Friday, February 13, 2004

TOKYO — A top politician mourned its passing and a truck driver started a brawl when his order was refused. All week, office workers and laborers have mobbed restaurants at lunchtime for a final mouthful.

The cause of the fuss? The Japanese beef bowl.

Tokyo’s 2-month-old ban on American beef imports — because of fears over mad cow disease — hit hard at the Japanese lunchtime crowd this week as restaurants serving the cheap and filling “gyu-don” beef and onions on rice started running out of meat.

The most popular of the eateries, Yoshinoya, dealt the biggest shock, announcing it would serve its final beef bowl Wednesday, prompting a mad “beef rush” of 2 million customers — double the usual — at its 900-plus outlets.

The media followed the mob, showing live footage on TV of hungry office workers giving melancholy elegies to a favorite meal of the Japanese everyman. “It’s sad to see something that’s familiar disappear,” government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said.

Japan is the most lucrative overseas market for U.S. beef — it bought about $1 billion worth in 2002 — and much ends up in “gyu-don” bowls.

Japan and about 30 other nations halted imports of American beef in December after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state. It is calling for stricter U.S. measures to stop the disease’s spread.

In the meantime, a staple of the middle-class lunch crowd is fading away.

Low-cost eateries like Yoshinoya — which relies on U.S. suppliers for 99 percent of the beef used in its trademark dish — have been unable to find a satisfactory alternative to American meat. Gyu-don lovers say Australian beef has a different taste.

The beef bowl is a natural favorite for those in search of a quick, cheap lunch, particularly after a decade-long economic slowdown has eaten away at Japanese wallets.

Servings of gyu-don start at about $2.50.

“I used to eat frequently here because it’s cheap and good,” said Hirokazu Takemoto, an office worker who had just tried Yoshinoya’s new curry rice bowl — one of the items introduced to replace gyu-don. His assessment? “It was OK.”

Some of the uproar turned violent. A drunk truck driver started banging on the counter of a Yoshinoya restaurant in Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, on Wednesday when he was told all the gyu-don was gone, then assaulted two customers who tried to calm him down.

Even U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, who was in town this week, noted the fuss.

“When I next return, I would like to be able to come to the beef bowl and try what sounds like a very tasty product,” he said after talks with Japanese officials. “But that depends on Japan reopening its market.”

Most Japanese consumers seem to think that may take awhile.

In Tokyo’s busy Shimbashi business district on Thursday, Masao Hashimoto, a construction worker, stopped by another chain, Matsuya, before it stops serving beef this weekend.

“I thought I better go one last time. It’s good stuff,” he said, smacking his lips.

Asked about alternatives, like the McDonald’s down the street that uses Australian beef, he was skeptical.

“It’s not quite the same, is it?”

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