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Japanese govt blames foreigners for its own failures with radiation

April 7, 2012

Some farmers in Japan now have to contend with the spread of radiation and the lack of help from the Japanese government to address the real problems of contamination.

Part I

Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, many nations set up restrictions for the import of Japanese food. Some were partial, affecting only certain food items near the Fukushima plant, while others were more comprehensive. The Japanese government, at the time and since, argue that they are taking the necessary precautions and all food on the market is safe.

On March 23, 2011 Hong Kong banned Japanese food from 5 prefectures over concerns of radiological contamination (see here). A year later, they have decided to resume Japanese food imports of eggs and meat provided they have a certificate of safety, reports the Yomiuri newspaper (Japanese here & English here). The U.S., Taiwan, China and Russia, among others, banned Japanese food from the areas affected by radiation (here, here, here & here). The Japanese government disliked this and reacted immediately. “Japan is working hard to recover from the disaster. I would request you not impose unreasonable import bans,” said Yoichi Otabe, a Japanese representative to the WTO (see here). He and other officials claim the bans have no basis in science, and unfairly penalise  Japanese business. Whilst the Japanese claims should be examined, nations that buy Japanese products have a responsibility to ensure the safety of food, and they say the ban was enacted as a measure to protect their citizens’ health.

The Japanese are essentially claiming they are the victims of unfair business practices (by foreigners), which has led to economic problems for the areas affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. That narrative begins to unravel when one looks at the domestic rejection of certain food items (the Japanese claim all are due to “rumors”). The cause of most of these “rumors”? The foreign media and the internet. Does this sound familiar? Gaddafi, Assad and many others all denied their countries problems were domestic and shifted blame at unnamed foreigners. In the context Japan’s extreme xenophobia and racism, this is a subject worth investigating.

A Bloomberg article says, “100,000 farmers lost about 58 billion yen ($694 million) by March 1 [2012], or 25 percent of production” (click here). What the report does not do is list a detailed breakdown of the numbers due to fear among Japanese consumers, product restrictions by the Japanese government and restrictions by foreign governments. Without this information it is easy to assign blame to one or other group.

Contrast the 58 bn yen losses of Fukushima area farmers with increases in foreign food imports:

B) “Imports of farm products jumped 16 percent to 5.58 trillion yen in 2011”

The first problem is the dates do not match. Sentence A goes to March 2012, but sentence B only to the end of December 2011, a difference of about two months. Second, there is a big difference in numbers, which is not given in its entirety (what is 16% of 5.58 trillion yen? It comes out to about 9.28 billion yen).

The data say 1) there was an unspecified drop of in foreign and domestic purchases of Fukushima area food; and 2) there was a significant increase of imported food into Japan which far exceeded the amount of food the Japanese farmers did not sell. There is simply no comparison. In the absence of data on the types of food, volume or specific cost, these are merely logical assumptions that leave several possibilities. The most logical is the Japanese themselves are responsible for the majority of losses in revenue. The second is that the people buying foreign food are shunning areas outside of the Fukushima affected zones (or that the affected crop is much wider than admitted). If this is correct, it would indicate that the Japanese have lost a considerable degree of confidence in the safety of their own food even in areas that may be safe. This can be deduced from looking at the total amount of food produced in Fukushima, which only comes out to about 2.3 billion yen, according to Bloomberg.

This is important because the raw figures might give the impression the farmers’ loss of revenue is due to foreigners practising discrimination (with some number of Japanese at home believing “harmful/baseless rumors” perpetrated by foreigners). In either case the data can be easily used to scapegoat both groups as opposed to dealing with the possibility that there are legitimate health concerns among foreigners, their governments and Japanese residents. The terminology used in the Japanese press and government show a dismissive attitude towards concerns of radiation. They are referred to as “fears,” not “concerns.” The reality is that a good amount of food in the Fukushima affected areas contains measurable levels of radiation. Further, there is an utter lack of resources to check the levels of radiation. This is not an exaggeration. Some prefectures only have a dozen or so people checking these things. The result is that even in Fukushima only a small fraction of the items are checked, as has been discussed in the Yomiuri and other Japanese newspapers. Neither foreigners nor their governments are not responsible for that.

