“Meat is the Message.”
I wrote these words just over a year ago, sitting right here in my tenement apartment in the East Village of New York City in the middle of the worst snowstorm of the season, or maybe it was the century—on TV, everything’s got to be the worst something, and after a while you stop paying attention. Especially that year. It was January 1991, the first month of the first year of the last decade of the millennium. President Bush had just launched Desert Storm, the most massive air bombardment and land offensive since World War II. The boiler in my building had blown, my apartment was freezing, and I couldn’t complain to the landlord because my rent was overdue. I had just defaulted to a vegetarian diet of cabbage and rice because I couldn’t find a job. Politics and weather aside, the rest was fine. I mean, I was doing the starving artist thing on purpose: I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, but who could find work in a climate like this?
When the phone rang at two in the morning, I didn’t bother to answer. It was unlikely to be a job offer at that hour, and I had just gotten into bed and was lying there, rigid, trying to relax against the icy sheets long enough to fall asleep. I didn’t want to lose what little body heat I’d already invested, so I let the answering machine pick up—isn’t that what they are for? But then I recognized the voice. It was Kato, my old boss at the TV production company in Tokyo where I had gotten my first job, strangulating English sound bites into pithy Japanese subtitles. Now, he said, he had a new program and could use my help. I threw back the covers and dived for the receiver. After a brief conversation, we hung up. I wrapped myself in blankets, huddled over my computer keyboard, and, blowing on my fingers to keep them warm, wrote the following:
My American Wife!
Meat is the Message. Each weekly half-hour episode of My American Wife! must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! Of course, the “Wife of the Week” is important too. She must be attractive, appetizing, and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest. Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.
I sat back and read it with some satisfaction. It was a pitch for Kato’s new program, a more or less faithful translation of the Japanese text that he had dictated to me over the phone—well, maybe not so faithful; maybe a little excessive, in fact. But I liked it. It would do. I faxed it off to Tokyo and crawled back into bed. As I lay there, shivering, wondering about the new show, I had no way of realizing that what I’d just written would turn out to be some of my most lucrative prose—it would land me a job and keep me both meat-fed and employed for over a year.
My Year of Meat. It changed my life. You know when that happens—when something rocks your world, and nothing is ever the same after?
My name is Jane Takagi-Little. Little was my dad, a Little from Quam, Minnesota. Takagi is my mother’s name. She’s Japanese. Hyphenation may be a modern response to patriarchal naming practices in some cases, but not in mine. My hyphen is a thrust of pure superstition. At my christening, Ma was stricken with a profound Oriental dread at the thought of her child bearing an insignificant surname like Little through life, so at the very last minute she insisted on attaching hers. Takagi is a big name, literally, comprising the Chinese character for “tall” and the character for “tree.” Ma thought the stature and eminence of her lofty ancestors would help equalize Dad’s Little. They were always fighting about stuff like this.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Dad would say. “It’s just a name!” which would cause Ma to recoil in horror. “how can you say ‘just a name’? Name is very first thing. Name is face to all the world.”
“Jane” represents their despair at ever reaching an interesting compromise.
In spite of the Little, my dad was a tall man, and I am just under six feet myself. In Japan this makes me a freak. After living there for a awhile, I simply gave up trying to fit in: I cut my hair short, dyed chunks of it green, and spoke in men’s Japanese. It suited me. Polysexual, polyracial, perverse, I towered over the sleek, uniform heads of commuters on the Tokyo subway. Ironically, the real culture shock occurred when I left Japan and moved to New York to the East Village. Suddenly everyone looked weird, just like me.
Being racially “half”—neither here nor there—I was uniquely suited to the niche I was to occupy in the television industry. I was hired by Kato to be a coordinator for My American Wife!, the TV series that would bring the “heartland of America into the homes of Japan.” Although my heart was set on being a documentarian, it seems I was more useful as a go-between, a cultural pimp, selling off the vast illusion of America to a cramped population on that small string of Pacific islands.
