Ikizukuri – cruelty or important custom?

ikizukuri lobsterA commenter on a previous post called me out for defending ikizukuri, calling it “cruel”, but I think it’s complicated and full of logical pitfalls. I don’t want to belittle the widely held opinion that he articulated. Nor do I want to fail to explain why I think otherwise.

The commenter is certainly not the only one who feels this way, there are even critics in Japan who say it’s cruel. Certainly it’s not the way we prepare food animals for consumption in the West! In this style, the shrimp/lobster/fish/squid is not actually killed before preparation. Fish are hit on the head to stun them, for example, then filleted.

Westerners almost never even see the animal that provides us nourishment; we simply purchase a filet from the store or restaurant. We are rarely served a fish or even shrimp with the head! That way we’re never forced to mentally reconcile the fact that we slaughter a lot of animals to provide ourselves with a variety of food. We’ve totally disconnected ourselves from our food sources.

I would first point out that not explicitly killing the creatures until the cooking or eating process kills them is also found in other Asian cultures. When you consider the wet markets in China with live skinned reptiles and amphibians, or the dancing shrimp in Southeast Asia, or so many other examples, this Western viewpoint sounds a bit like cultural bias.

San Nuk Ji“San Nak Ji” (live octopus) is popular in Korea. The octopus is consumed while it is still moving, with tentacles sticking to the roof of the mouth. Apparently there are on average a half dozen deaths in South Korea each year from choking on this.

Also I’d like to suggest that it’s hard to know what the animal’s experience is. Can we say they feel pain if they don’t have an advanced nervous system? And if so, how similar would that sensation be to the pain we humans experience? And how is it worse than leaving freshly caught fish to slowly suffocate instead of killing them promptly?

I think the notion of suffering is at the heart of this idea that the practice is cruel, and it’s not clear that a shrimp, for example can be said to suffer any more than a plant does. And why is there no objection to so many other Japanese techniques? What about the uni I love so dearly? Sea urchins are simply sliced open and the uni is scooped out. As in so many cases, they are not deliberately killed; it’s incidental.

Next the cultural issue. Just because we don’t like something in our society doesn’t mean we should disrespect another culture’s traditions. For how many centuries have Westerners been “civilizing” those who live differently or waging wars against those don’t believe in the same God. A little more respect for the customs of other nations is long overdue.

Finally the philosophical. What other things do we do that are “cruel” to animals? Is this practice relatively more cruel than other things like raising millions of chickens in tiny cages their whole lives? How about cutting down forests that eliminate the territory large predators need to survive? Or being careless and letting hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spill into the water killing countless sea creatures? How about systematically replacing all the wild food sources with farms full of domesticated animals?

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  • yessum15 says:

    You’re being ridiculous. This practice is obviously cruel, barbaric and selfish. No amount of convoluted backwards logic rationalizes it.

    1) It is cruel. If slaughter houses and chicken coops are cruel too, it is still cruel.

    2) It is cruel. If it has been done for 2 billion years it is still cruel.

    3) Even the slightest bit of diligence in research will demonstrate that the misconception that these animals do not feel pain has been refuted for a while now. It is now considered very likely that any animal with a central nervous system does experience pain, regardless of whether it is gangliotic or not.

    Furthermore the possibility that some animals do not feel pain was suggested for urchins and lobster. It has never been extended to more complex organisms such as octopi, which clearly do feel pain and suffer.

    4) You’re going out of your way to prolong the suffering of an animal gratuitously, purely so that it is still alive while you eat it. Really? Grow up.

  • mike says:

    I’m sorry, but this is too relativistic, and I’m tired of seeing people hide behind it to justify disgusting barbarism. You say ‘us Westerners,’ as if the entire Western world is some kind of ethical bloc in perfect sync on all moral issues? That’s cultural condescension – a huge number of westerns abhor the practise of battery farming, and anything which is needlessly cruel. Personally (and many people believe as I do) I despise any practise which creates needless suffering. I tolerate a slaughterhouse, where death is humane (I do not think it is ok, but I accept it as an inevitable practise) but kosher butchery, halal, etc. no. Fois Gras, Veal, no. These things do not make the world a better place in fact they simply inur people to the idea that cruelty can be justified under the most utterly ridiculous assertions (pure hedonism in the case of gourmet food, superstition in the case of ritual) this damages us as a race. Superstition is further the root of so many of the worlds problems we should never accept it at face value or as having an innate worthiness beyond that of any other hobby, and a hobby cannot be an excuse for acting barbarically, if it is then in a universal sense we undermine out own ability to act with clarity in moral terms, and to reject those things which are valueless and vile.

