Fukushima sewage: China says its ban on Japanese seafood is about safety. Is it really?


On the busy streets of Hong Kong’s Central District, lunchtime queues wrap around fancy Japanese restaurants where premium sushi can sell for $150 apiece just for the savory menu.

At Fumi, one of the most popular restaurants, the floors are filled with more than a hundred people chatting and eating.

“It’s as crowded as ever,” says Thomason Ng, Fumi’s general manager. “Only a small part of the people have asked where the food comes from. They are here to enjoy the dining experience and hospitality along with the food.”

Asia’s major economies are colliding around the sea again, but from these customers’ perspective either no one told them, or they simply didn’t care.

The move by Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, to release more than 1 million metric tons of treated, radioactive wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea has prompted an angry response from its neighbor and old rival China, the world’s second-largest country. The largest economy.

Shortly after Japan began pumping water into the ocean on Thursday, China announced it would ban all seafood imports from its neighbor — vastly expanding previous restrictions it imposed on seafood imports from Fukushima Prefecture following the plant’s collapse in 2011.

Even as the import ban begins, tables fill up at Fumi Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong on August 24, 2023.

Hours before China’s announcement, the Asian financial hub of Hong Kong – a semi-autonomous Chinese city – imposed its own ban on imports of aquatic products from 10 Japanese regions including Tokyo and Fukushima.

But while the crowds of wealthy internationals populating Hong Kong’s sushi restaurants may have largely ignored the local government’s warnings, the reaction from the public on the Chinese mainland has been somewhat less forgiving.

Chinese media – both traditional and social – have exploded with outrage at Japan’s actions, with several state media publishing critical editorials and polls. The hashtag criticizing the release garnered more than 800 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo within a few hours of its release on Thursday.

China insists the ban is necessary “to prevent the risk of radioactive contamination of food” and has accused Japan of “an extremely selfish and irresponsible act that disregards the international public interest”. It has repeatedly rejected Japan’s claims that the water has been properly treated and contains trace amounts of radioactivity.

Many Chinese social media users – or at least those who are vocal – seem supportive of their government’s position, while many have called on the authorities to go a step further with a widespread boycott.

“We must ban all Japanese products,” reads one of the most important comments on Weibo. Another read: “The Japanese are irresponsible.”

The Japanese entities have suffered from a wave of telephone harassment originating from China, prompting Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Masataka Okano to summon the Chinese ambassador over what he described as an “extremely unfortunate and worrisome” situation.

In a statement released on Monday, the ministry also urged the Chinese government to take “all possible measures” to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals in China.

Experts say the strength of the response partly reflects the long history of hostility between the two Asian giants, dating back to World War II and beyond, and involving a variety of maritime territorial disputes.

They point out that calls to boycott Japan are relatively frequent, erupting whenever old grievances rear their heads or territorial disputes erupt.

And in 2012, trade relations hit a low point when Japan nationalized a group of islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing, fueling violent anti-Japanese protests across cities in China. The boycott has turned into violent attacks against Japanese-owned or brand-name factories in China, as well as automakers and home appliance retailers.

That level of vitriol is not there this time – or at least not yet – even if the embargo appears designed to hit Japan where it hurts.

Despite its bitter history, Japanese cuisine is very popular in many parts of China and business is booming.

There were 789,000 Japanese restaurants in China in 2022, and the sector is valued at around $25 billion and growing. There are actually more Japanese restaurants in China now than there were before the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2019.

These restaurants are likely to be severely affected by the ban, as well as business relations in general.

Last year, Japan exported about $942.4 million (137.7 billion yen) worth of seafood to China – its largest trading partner, while Hong Kong accounted for nearly $432.3 million (63.2 billion yen), according to the Japanese government.

Then there is the Japanese fishing industry to ponder, as local fishermen suffer from what they see as disastrous propaganda.

The Fishermen’s Cooperative, a national body representing fishermen, urged Tokyo to “take immediate action to address the reputational damage already caused by the rumors”.

“Fishermen across the country are feeling increasingly anxious at this very moment,” said the group’s president, Masanobu Sakamoto, after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“We fishermen have only one hope, and that is that our fishing industry can continue to operate in peace,” Sakamoto added.

Critics have accused China and Hong Kong of hype and double standards, suggesting they are using the issue to score political points against a regional rival at the expense of scientific accuracy.

