As a Japanophile, it was only natural that I would become addicted to "Iron Chef."
The shorthand description of "Iron Chef" is that it is Julia Child meets the World Wrestling Federation. Each episode features a challenger taking on one of four Iron Chefs, each of whom specializes in one style of cuisine (Japanese, Chinese, French and Italian). The combatants have one hour to prepare their dishes, all utilizing a theme ingredient, which is announced at the start the contest.
Americans seem attracted to the show's inherent campiness, for while the Japanese take "Iron Chef" very seriously (one half expects some defeated chefs to commit seppuku), there is little on Japanese TV that doesn't seem campy to American eyes.
But "Iron Chef" also revels in political incorrectness.
The most popular "Iron Chef" episode, according to Food Network viewers, is the Octopus Battle, which features live octopuses squirming for their lives as Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe and challenger Hiromichi Yoneda try to beat them into submission.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the whacko "animal rights" group that doesn't want you to drink milk, tried to protest the Octopus Battle, not that anyone really noticed or cared.
The Japanese are unfazed by criticism from the likes of PETA and carry on with their contests. (Although "Iron Chef" is no longer in regular production, Fuji TV still produces occasional specials, like the recent 21st Century Battle co-produced with Food Network.)
Each battle is a showcase of classical virtues like honor and determination. And, ultimately, it's all about winning. Occasional ties are settled by brutal 30-minute cookoffs. This isn't a show for soccer moms. They couldn't handle the pressure.
Already enthralled with "Iron Chef," I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across the Web site of one of the show's regular food tasters.
Shinichiro Kurimoto is a semi-regular judge on "Iron Chef," having tasted more dishes than anyone except food critic Asako Kishi. He is also a member of Japan's Lower Diet, representing Tokyo's 3rd District.
A former member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kurimoto bolted in 1999. He is now a member of the oddly named Internet Breakthrough Party of Japan.
If the few broken-English-language articles on Kurimoto's Web site are any indication, Kurimoto is a believer in what Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo calls "market nationalism." It's an ideology that combines a belief in free markets with opposition to the American Empire.
For instance, almost alone among Japan's politicos, Kurimoto seems to grasp the roots of his country's continued financial troubles.
Most of the times, our (economic) therapy was a Kamikaze-style patchwork. During the bubble economy in the 80s, the financial institutions were so exhilarated that they kept making loans indiscriminately, knowing that most of such loans would be bad assets in the future.
I don't think that Mr. Greenspan is able to wield much effective influence over the American economy as a whole. What he could do is not much more than a lip-service maneuvering of the market. Of course, there is no one in Japan comparable even with a mini-Greenspan. When it comes to the financial and stock markets, the problem is far more fundamental and even fatal. In short, there is too much, far too much money circulating out there. I would like to invite your attention to the fact that it takes 2,000 trillion yen to buy up all the stocks of the world, while the money circulating around the world at any one moment amounts to 5,000 trillion yen.
A monetary explanation for inflation and boom-bust cycles? Kurimoto-san could teach a lot of American economists a thing or two.
Like Japan's new prime minister, Junichero Koizumi, Kurimoto has declared war on the entrenched, socialist Japanese bureaucracy.
Japan's politics during the period between its economic growth including the bubble era and its collapse was, in a sense, a kind of socialism, in which regulatory control was tightened and loosened as bureaucrats and politicians considered necessary. The bureaucracy preferred to regulate business, and the conservative politicians were their cronies. The corrupt relations between the two, however, did not come to surface as the country's economic vitality was so powerful that the political system managed to hide its inherent flaws.
But it was a completely different story after the Administration forced the bubble economy to burst. They were too slow in deregulation, thereby wearing out the private sector's vitality to a great degree. And because of that, Japan fell behind its competitors in the development of telecommunication technology. It was relegated to a second class position among the G5 nations. It happened to be the time when those powerful financial captains started their voracious speculations on the stock markets worldwide for gigantic gains in the middle of a global money glut.
Kurimoto is also steadfastly against American imperialism. He blames the United States (rightly) for encouraging bad economic policies in Japan. Those policies drove interest rates to zero, exacerbating the real problems. And he has no use for American militarism:
I visited Iraq this September to find the country suffering from an extremely cruel economic bashing imposed by the United States in the name of "U.N. resolutions."
There is much more on Kurimoto's Web site, but it's all in Japanese. So, I don't know if his libertarian-sounding remarks are typical or not. (The English part of his web site is also out of date, so there is nothing on what he thinks about the new prime minister.)
But the next time I'm enjoying "Iron Chef," I'll nevertheless take pleasure in knowing that the dapper food taster in the tux just might be one of us.
June 11, 2001
Franklin Harris [send him e-mail] writes for The Decatur (Ala.) Daily and frequently covers Japanese animation (anime) and comics (manga) in his weekly entertainment column. His Web site is www.pulpculture.net.
He would like to thank Stephanie Masumura (a.k.a. IronSteph), whose wonderful Iron Chef Compendium made this article possible.