    The simple fact is right and wrong are not something arrived at via convention; one uses logic to determine these things, and it is determined by a regressing consideration of impact and benefits. The idea that something like a Battery Farm makes Ikizukuri right is a logical fallacy. Both of these practises cause immense suffering and are easily avoided; but further it is a delusive conflation comparing battery farms to Ikizukuri because a battery farms cruelty (while horrible) is calculated, and serves a valid purpose: in a world where starvation kills tens of thousands of people a day it is hard to condemn any practise which allows for the mass production of nutritious food sources at low cost. Now I will of course say that usually these farms serve the fast food industry in the first world and that is unacceptable, but the core idea is one that possesses of itself a certain utility. Torturing an animal for backward cultural reasons has no utility and no there is nothing racist or imperialistic about referring to these cultural ideas as backwards; needless cruelty (animal sacrifice, bloodletting, etc) are the hallmarks of primitive culture, animism and so on, undeveloped in moral terms. These old barbaric ideals need to be tossed on the lumbar heap of dead concepts, and join those things which the world has almost universally decided are indefensible: piracy, pillage, torture, genocide and slavery. We must throw superstitious thinking out with these things because only logic brings moral clarity, and logic requires the rejection of superstition.

    Personally I would compare it to Fois Gras or certain types of Veal, albeit perhaps in some ways better (Ducks, Geese and Cows are a more complex animal with a greater capacity to suffer) but in some ways worse: mostly in that it is so morbid in concept it seems perhaps more revolting than it is. I am not completely cold to the fact that people need tradition, and that they want to feel culturally connected, but that does not require observance of stupidity or cruelties. The divine right of kings is a stupid ideal, and one which much of the world lived by, but for better it is largely gone; do these same Japanese who think their culture, their traditions, are so important want to exchange their current democratically elected leaders, their constitutional monarchy (am I correct in believing this is their system; parliamentary monarchy like England?) for an autocratic system and live once more under the direct control of a Shogun or Emperor? That would be traditional; local rule by military strongmen, and for petty crimes they can be tied up, and chopped completely in half by the local Daimyo’s thugs just like the good old days! Of course not, nobody wants that, and yet they have the best of both worlds now; their royal family lives, and enriches them culturally, yet they live under a better form of Government. Culture is something we own, and we can change it, purge it of the useless and the needless and the destructive, and enjoy its qualities only.

    There are so many cruelties that have at one time or another been an important custom. The simple fact is we need to go beyond that. I know they’re only animals, and I’m not going to pretend this is a massive issue in the scheme of things, but the surrounding matters; moral relativism, hiding behind accusations of cultural imperialism, superstitous traditions, these give it poignancy because they all undermine our ability to commit to right action with clarity, and foster the mindset that judgement is a outdated concept when it is a vital high-order skill, in that we must learn to descrminate between what is and is not acceptable and make it our most important cultural practise – universally as humans – to firmly say no to that which is not.

    “For how many centuries have Westerners been “civilizing” those who live differently or waging wars against those don’t believe in the same God. A little more respect for the customs of other nations is long overdue.”

    My country, though Western, has never declared war on a non-belligerent in its entire history; many Western countries have similarly non-belligerent histories. When you want to make racist comments conflating ‘The West’ (dozens of countries and cultures, different races, languages, traditions and ideals) with some gestalt colonial stereotype culled from about four nations please try to remember it’s very insulting. White people are not some homogonous mass who exist for people to vent anti-imperialistic sentiment against, and I’m really getting tired of having to explain this so I apologize if this comes off as a bit snappy, but it is simply ridiculous to project the blame for the acts of a half-dozen nations onto an entire continent, dozens of countries, hundreds of millions of individuals especially when many of those nations were just as much victims of the imperialists as any non-Western nation you care to name.

  • mdw says:

    While I am grateful for the considerable effort you’ve made in providing this thoughtful and detailed reply, I’m afraid I cannot provide a suitable response. I certainly don’t want to seem as if I’m giving your comments short shrift, and appear dismissive just because I’m not able to give a more thorough reply at this time.

    Suffice it to say, I agree with many of your points, disagree with some, and sympathize with much of what you’ve written. Definitely, declaring anything about the West at large is a foolish generalization – guilty as charged. But on the philosophical issues we often just have different views. When I was young I thought the issues of the world were fairly clear. Now that I’m a bit older, there’s not much that looks black and white. And the more I come to understand Asian cultures, the more I feel a bit more tolerance for that which we don’t well understand or even agree with should be the default.

    Again, sorry if it seems like I did not address much of what you graciously commented. I’m sure you gave voice to viewpoints shared by many.

  • Jake says:

    You try to catch a fish, it tries to escape.

    That’s all I need to know to understand whether eating it alive is unneccesarily cruel or not.

  • chris says:

    It’s interesting how Americans eat live oysters (euphemistically called “raw oysters”) with no problems at all. Or how they boil lobsters alive without killing them first. Cruel indeed.

    Let’s face it, anti-cruelty is just a luxury product for the rich west to buy so they can feel better about themselves. No, no, no they say, you can’t eat humanely slaughtered dogs and cats, they’re cute pets. It’s wrong to think of them as anything but pets. Don’t you know the difference between right and wrong? Wrong is just wrong! Sheesh!! Yes, beautiful argument right there.

