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Ruth Ozeki: My Year of Meats

Ruth Ozeki is a vegetarian. If you are not, you might want to stay away from this book, as it is the most damning US novel about the meat industry since Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle. Indeed, after reading this book, you may well want to give up meat altogether. Throughout this book, Ozeki does not attempt to hide her views. She damns not only the meat industry but also sexism and racism as well as the US obsession with guns, with the killing of Yoshihiro Hattori appearing. However, above all, this book is about cultural differences, primarily the differences between the US and Japan. Unlike Amélie Nothomb, who has made a speciality of European-Japanese differences, Ozeki is usually gentle in her mocking, though she does turn up the heat on the meat industry.

The novel essentially follows the story of two women, whose stories run in parallel, till they finally coincide. The first woman is clearly based on the author. She is Jane Takagi-Little. Her father was American, her mother Japanese. Jane was born in Quam, Minnesota (the town name is fictitious but there is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives of that name). She has worked as a documentary film maker. She had spent some time in Japan where she had met and married Emil, a black African, but she could not have children and the marriage withered away. She had returned to the US, broke and without job prospects. Then a Japanese contact was able to help her get a job making a series called American Wife for Japanese TV. The series was sponsored by BEEF-EX, a company promoting US meat in Japan (the Japanese tend to eat very little meat). They were making a series of fifty programmes to be shown at 8 a.m. Saturday, showing US life to the Japanese but always ending up with the family meal, with the family eating meat, cooked by the wife. Jane’s job was to scout out families in the various parts of the US and arrange for the filming.

The novel starts with a filming session. To brighten things up, they had planned to have a sociological survey.

The Survey was conducted like an informal quiz show; the participants all held two large cards facedown in their laps, and when a question was read off, they answered by flipping up one or the other of the cards to reveal a bold YES or NO. It was the special Valentine’s Day Show, so there was a romantic theme to some of the questions, and the cards were decorated with big red hearts.

Unfortunately, one of the questions was Have you ever had an extramarital affair?. Fred, the husband, who hated the whole programme and was annoyed at his wife at having agreed to it, replied that he had and then proceeded to reveal his still ongoing affair with a cocktail waitress. Of course, there is immediate chaos and Ozeki milks it for all the fun she can get. Of course, the Japanese sponsors are looking for wholesome US families, by which they mean conventional, middle-class, white families. Jane really needs her job but is determined to sabotage this idea and, gradually, does, introducing, first, a Hispanic family and then a family with a handicapped daughter, a family where the husband does the cooking, an African-American family and, finally, a mixed-race, Lesbian, vegetarian couple.

Meanwhile, the Japanese sponsors have been increasingly worried, despite the success of Jane’s innovations, and the advertising agency representative gets more and more involved. He is Joichi Ueno but likes to go by the name John, not least because of his surname, which is pronounced Wayno. The second story we follow is of Akiko, his wife. She had been persuaded to marry Joichi by her then boss (she wrote quite gory manga strips) and the marriage has not been happy. Ozeki mocks his rabid sexism (for example, when they are first married, he does not want children, so he makes her buy the condoms they use as it is beneath the dignity of a married man to buy condoms). However, by the time he does want children, she is no longer menstruating, primarily because she is bulimic and undernourished. In addition, she does not really like the meat he expects her to cook for him. As a result, she cannot get pregnant, which annoys him. He is drunk, abusive and violent and, finally, rapes her. Jane, who knows nothing about this, does not like him either, when he comes to the US, not least because of drunkenness, attempted rape of her and his lust for big-breasted Texan women.

The meat industry comes in towards the end, when Jane, to make amends for the mixed-race, Lesbian, vegetarian couple, finds a cattle ranch and learns far more about meat production than she had imagined. Meanwhile, of course, Jane and Akiko come together. It is all great fun as Ozeki enjoys herself poking fun at all and sundry, only getting really serious about the meat. She has an affair with jazz musician and we learn more about her family, as well as seeing the sorry lot of Japanese women.

The modern Japanese housewife, living a hermetic existence, increasingly cut off from contact with the world, is literally losing her voice. Is it any wonder she prefers to interact with a machine?

It is certainly an enjoyable read and Ozeki certainly puts her points across about racism, sexism and meat in a not particularly subtle way. But you carnivores really may not like it.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Viking