By Shinsuke Ishiguro and Taisuke Takeda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersEight years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, 24 countries and regions still limit agricultural and food imports from Japan due to the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Although products have been shown to be safe, persistent misconceptions to the contrary have hindered the resumption of exports in some cases.
This has prevented ambitious farmers from increasing their incomes and casts a shadow over the government’s efforts to expand exports.
Shackles still remain
“If fewer countries had restrictions on Fukushima products, I could expand my sales routes,” said Yukimasa Haneda, 29, president of Haneda Momoen, a fruit orchard in Kori, Fukushima Prefecture.
Haneda currently exports peaches to Thailand, and is planning to begin shipments to Indonesia and Vietnam.
His orchard is more than 50 kilometers from the damaged nuclear plant, and while his fruit has been shown to be safe, just because it comes from Fukushima, he cannot export to several countries and regions. These markets include Hong Kong, the largest importer of Japanese agricultural products.
“Shipping to countries that allow our exports will show people that Fukushima products are safe, which I hope will reduce the number of countries with restrictions,” he said.
Import restrictions were put in place due to anxiety over radioactive substances from the nuclear disaster. At the peak, 54 countries and regions had some kind of restrictions. The number has gradually declined, though restrictions remain in place in major Asian markets.
Restrictions either prohibit imports from certain areas in Fukushima and the surrounding prefectures, prohibit the import of certain products, or allow imports if certain conditions are met such as providing inspection certificates.
The first category, the strictest, is still in place in eight countries and regions, including China, Hong Kong, the United States, Taiwan and South Korea.
Diplomatic card seems in play
China has taken “the harshest stance,” according to a government source. It prohibits the importation of all agricultural and food products from Fukushima and nine other prefectures.
The Japanese government has repeatedly tried to get the restrictions lifted, succeeding in November only for rice from Niigata Prefecture.
“Whether or not to relax [the restrictions] is up to the Communist Party leadership. Political decisions are involved,” a government source said, implying that China is using the relaxation of restrictions as a diplomatic card.
In November, Taiwan held a referendum on the prohibition of imports from Fukushima and four other prefectures. A majority voted for keeping the restrictions.
South Korea bans imports of marine products from eight prefectures. The World Trade Organization has urged the country to correct the situation, though the matter remains in dispute.
In a 2017 survey by Associate Prof. Naoya Sekiya of the Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research, 77 percent of respondents in China “actively avoided” food from Japan. This was much higher than the 54 percent in Taiwan, 29 percent in the United States and 26 percent in Britain.
“Awareness of food safety has just started to rise in developing countries in Asia, which can make people hypersensitive to rumors,” a specialist said.
Difficult to shake tainted image
Exports have run into trouble even in countries where restrictions have been lifted or relaxed.
In March 2018, flounder and other products from Fukushima Prefecture were exported to Thailand for the first time since the disaster.
Plans to hold local publicity events had to be scrapped after rumors were spread online that Fukushima fish are contaminated.
In addition to using diplomacy to abolish or relax restrictions, the government has held explanatory sessions in various countries and used other means to try to dispel harmful rumors.