunch about once a year. I’m waiting for that day to come, and still trying to decide how to deal with it when it does.
Free range doesn’t seem to get so much attention in Japan. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t looked too hard for it, because I think I’d probably have to give up eggs – as well as all animal products – if I wanted to feel that I was actually eating ethically. Looking it up on the Internet, I found this animal rights site and also the word for free-range (放し飼い, hanashigai). That was it. I have the impression, particularly because I have never heard it mentioned, that factory farming is prevalent here. There was an open (unwalled) cattle shed near where I lived in Gifu, and I’ve and seen one other place that judging by the smell and appearance was or had been the same thing. In Gifu I also walked past places that smelled like livestock, but they generally looked like high-ceilinged warehouses. So… where is all this famous wagyu grown? Feedlots, I guess? Of course, I haven’t seen much of the country, and the small amount of research that I’ve done for this piece hasn’t yielded much info, and what there is largely isn’t recent. Considering that meat and eggs are relatively cheap, perhaps it’s safe to assume there is not much attention to animal welfare. I haven’t until now known the phrase for ‘ethical’ so I can’t say whether it gets used a lot.
Mascots: I’m Cute! Eat Me!
Some of the vegetarians I’ve known in Australia became vegetarian after watching Babe, or after school trips to abattoirs. The idea was that it was disturbing to see these cute animals killed and you didn’t want to eat them.
Japan doesn’t seem to do abattoir excursions, and maybe it’s because of that that they don’t seem to mind the idea of animals being cute and then eating those same animals. But I found it a little bit strange at first to see cute cow and pig mascots at beef/pork restaurants. Definitely don’t remember seeing them in Australia.
I don’t know much about zoos in Australia, but I have the impression that standards of animals’ enclosures have improved over the last few decades. The Australian Zoo and Aquarium Association has a page about animal welfare, as well as conservation and education.
The wildlife place that I’ve visited the most is Healesville Sanctuary, which is not a typical zoo but more a, well, sanctuary. They do things like take in animals that are injured, sick, or have lost their habitats, and basically aim to get them well again and then back into the wild. They also educate visitors about how they can help the environment and thereby the animals whose home it is, e.g. by buying recycled toilet paper.
I haven’t been to many zoos in Japan – only actually entered one, a ‘safari park’ thus far, and walked past one you could see into – but my impression is that they’re a few decades behind. At the safari park, there were animals in cages, with concrete floors, and in enclosures that are far smaller than and not much like their natural habitat.
There was a kangaroo in a concrete pen that was maybe 2 square metres, but I don’t think it was supposed to be on display – might have been on rotation with the ones out in the grassy area. I don’t know if it’s changing, but I think this sort of captivity is perhaps more common than in Australia.
If you’re interested, have a look at the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ four objectives. The page mentions conservation and education, but not the living conditions/welfare of the animals in captivity.
Is it exciting to see an eagle in the wild? I’m not sure if this is a cultural difference, it might just be a personal one, but I always think it’s cool to see big birds. There was one flying near school a while ago and I asked a kid, ‘What bird is that?’ and they were like ‘What. It’s a hawk or something,’ and then just carried on with whatever they were doing.
Wonder if that kid would have been more impressed with the monkey I saw on the way home from school? Or maybe the bear I saw on the border of Akita and Iwate? Or how about a Japanese serow, which I saw in my first week in Japan.
Then again, I like watching fish in the river, cranes flying over rice paddies, and turtles appearing near rivers. And seeing cockatoos and galahs, and kangaroos, and especially wombats, koalas or echidnas when there’s a chance in Australia. Is it not normal to get a bit excited about seeing animals in the wild?
Someone seeing a deer on the school oval was enough to stop a 40-student Japanese high school English class for a full minute – nearly as long as when a giant bee comes into the classroom! – so maybe it was just that one apathetic kid.
In Australia there are lots of animals that people try to touch, especially kids – mostly ones that are typical pets. There’s a certain appeal in trying to touch, say, snakes, too, or horses or sheep if you’re not used to being around them, and of course the idea of swimming with animals like dolphins can be pretty exciting. As for local wildlife, though, I think most people like to watch, but not touch/interfere. I know my mum has touched a kangaroo because when learning to drive, I ran one over and Mum had a look at it and, seeing it twitching, dragged it off the road. But the idea of trying to touch a healthy kangaroo seems dangerous to me. As for koalas, I just don’t think it would occur to most people to touch one. What do you think, Australians?
Many Japanese people I know who want to go to Australia say they want to go there to hold a koala. It’s never been an ambition of mine. They’ve got claws, man, and they don’t know about not going to the toilet on people. Apparently it’s illegal to hold koalas in all states in Australia but 3: South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. I don’t know if it’s the same in all the places where you can hold them, but there are a few terms and conditions for holding koalas at the Australia Zoo, including washing your hands first.
At that ‘safari park,’ there was a petting zoo with hamsters and stuff. And donkeys. You were free to touch any of the animals that wasn’t expected to be a danger, so basically everything except lions/tigers.
In Australia most people feed dogs and cats, and birds – you can get birdseed in the mountains to feed parrots and they will climb on you, and some people feed seagulls or ducks. I also remember feeding fish to dolphins in Monkey Mia, in Western Australia. People like to watch feeding time at the zoo, for penguins, seals, snakes, crocodiles, etc. Apparently you can do a special pay-extra thing at Taronga Zoo and feed giraffes, as in, join in when the keepers are feeding the giraffes their normal breakfast of carrots. Most people, though, try not to inadvertently feed kangaroos and wombats when camping. Some kid on Year 9 camp had his tent and bag broken into and a kangaroo made off with his Pop-Tarts. Hope the kangaroo was OK. Myself, a magpie got into some of my food, but we both survived.
In Japan, feeding animals seems to hold some extra attraction. You can buy food to give animals in many, many places, such as ‘rabbit island’ where the convenience stores on the mainland sell you either pellets or pre-cut vegetables, Nara where you can buy ‘deer crackers’ to feed the deer that just happen to live there, and the aforementioned safari park where you could buy bags of biscuits to feed the herbivorous animals.
I have no real conclusion to make about all this, except that people seem to think about animals differently in different cultures, huh. Food (feed?) for thought? Thanks for reading.
Upcoming posts will probably include topics such as healthcare, more on education, and more on hospitality. What else should I write about? Suggestions welcome.