After 46 years of an omnivorous diet, Chuck became a pescetarian at the beginning of 2018. I had the pleasure to sit down with Chuck and Eri Okada-Berkely, a fabulous vegan chef in Kyoto, to discuss their choices and experiences.
Neither Eri nor Chuck chose to cut out meat for environmental reasons, however the environmental impacts of eating meat have recently come to more light. The meat and dairy industry amount to 14.5% of carbon emissions, which is more than planes, cars and ships on the entire planet. Furthermore, Japan is hitting near record lows in food self-sufficiency as more people eat more meat.
It seems increasing your awareness of meat consumption may be the simplest way to help reduce your carbon footprint. And as my conversation with Eri and Chuck shows, there are immense personal benefits that come along with it.
Mika: So Eri, you are a vegan right? What does that mean to you?
Eri: Yes I have been a vegan since 2001, and what that means to me personally is being kind to all beings.
Mika: That’s beautiful. Was there a trigger, or some event or something?
Eri: My journey with vegetarianism started in 1994. My husband was a semi-vegetarian when we got married. He didn’t eat meat – pork, chicken, beef. But I was eating everything, being a typical Japanese who grew up on believing that meat is everything, meat is the best. It’s such a cultural brainwash that people of my generation, after the war, we believed that beef was a sign of luxury. Meat was necessary for health, brain development, everything. Meat makes everyone happy.
I was a big meat eater growing up. I didn’t like vegetables at all. So it’s crazy! I’m the opposite of what I was when I was a child. I picked every single green onion from udon. Pretty much until I was twenty I ate mikans, cucumbers and eventually spinach.
And goodness knows of course I was sick. I had a skin disease, atopy. Terrible atopy. So everyone recommended that I eat brown rice and vegetables. I really should have. I didn’t. But luckily as I grew up I was able to heal. But that was a terrible time, having my whole body covered with exczema.
Mika: And so Chuck you’re a…
Mika : Why ?
Chuck : Just….my body no longer wanted meat. It wasn’t a mental thing it wasn’t for environmental or animal reasons. It was a physical reaction or decision that came about over a series of several years of eating my own vegetables more and more. I’ve also been eating a vegan breakfast for about 8 years now, just because that’s what I like.
Then we had a volunteer Pauline come up and stay at the farm for the month who didn’t cook meat. So I was eating a vegan breakfast, then I’d go up to the farm and work and have a meat-free lunch. One day I came home and my wife had prepared a meal which had meat in it, as usual. But I just pushed the plate away and said “I’m sorry I just can’t eat this, there’s too much meat in it.”
My wife looked at me so surprised! She was beside herself in shock that I was saying that because I mean, I do come from probably one of the leading nations in meat consumption. And Chicago is the headquarters of meat production since the early 1900s when it was the hub of railroads. There was just an incredible amount of meat being sold there at reasonable prices, and all types of varieties. So I grew up eating meat times ten.
So for me to be able to give it up, it’s really encouraging because it’s just like starting organic farming when I never had any experience or desire, and now I’m dedicated to it. If I can do it, then anybody can. So what I’m trying to tell people, it’s not that bad, not that hard, and you can feel great.
And I do feel great! I feel better than I’ve felt in 10 years. I’ve lost close to 10 kg -- eating everything I want to eat! I’m better at Aikido now, I sleep better, I just feel more energy. I feel like I’m still in the cleansing now, like I’m still getting it out. It’s a great thing, and I don’t have any intention of going back.
Mika: So when exactly did you stop eating meat?
Chuck: Well it was a process. Pauline came in November, so that’s when I really started eating a lot more meat-free meals. I guess the last day I ate meat was around the first few days of January.
I think eating fish and eggs is very good for my wife as well as for me. Because she doesn’t have to come up with all these new dishes since she cooks most of the time. But now she’s starting eating more pescetarian stuff since it’s easier to cook one big dish for us and something small for my son.
And he’s been interested. He’s seven now, him responding to me not eating meat anymore is interesting. Mimicking me, then going the opposite way, then finally finding his point of comfort.