As a coordinator, I was part of the production team that shot fifty-two half-hour episodes of My American Wife! for the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, or, simply, BEEF-EX. BEEF-EX was a national lobby organization that represented American meats of all kinds—beef, pork, lamb, goat, horse—as well as livestock producers, packers, purveyors, grain promoters, pharmaceutical companies, and agribusiness groups. They had their collective eye firmly fixed on Asia. BEEF-EX was the sole sponsor of our program, and its mandate was clear: “to foster among Japanese housewives a proper understanding of the wholesomeness of U.S. meats.”
This was how we did it: My American Wife! was a day-in-the-life type of documentary, each show featuring a housewife who could cook. My job description, according to Kato, went something like this:
“You must catch up healthy American wives with most delicious meats.”
His English was terrible, but I got the picture: Fingers twitching on the pole of a large net, I would prowl the freezer sections of food chains across the country, eyeing the unsuspecting housewives of America as they poked their fingers into plastic-wrapped flank steaks.
Travel, glamour, excitement it wasn’t. But during that year I visited every single one of the United States of America and shot in towns so small you could fit their entire dwindling populations in the back of an Isuzu pickup—towns not so different from Quam, Minnesota, where I grew up. I remembered the scene.
It all came back to me during a pancake breakfast in a VFW hall in Bald Knob, Arkansas.
It was our first shoot. I met my Japanese crew at the local airport. A brass band was playing when I arrived, and the ticket counters were decorated with proud banners of sparkling stars and stalwart stripes. Yellow ribbons festooned the departure lounge, and Mylar balloons floated like flimsy planets over the cloud-like tresses of blond girls in pastel who had some to say good-bye.
At the center of all this effusion were the callow recruits, with brand-new crew cuts and bright-red ears, dressed in the still-unfamiliar pale of desert camouflage. Babies were pressed to their clean-shaven cheeks. Mothers’ breasts heaved like eager battleships, while the soldiers’ fingers lingered over ramparts of stone-washed thigh. Many tears were shed.
My Japanese team was shocked. Stumbling off a twenty-hour flight from Tokyo, jet-lagged and confused, they ran smack into Gulf War Fever. In modern-day Japan, militarism is treated like a sexual deviation—when you see perverts practicing it on the street, you ignore them, look the other way.
Then, at the pancake breakfast where we had been filming, a red-faced veteran fro WWII drew a bead on me and my crew, standing in line by the warming trays, our plates stacked high with flapjacks and American bacon.
“Where are you from, anyway?” he asked, squinting his bitter blue eyes at me.
“New York,” I answered.
He shook his head and glared and wiggled a crooked finger inches from my face. “No, I mean where were you born?”
“Quam, Minnesota,” I said.
“No, no . . . What are you?” He whined in frustration.
And in a voice that was low, but shivering with demented pride, I told him, “I . . . am . . . a . . . fucking . . . AMERICAN!”
TO: AMERICAN RESEARCH STAFF
FROM: Tokyo Office
DATE: January 5, 1991
RE: My American Wife!
We at the Tokyo Office wish you all have nice holiday season. Now it is New Year and weather is frigid but we ask your hard work in making exciting My American Wife!. Let’s persevere with new Program series!
Here is list of IMPORTANT THINGS for My American Wife!
1. Attractiveness, wholesomeness, warm personality
2. Delicious meat recipe (NOTE: Pork and other meats is second class meats, so please remember this easy motto: “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!”)
3. Attractive, docile husband
4. Attractive, obedient children
5. Attractive, wholesome lifestyle
6. Attractive, clean house
7. Attractive friends & neighbors
8. Exciting hobbies
1. Physical imperfections
4. Second class peoples
***MOST IMPORTANT THING IS VALUES, WHICH MUST BE ALL-AMERICAN.
TO: RESEARCH STAFF
FROM: JANE TAKAGI-LITTLE
DATE: JANUARY 6
RE: My American Wife!