The Japanese government is eager to convince people to purchase food from Fukushima, but the farmers complain the government are not helping or doing enough with regard to ensuring farmers have the support and directions needed to grow food in the area (for the FT report here). Further, there are reasons why governments and citizens refuse to purchase certain Japanese food items. Is it racism against Japanese or bias against Japanese businesses?

There is a historical precedent for closing markets to Japanese goods. Some nations closed off parts of their markets to the Japanese during the 1930s and; there was also an oil embargo by the U.S. in the context of Japan’s aggression in Asia. That had an impact on Japan’s economy as well as the war. One could possibly understand why Japan might have argued unfair practices then, but in 2011/2012? Are the nations that imposed bans really going to benefit from closing their markets to Japanese foods? Maybe, but the Japanese do not export nearly as much food as other nations. When one considers that Japan has kept its markets virtually closed to foreign nations with its restrictions on foreign foods with markups, tariffs or taxes, the Japanese argument becomes more of a cry for attention. Who is engaging in discrimination now? You can be sure this will not appear in the Japanese press.

This is not to say foreign food is unavailable. It is. But in many cases it is prohibitively expensive or extremely difficult to find. This is due in part to the desire to protect domestic industry from having to compete with foreigners on some of the same food items. So while it is easy to purchase foreign wines, Japan cannot restrict them too much because their own domestic production cannot supply demand. When it comes to rice, a product grown in abundance in Japan, it is virtually impossible to find foreign produced rice in Japanese supermarkets. This is not limited to food, and nations have complained about these practices for years (see here & here). As an example one might recall the dispute between the Clinton Administration and Japan with regard to the difficulty American car manufacturers had in accessing the Japanese market (see here).

If anyone has a history of restricting foreign imports it is Japan. Even if the Japanese are correct that some bans today may be unfair, they will be seen as hypocritical for going to the WTO to lodge a complaint. Radiation is a serious problem, but not to the Japanese government. Shortly after the Fukushima disaster the IAEA warned about risks associated with iodine. There was also the WHO spokesman who made warned that “it’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought this kind of problem can be limited to 20 or 30 kilometers.”  The WHO specifically warned people to avoid affected foods like meat, eggs and leafy vegetables near the Fukushima plant. “Eating foods containing radioactive materials could increase the risk of certain types of cancers in the future,” remarked Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the WHO. Iodine is not a problem today, but caesium-134, -137 and a whole host of other isotopes like strontium, plutonium etc – the majority of which are not even being checked for.

In the big picture, it was not just foreigners who stopped shipments of Japanese food. It was the Japanese government itself that was forced to ban shipments of beef and spinach. In other words, the Japanese had to restrict radioactive foods to their own domestic market for the very same health concerns foreigners had (here). Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the public, “The vegetables will cause no immediate health problems even if temporarily eaten now.” Look at the phrase “immediate health problems.” What does it suggest? If the effects are not “immediate” then they are either non-existent or long-term.  Those who eat them will one day find the answer as they are the guinea pigs. How does that contrast with the statements by the WHO and IAEA in March 2011?

The Japanese government did not ban all radioactive food, just food over certain limits (500 Bq/kg which is now revised to 100 Bq/kg). This means that food with measurable levels of radiation were sold in untold quantities to an infinite number of people. As the scandals erupted one after the other, the average Japanese began to wonder if the food was safe. This is probably the biggest reason for the collapse in consumer confidence, not “foreign media” or other conspiracy theory ideas. The Japanese are shifting their own failures onto foreign people, governments and media. In truth it is the government’s failure to secure the safety of the food supply. In part II we shall look at the role of Japanese government and media propaganda use xenophobia to advance their conspiracy theories.

Civis Journal

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