    The question has to be asked if American culture is shallow and immature when it comes to eating animals. The answer is yes. I can walk into a supermarket or butcher shop in half of Europe to buy myself a pound of horse meat. I’d get laughed at or arrested if I tried doing the same in the US. Oh yes, I also love the argument against eating humanely slaughtered horse meat: “but they’re ‘noble’ animals, you see. Can’t you see! What is wrong with you…”

  • dutch says:

    Let’s be honest. It’s childish and cruel to eat a live animal. How does the taste differ when you eat a fried fish and a fish that is kept alive, by not frying it’s head. It doesn’t, it’s a kick you get.
    What is the difference betwene eating a dead, raw octopus and one that is still alive? You feel it’s deathstrugle in your mouth.

    Taste difference = none.
    Tradition is not a rock you can hide behind.

    Maybe it’s the lack of hunting that demasculates people into eating animals alive..

    ps: sorry for my english. It is clearly not my first or second language.

  • wesley says:

    “You try to catch a fish, it tries to escape”

  • Shmeg says:

    I always get irritated when people defend the deliberate disrespect of other living things because of “culture.”

    Is it ok for women to be oppressed and stoned in the middle east because it’s their “culture?” No. Is ok to eat an animal alive for aesthetic purposes rather than give it a humane mercy kill because it’s “culture?” No.

  • Hans says:

    Stunning renders the creature unconcious and insensible to pain.

    Everyone seems to be on an anthropomorphizing craze these days. It’s like, all the animals and creatures in the world are pets. I’d like to point out, just because we live with a Western mind set, doesn’t mean we don’t have to obey it, especially it’s beliefs on tabboos.

    The world is full of suffering. We eat life and thus keep life. It’s how it goes. If we picked one of those creaturs up and chewed into it we’d suddenly be cruel for following basic instincts. Plus, the creature would suffer more. So why is preparing it with respect a bad thing?

    I like oysters. I eat my oysters ALIVE. If I can do that then why won’t I eat Ikizukuri? Seems the Western world is full of hypocrisy and double standards. I fancy a good death is better than a bad life like many of animals raised for meat.

    I think hunting, eating things fresh etc. is far better than nibbling into something that hasn’t lived a day of a true life! Hopefully the Ikizukuri have had good lives and died, hopefully without much pain and if they do suffer, no matter, they’re dying pretty quick anyway. No guilt for the hungry.

  • Ian says:

    Fresh is best!!

  • Sarah says:

    Hi all, unfortunately I see a few flaws in this argument.. 1. You can say that westerners don’t see food that is killed for them an so they don’t understand where it comes from, but we kill them before we eat them so they can be killed humanely and in a cruel free manner. They don’t have to suffer then; after all if someone gutted us and skinned our lower halves before eating us then we would be severely distressed.
    2. These animals all have nervous systems, a lot of these actually have very advanced nervous systems, and as someone said earlier they all have the ability to feel pain. It is very naive to think that they don’t feel anything.

    3. If we justified all cultural reasons for certain actions then society would never progress; there are plenty of past cultural followings that have since been outlawed because over time we have become intelligent enough to realise it is an injustice to others. For example, people would still be debilitated from foot binding and mulesing would still be legal… There are many reasons why this is wrong. Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? Would you do something just because someone else has done it before? I think humanity is smart enough to look at this and make an independent judgement, not do something because others have done it.

  • Jenny So says:

    In America, pigs are boiled alive (and pigs are actually considered smarter than dogs). Calf’s are fed a mixture of cow blood and milk in order to fatten them up (and cows will cry when they see their friends sent to be killed). Chickens are kept in “inhumanely” small cages and treated as produce. None of this is illegal.

    These issues are not western vs eastern. We struggle with our natural inclination to eat meat and the obvious pain that humans inflict on animals without their choice. They are not even given a chance to fight back. Some argue that this is our privilege as the animal on top of the food chain. And some argue that we have overstepped our boundaries. To top it off, we are battling poverty and population increases all over the world.

    This is not black and white.

  • Reality says:

    There’s no explanation for this as is evidenced in your reply to Mikes comment. You simply can’t argue with logic.

    For those who are trying to compare a live dismembered sufferening creature on a plate for the amusement of a restaraunt custmer with anything done to pigs or any other animals anywhere else, there is no comparison.

    A mass murderer sitting in a court room who says “Well, the next guy did this that and the other thing to his victims, so I’m ok.” is still a mass murderer.

    We’re talking about ikizukuri. That’s what the blog’s about. Let’s not try to divert the subject matter. Is the cultural benefit or the traditional element simply some power rush that’s derived from watching the animal die on a plate when it doesn’t have to? If that’s the case then I feel almost as sorry for the people who enjoy ikizukuri. What else is one supposed to think? There’s no actual explanation given other than dancing around the subject.

    For those who say there’s already so much suffering in the world that it doesn’t matter, well it does. Why would anyone want to create more?

    Hey, why not come by my place so I can break your nose and maybe a few limbs? Don’t worry, there’s already sufferening in the world so it wont matter. I’ll try to make it seem traditional.


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