The future of Kazuyuki Tanioka’s upscale Beijing sushi restaurant, Toya, is filled with uncertainty just over three weeks after China heightened its scrutiny of Japanese food imports due to radiation concerns.
Like many restaurants in China, Toya has already faced considerable challenges due to the prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, which only started easing in recent months.
Now, the restaurant is grappling with a scarcity of both customers and seafood, exacerbated by Japan’s impending plan to release treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.
“The ability to sustain our business is a major cause for concern,” expressed Tanioka, a 49-year-old chef-restaurateur from Kumamoto, Japan. “The inability to import essential food ingredients poses a true life-or-death situation for us.” China stands as the largest importer of Japanese seafood.
Following the Fukushima plant’s devastation by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, China initially banned food and agricultural imports from five Japanese prefectures.
Over time, the ban expanded to encompass 10 out of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Nevertheless, China has remained Japan’s primary market for seafood exports.
The recent surge in import restrictions arose after the United Nations nuclear watchdog approved Japan’s plan to discharge treated water.
China has vehemently criticized this decision, which has also faced opposition within China, citing concerns about the potential harm to marine life and human health.
Consequently, imports have nearly come to a standstill, with Japanese officials apprehensive about what the future may hold.
The heightened scrutiny at Chinese customs has resulted in substantial delays, while strident warnings have dissuaded customers. Social media platforms in China are brimming with posts and hashtags urging the boycott of Japanese food due to perceived radiation risks.
Kenji Kobayashi, a 67-year-old Japanese restaurant owner in Beijing, who has witnessed a decline of up to a third of his customers this month, remarked, “China claims it is contaminated water, while Japan insists it is purified water. The stark difference in perspectives greatly impacts understanding.” Seafood suppliers are also grappling with the situation.
Waiting times at Chinese ports have increased from two to seven days to approximately three weeks, according to a spokesperson from a major seafood trading company.
To circumvent these restrictions, the company plans to redirect shipments to a third country, though they opted not to disclose their identity due to concerns over a potential backlash from Chinese authorities.
Tamotsu Fukuoka, the director and general manager of sales at Aomori Chuosuisan Co, a seafood wholesaler based in northern Japan, stated, “Currently, we have no shipments to China. If our products are held up at customs, we would incur significant costs for yard and storage fees, which is a situation we hope to avoid.”
While Japanese officials have appealed to their Chinese counterparts, particularly in Hong Kong, Japan’s second-largest market, to refrain from imposing a ban, some Chinese diners express approval for stricter inspections.
“Every government should prioritize the safety of its citizens,” commented Duan, a customer at a Japanese restaurant in Beijing. “Due to the government’s policies, we feel more at ease.”
As Japan prepares to discharge the Fukushima water in the coming weeks, several Japanese restaurateurs are adapting their menus and seeking alternative sources of ingredients to sustain their businesses.
“Our main focus is to procure seafood within China or from other foreign suppliers,” Tanioka explained. “If these efforts prove successful, there is a possibility that our business can continue in the future.”