Just a quick note to clarify the memo from Tokyo. I spoke with Kato, the chief producer for the series, and told him that some of the points in the memo had offended the American staff. He is very concerned and has asked me to convey the following:
NOTE ON AMERICAN HUSBANDS—Japanese market studies show that Japanese wives often feel neglected by their husbands and are susceptible to the qualities of kindness, generosity, and sweetness that they see as typical of American men. Accordingly, our wives should have clean, healthy-looking husbands who help with the cooking, washing up, housekeeping, and child care. The agency running the BEEF-EX advertising campaign is looking to create a new truism: The wife who serves meat has a kinder, gentler mate.
NOTE ON RACE AND CLASS— The reference to “second class peoples” does not refer to race of class. Kato does not want you to think that Japanese people are racist. However, market studies do show that the average Japanese wife finds a middle-to-upper-middle-class white American woman with two or three children to be both sufficiently exotic and yet reassuringly familiar. The Agency has asked us to focus on wives within these demographic specifications for the first couple of shows, just to get things rolling.
NOTE ON ALL-AMERICAN VALUES— Our ideal American wife must have enough in common with the average Japanese housewife so as not to appear either threatening or contemptible. My American Wife! of the ’90s must be a modern role model, just as her mother was a model to Japanese wives after WWII. However, nowadays, a spanking-new refrigerator or automatic can opener is not a “must.” In recent years, sue to Japan’s “economic miracle,” the Japanese housewife is more accustomed to these amenities even than her American counterpart. The Agency thinks we must replace this emphasis on old-fashioned consumerism with contemporary wholesome values, represented not by gadgets for the wife’s sole convenience but by good, nourishing food for her entire family. And that means meat.
A final note:
The eating of meat in Japan is a relatively new custom. In the Heian Court, which ruled from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, it was certainly considered uncouth; due to the influences of Buddhism, meat was more than likely thought to be unclean. We know quite a bit about Japanese life then—at least the life of the court and the upper classes—thanks to the great female documentarians of that millennium, like Sei Shonagon, She was the author of The Pillow Book, which contains detailed accounts of her life and her lovers, and one hundred sixty-four lists of things, such as:
Things That Should Be Large
Things That Gain By Being Painted
Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Things That Cannot Be Compared
Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, wrote the following about Shonagon in her diary:
Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so presumptuously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one.
Murasaki Shikibu scorned what she called Shonagon’s “Chinese writings,” and this is why: Japan had no written language at all until the sixth century, when the characters were borrowed from Chinese. In Shonagon’s day, these bold characters were used only by men—lofty poets and scholars—while the women diarists, who were writing prose, like Murasaki and Shonagon, were supposed to use a simplified alphabet, which was soft and feminine. But Shonagon overstepped her bounds. From time to time, she wrote in Chinese characters. She dabbled in the male tongue.
Murasaki may not have liked her much, but I admire Shonagon, listmaker and leaver of presumptuous scatterings. She inspired me to become a documentarian, to speak men’s Japanese, to be different. She is why I chose to make TV. I wanted to think that some girl would watch my shows in Japan, now or maybe even a thousand years from now, and be inspired and learn something real about America. Like I did.
Author Ruth Ozeki
During my Year of Meat, I made documentaries about an exotic and vanishing America for consumption on the flip side of the planet, and I learned a lot; For example, we didn’t even have cows in this country until the Spanish introduced them, along with cowboys. Even tumbleweed, another symbol of the American West, is actually and exotic plant called Russian thistle, that’s native not to America but to the wide-open steppes of Central Europe. All over the world, native species are migrating, if not disappearing, and in the next millennium the idea of an indigenous person or plant or culture will just seem quaint.
Being half, I am evidence that race, too, will become relic. Eventually we’re all going to be brown, sot of. Some days when I’m feeling grand, I feel brand-new—like a prototype. Back in the olden days, my dad’s ancestors got stuck behind the Alps and my mom’s on the east side of the Urals. Now, oddly, I straddle this blessed, ever-shrinking world.
See also: KJ’s interview with Ruth Ozeki in issue KJ89: Craft Ecologies