State-owned electric utility Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEEPCO) notes that in the years after the 2011 disaster, contaminated wastewater has been continuously treated to filter out all harmful removable elements, and that it will be treated a second time, with a high degree of efficiency. It was watered down before it was released for decades.

This process will remove almost all radionuclides from wastewater, with the exception of tritium – a naturally occurring form of hydrogen that is the weakest of all radioactive isotopes.

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

At Fukushima, TEPCO says about 7,800 cubic meters of water containing 1.1 trillion becquerels of tritium will be released in the first 17 days of launch.

This is equivalent to 0.003 grams of tritium, the weight of about 10 strands of human hair, said Nigel Marks, a radioactive waste expert and associate professor at Curtin University in Australia. By contrast, he says, there are currently about 8,400 grams of tritium already in the Pacific Ocean.

Japan's Fukushima reactors after 12 years stuart pkg contd intl hnk vpx_00023612.png

CNN goes inside the Fukushima nuclear plant where wastewater is treated

“It’s not even remotely harmful,” Marks said, adding that people are exposed to more radiation during a plane flight.

(The Japan version) is fully consistent with past practice around the world. There is 60 years’ worth of scientific data about tritium being released into waterways in exactly this way and in much higher amounts, and nothing has ever happened.

Large amounts of tritium have been released from normally operating nuclear power plants in the North Pacific from China, South Korea and Taiwan, said David Krovichk, a physics lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

“Tritium is produced naturally as part of our normal environmental background radiation, transported via rain or rivers into the world’s oceans. Release water is designed to contain seven times less tritium per liter than the World Health Organization recommends for drinking water,” Krovczek said.

According to a study by the Japanese government, China’s Fuqing Nuclear Power Plant discharged 52 trillion becquerels of tritium in 2020.

But these discussions are largely absent from state media coverage in China and on the heavily censored internet.

There are a number of articles that attempt to explain the scientific reason behind the discharge – including one written by a Chinese nuclear expert formerly working for a government-linked institute – It was rubbed Having gained traction on social media.

While some critics accuse China of exaggerating the stakes, others also question whether it has overestimated the amount of influence it ultimately has over its neighbour.

China is Japan’s largest seafood export market, but it only accounts for 15-20% of Japan’s food exports, and food exports account for only 1% of Japan’s total exports, said Stefan Angrek, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“To put this in context, even in a worst-case scenario involving a Chinese ban on all food imports from Japan, the direct impact on Japanese GDP would be around 0.04%,” Angrek added.

This does not mean that Japan should not worry. that it. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reportedly “strongly” requested through diplomatic channels that China “immediately rescind the ban”.

But Tokyo may be resorting to the wrong tree if it thinks a debate over the flag will affect China.

Fei Xue, a senior analyst covering Asia at the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), said regional governments’ reactions to Japan’s actions largely reflect the status of its diplomatic relations with Tokyo.

However, Fei also believed that the embargoes against China and Hong Kong would have a limited impact on Japanese trade.

“Seafood exports accounted for only 0.3% of Japan’s total merchandise exports in 2022, among which shipments to mainland China and Hong Kong accounted for 35.8% of the total amount. Thus, even taking into account the reputational damage to Japanese seafood products, the Japan’s total exports will not be significantly undermined.

As long as and thanks for all the fish

Back in Hong Kong, it is hard to detect any lingering sense of anxiety or anger at Japan’s actions.

Indeed, their release appears to have had little effect whatsoever on the appetite of the crowds lining up around the restaurants in the Central District.

Part of the reason for this may be that chefs and restaurateurs expected a ban to come, with Hong Kong authorities hinting since the beginning of the year that a ban was on the horizon.

Many have responded by expanding their supply lines, sourcing seafood from suppliers in Japan’s Hokkaido, Kyushu and Kagoshima regions — which are not covered by the Hong Kong ban — as well as from Norway, Australia and Canada.

Because of this, the menu at Fumi didn’t need to change much, except for a little card letting diners know that the restaurant followed the new import controls and sourced its ingredients from all over the world.

In a nearby shopping mall, restaurateur Kara Mann, 33, was having lunch at Senryu sushi chain. She said people still crave their favorite Japanese dishes, regardless of the news.

“People might start paying more attention to radiation levels in their food if there were reports of people getting sick, but now that’s not happening,” she said.

“So we will probably continue to eat Japanese food as if nothing had happened.”

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