Japanese eateries in China fear ruin as Fukushima water discharge looms

By Reuters   July 30, 2023 | 06:28 pm PT
Japanese eateries in China fear ruin as Fukushima water discharge looms
Kazuyuki Tanioka, the owner of Japanese cuisine Toya restaurant, prepares a sashimi dish, during an interview with Reuters, in Beijing, China July 25, 2023. Photo by Reuters/Tingshu Wang
It's been just over three weeks since China increased checks on Japanese food imports over radiation concerns, but Kazuyuki Tanioka is already fearful for the future of his upscale Beijing sushi restaurant.

Like most restaurants in China, Tanioka's eight-year-old Toya has struggled with years of Covid-19 restrictions, which only began to ease late last year.

Now it is facing a shortage of both customers and seafood ahead of Japan's plans to empty into the sea treated radioactive water from its disaster-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

"I'm very worried about whether we can continue," said the 49-year-old chef-restaurateur from Kumamoto, southern Japan. "The inability to import food ingredients is truly a life or death situation for us."

China is the biggest importer of Japanese seafood. Shortly after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake damaged the Fukushima plant, it banned the import of food and agricultural products from five Japanese prefectures. China later widened its ban, which now covers 10 out of Japan's total of 47.

It has remained Japan's biggest seafood export market.

The latest import restrictions were imposed this month after the United Nation's nuclear watchdog approved Japan's plans to discharge the treated water. China has sharply criticised the move, which has also faced opposition at home, saying the discharge endangers marine life and human health.

Imports have since all but ground to a halt, with some Japanese officials fearing the worst is yet to come. The more stringent Chinese checks have led to massive delays at customs, and the strident warnings have kept customers away: posts and hashtags saying Japanese food is radioactive and should be boycotted are rife on Chinese social media.

"China is saying it is contaminated water, while Japan claims it is purified water," said Kenji Kobayashi, 67, another Japanese restaurant owner in Beijing, who has lost up to a third of his customers this month.

"The difference between the two perspectives is vast, and it affects the level of understanding."

Alternate sources

Seafood suppliers are also struggling.

Wait times at Chinese ports have gone up from between two and seven days to around three weeks, a spokesman for a large seafood trader said, adding that the company plans to get around these restrictions by diverting shipments to a third country. The spokesman declined to name the company, fearing backlash from Chinese officials.

"Right now we have no shipments to China," said Tamotsu Fukuoka, director and general manager of sales at Aomori Chuosuisan Co, a seafood wholesaler based in northern Japan.

"If the products get stopped at customs, we would have to spend a lot for the yard and storage fees, and that's something we don't want to see."

While Japanese officials have appealed to their Chinese counterparts, especially in their second-largest market Hong Kong, to avoid a ban, several Chinese diners said they approved of more stringent checks. "Any government should be responsible for the safety of its citizens," said Duan, a patron at a Japanese restaurant in Beijing. "Because of the government's policies, we feel at ease."

With Japan due to begin discharging the Fukushima water in a few weeks, some Japanese restaurateurs said they are adapting their menus and sourcing ingredients from elsewhere to survive.

"Our main focus is to source seafood within China or sourcing from other foreign suppliers," Tanioka said. "If these efforts succeed, there is a possibility that our business can continue in the future."

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