This is a frustration venting email. If I ever find myself on live TV here, or have a chance to meet the emperor, this is what I'll say. The milk here is a crime. When I first got here, I found that the milk I bought in the stores wasn't exactly fresh--but then again, it wasn't completely sour, either. Much of the time, it was drinkable. What began to frighten me was when I opened a carton that turned out to be drinkable, then forgot about it in the refrigerator for three weeks--and it was exactly the same. Then, when I began to teach, I found that the milk at one of my schools was disgusting. It had the same taste as the milk from the stores, only much stronger. At my other school, it was bad but not as bad, but since I took school lunch there and often ate with the students, I felt compelled to drink it. I developed a theory that they must use some preservative that keeps the milk from souring, but the damned stuff is so old that it finds some other way to go bad--and every drop of milk I've bought here has been at least a little bad. Do you remember descriptions of milk in Sinclair's The Jungle?
How does it happen that a school can serve spoiled milk to its students every day? The people here are used to it, so they don't complain. No one likes milk, but they all think that's how it's supposed to taste, so they choke it down. When I asked two of my English teachers how to find decent milk here, they both said how delicious the milk was when they traveleled to North America and Europe; I told them that's what it tastes like before it spoils. I've watched elementary school kids being force fed their milk; by junior high, they can tolerate it, but of course no one likes it. Given that this is a country with a long history of calcium shortage (people think growing so stooped they can no longer see forward is a normal part of aging), it would seem important to have people drinking more milk, especially as children. People buy and force their kids to drink a lot of milk here, but I haven't met one person who drinks it willingly, or one kid who drinks it when he or she as a choice. Since the government has decided that milk is good for kids, as it makes them drink it at school, then it would make sense to have decent milk, so that people would like it and actually drink more of it.
How does it happen that a company will intentionally sell spoiled milk, even to school children? Japan is that capitalist's dream, a land free of government interference in business, at least until a few deaths make the evening news. Around the time I got here, Snow Brand, which I think is the biggest dairy company in Japan, was under fire because it was discovered that they had been taking milk that had been returned, unsold, after its expiration date and mixing it in with new milk to be sold again; they were also using it as the base for other dairy products, including yogurt. This is a routine practice here, and under some strictures it is actually legal. Snow's actions weren't, though. Of course, people had been complaining about the taste for years, but nothing was actually done until hundreds of people got sick and a few died. Then the books were examined, the crime uncovered, products recalled, and a few small fines paid. Last week, a few hundred people got sick in this area when another dairy did the same thing, this time recycling milk that had been returned when the customers and then store managers found that it had an unpleasant smell--recycling it into milk to be sold to schools. The company president, bold as brass, admitted that the company had done this in violation of the law, had known it was violating the law, and volunteered to pay the small fine without putting up a legal resistance. I forget the ludicrously small maximum fine that the paper said could be assessed, but it seemed likely to be smaller than the profit that this scheme would save in just a week or two. Can you imagine what would happen to an American executive who admitted willingly violating health laws by selling milk he had been told was spoiled to schools, sickening hundreds of small children? Industry owns government here.
So while I was able to buy on many occasions milk that I was able to drink, I've only rarely bought or was served milk that would be legally acceptable for sale in the US. About two months ago, I bought some that smelled worse than anything I'd ever had--the smell was like raw chicken that had gone bad, much more disgusting than even the strongest naturally spoiled milk. Since then, I've lost the ability to tolerate milk that's more than just a little off. Every carton I've bought, even the special high-temperature pasteurized long-life milk, has been bad before I even opened it. Since I know that the top of the milk carton can smell bad even if the milk is still good, I've been testing it by pouring a glass, sniffing it, and tasting a little. When every carton of milk I bought turned out to clearly be spoiled, I was afraid that I'd become so sensitized that I wouldn't be able to tolerate even good milk, but fortunately I am able to test that theory. My sister (bless you, Suzanne) sent me quite a few drink boxes of high-temperature pasteurized long-life milk (the kind common in Europe), so I've had good fresh American milk as a comparison. I open the American milk, and there is no sour smell, in fact other than a barely detectable sweetness no smell at all. I drink it, and it is wonderful. In some ways hygeine standards here are the highest in the world; I eat things here that I don't trust to be fresh even in America. It astounds me that a country like this allows its companies to commit such a crime against its children.
I've stopped drinking Japanese milk, and when my students ask me if I like milk, I say yes; when they follow up with the obvious question and ask why I'm not drinking it with them, I tell them. I tell all my teachers. I'm even going to try to find someone in the government to tell. It won't do any good, of course--they haven't listened to parents of kids who have died from bad dairy products, so of course they won't listen to me. If you know any muck-raking reporters with time on their hands, I'll be glad to Fed-Ex them a carton from the store or a couple of bottles just delivered to my school.
The damnedest thing is that the government and big business have this country believing it's part of the first world just because it's rich.
O genki de