China’s Safety Justification for Japanese Seafood Ban Raises Doubts

by Ella

In the bustling streets of Hong Kong’s Central district, long queues form during lunchtime outside upscale Japanese restaurants where a tasting menu of high-end sushi can cost up to $150 per serving.

At popular establishments like Fumi, the dining floors are bustling with over a hundred patrons indulging in conversations and savoring their meals.


“It’s as busy as ever,” states Thomason Ng, the general manager of Fumi. “Only a small fraction of diners have inquired about the origin of the food. They are here for the dining experience, exceptional hospitality, and of course, the food.”


While the economies of Asia are once again clashing over maritime matters, it seems that either these customers are oblivious or indifferent to the ongoing dispute.


The recent decision by Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, to release over a million metric tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean has prompted a fierce reaction from China, its neighboring and long-standing rival.


Following Japan’s initiation of water discharge into the ocean last Thursday, China swiftly declared a complete ban on seafood imports from Japan – broadening its prior restrictions on seafood imports from Fukushima prefecture, in response to the plant’s meltdown in 2011.

Just hours before China’s announcement, Hong Kong, an Asian financial center and semi-autonomous Chinese city, implemented its own prohibition on aquatic product imports from 10 Japanese regions, including Tokyo and Fukushima.

While the well-off international clientele frequenting Hong Kong’s sushi establishments may have largely disregarded their government’s warnings, the reaction from the Chinese mainland population has been markedly less forgiving.

Calls for Boycott
Chinese media outlets, both traditional and social, have been flooded with outrage over Japan’s actions. Several state media sources have run critical editorials and conducted opinion polls. Within a few hours of the water release, a hashtag condemning it garnered over 800 million views on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

China contends that the ban is necessary “to prevent the risk of radioactive contamination of food.” It accuses Japan of an “extremely selfish and irresponsible act that disregards the international public interest.” China vehemently rejects Japan’s assertion that the water has been adequately treated and contains negligible radioactivity levels.

Many users on Chinese social media, especially the vocal ones, appear to support their government’s stance. Many have also urged authorities to go further with a broader boycott.

“We should ban all Japanese products,” reads a top comment on Weibo. “The Japanese are irresponsible,” reads another.

Japanese entities faced a barrage of harassing phone calls from China, prompting Japan’s vice foreign minister, Masataka Okano, to summon the Chinese ambassador over what he termed an “extremely regrettable and worrisome” situation.

In a statement, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the Chinese government to take “all possible measures” to ensure the safety of Japanese citizens in China.

Experts believe that the intensity of this response partly stems from the longstanding history of animosity between these two Asian giants, rooted in and extending beyond World War II, compounded by various maritime territorial disputes.

Boycotts are not uncommon in response to old grievances and territorial conflicts. For instance, in 2012, trade relations between the two countries plummeted when Japan nationalized a group of islands in the East China Sea, resulting in violent anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities. These boycotts escalated into violent attacks against Japanese-owned or branded factories, automakers, and home appliance retailers in China.

Striking a Painful Blow
Though not as intense as previous instances, this time the level of bitterness is significant, even if the ban seems strategically targeted to inflict damage where it hurts.

Despite their historical hostilities, Japanese cuisine enjoys immense popularity in many parts of China, driving thriving businesses.

In 2022, China had approximately 789,000 Japanese restaurants, valuing the sector at around $25 billion, with steady growth. There are now more Japanese restaurants in China than there were prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2019.

This ban is likely to significantly impact these restaurants, as well as trade relations overall. Last year, Japan exported seafood worth around $942.4 million to China, its leading trading partner. Additionally, Hong Kong accounted for an estimated $432.3 million, according to the Japanese government.

Furthermore, the Japanese fishing industry is grappling with what they perceive as harmful publicity.

The JF Fisherman’s Cooperative Association, which represents fishermen nationwide, has urged Tokyo to take “immediate action to address the reputational damage that has already been caused by rumors.”

“We fishermen hold only one hope, namely that our fishing industry will continue to operate in peace,” said Masanobu Sakamoto, the group’s chairman, following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Scientific Credibility in Question
Critics have accused China and Hong Kong of sensationalism and double standards, suggesting that they are leveraging the issue to score political points against a regional adversary at the expense of scientific accuracy.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), a state-owned electricity firm, contends that since the 2011 disaster, the contaminated wastewater has been consistently treated to eliminate all removable harmful elements. It will undergo a second treatment and high dilution before being released over several decades.

TEPCO asserts that almost all radionuclides will be removed from the wastewater, except for tritium, a naturally occurring form of hydrogen and the weakest radioactive isotope.

Many scientists support Tokyo’s claim that the released water is safe.

In Fukushima, TEPCO plans to release 7,800 cubic meters of water containing 1.1 trillion becquerels of tritium during the initial 17 days of release. Nigel Marks, a radioactive waste expert and associate professor at Curtin University, explains that this is equivalent to just 0.003 grams of tritium – about the weight of 10 strands of human hair. In contrast, there is currently approximately 8,400 grams of tritium already in the Pacific Ocean.

Marks assures that it is “not even remotely harmful” and notes that people are exposed to higher radiation levels during airplane flights.

The release of tritium into waterways is a well-established practice with over 60 years of scientific data supporting its safety. Similar releases have occurred worldwide, often involving significantly larger quantities, without adverse effects.

China’s state media coverage and internet, however, seem to overlook these discussions.

Economic Impact
While some critics accuse China of exaggerating risks, others wonder if the country overestimates its leverage over its neighbor.

China is Japan’s main seafood export market, but it constitutes only 15-20% of Japan’s food exports, which in turn contribute to just 1% of Japan’s total exports, explains Stefan Angrick, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Even in a hypothetical worst-case scenario with a complete Chinese ban on Japanese food imports, the direct impact on Japan’s GDP would be around 0.04%, Angrick adds.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has reportedly requested through diplomatic channels that China revoke the ban. Nevertheless, if Tokyo believes that scientific arguments will sway China, it may be barking up the wrong tree.

Fei Xue, a senior analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), notes that the regional governments’ reactions to Japan’s actions largely correspond to their diplomatic ties with Tokyo.

However, Fei also believes that the bans imposed by China and Hong



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