Mika: So Eri your husband is a vegan so everyone in your household is a vegan. But Chuck, overall how do you find living with two non-pescetarians?
Chuck: Oh, it’s no big deal at all. I don’t hate the smell of meat and will sometimes cook meat for them. I don’t have a big problem with it.
Maybe if I turned vegan it would be more difficult to be around people who eat meat, so maybe I’m holding off subconsciously to…well, get along with everyone. I mean there is that social pressure.
But I don’t judge vegans and I don’t want to judge people who eat meat either. I’m not here to teach or preach, but I am here as an example to follow if anyone wants to. And I’m so glad I made the decision.
Eri: I really like the concept flexitarian. The less people eat meat the more we will help solve environmental problems, improve our health, and end animal suffering. So I’m all for that. If everyone can chip in, you know, meat-free Monday, or just think about the meat they are consuming, everything counts. Try it, just try it.
Mika: Eri you have been a vegan in America and Japan, and in fact you teach vegan cooking classes here in Kyoto. Can you talk a bit about your experiences in the two different countries?
Eri: Japan, along with the rest of the world, has gotten a lot more friendly towards vegans. When we came in 2001 as vegans no one would accommodate us. We had to call expensive ryokans weeks in advance and beg them to take care of us. I felt so lonely and that it was so difficult to be in Japan.
But when we moved back in 2016 everyone was so willing to accept my veganism. So last September I started my cooking classes and it was amazing. Within 5 days of putting my first facebook post, only to my friends, it filled up. And the next one, more came, and I had to start turning people away. It was incredible!
Overall though, I usually find Americans to be more prejudiced towards vegans and vegetarians. Particularly until around 2010 people had a lot of preconceived notions of what a vegan or vegetarian is. They felt that their meat-eating was being criticized just because we were vegans. They got defensive, so that type of tension I detected often.
Japanese people I find more open minded, because they don’t know much about it. So they are more open minded and curious.
Chuck: I think it depends on the generation. Because my mother in law, who is an older generation, loves to serve meat. Just like you said earlier Eri, it’s the idea that meat is the best thing!
Mika: A final question for you Eri, are there any challenges you want to share? Or your favourite thing about being vegan ?
Eri: I feel that knowledge is power, about everything. However the knowledge has become very selective nowadays. My challenge is to keep sending out that vegan food is tasty, and it’s healthy, and fun. You may not want to eat it all the time, but when you do, good things happen.
There’s a lot of excellent advocates to promote vegan lifestyles, there’s a lot of organizations doing it. But my way of doing it is through people’s stomachs.
Mika: Chuck you’ve mentioned that you’ve been interested in cutting out meat before. What held you back in the past and how did you overcome that now?
Chuck: A little while ago I was talking with my friend and I told him I was interested in becoming a vegetarian. And he asked, “well what’s stopping you?”. My answer was “47 years of inertia, of eating meat.” I felt it would be such a struggle to give it up, like there was a mental block. And eventually, my body just made the decision for me. I was feeling so good after having eaten all this meat-free stuff, and just suddenly this meaty dish was not appealing.
And then after having done it, that was the big education. After having given it up for a couple of weeks, and starting to realize, “oh, I feel so much better.” I have more energy and far less regret about what I’m eating.
It’s funny, because as an omnivore it feels so empowering- like I’ll eat whatever! I can eat everything! But now, if I do go into a combini there’s so many things I won’t eat. And that’s the empowerment, that I’m suddenly being so much more selective of what I’m eating and that I’m so much happier over all. I don’t know if I’ve extended my life, but I’ve definitely improved the quality of my life significantly.
Eri moved back to Kyoto in 2016 after living in various places in the US, such as Hawaii and Seattle. She just turned 54 and credits her youthful skin to her vegan diet! After a several month break, Eri will re-start her cooking classes in spring. Please check out her facebook page, Eri’s Vegan Cooking Kyoto, or send her an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.