Chinese newspapers and social networks explode with fury against Japan over Fukushima’s waters – but in Tokyo they continue to eat sushi in a good way.

Asia’s two largest economies are once again at odds at sea. But by the looks of it, restaurant customers in Japan haven’t told them anything about radioactive water, or they don’t want to know.

China says the ban on Japanese fish and seafood is about security. Really?

On the busy streets of Hong Kong’s Central District, lunchtime queues surround high-end Japanese restaurants, where high-end sushi can sell for up to €150 for a tasting menu alone.

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

“It’s busier than ever,” says Thomas Ng, managing director of Fumi. “Only a small fraction of people ask where their food comes from. They come here for the dining experience and great hospitality with the food.

Asia’s major economies are crashing into the ocean once again, but from the looks of these customers, no one is telling them, or they don’t want to know.

The decision by Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, to release a million metric tons of treated radioactive wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea has sparked a second-biggest angry response from its neighbor China. Economy in the world.

Shortly after Japan began pumping water into the sea on Thursday, China announced a ban on all seafood imports from the neighboring country, extending restrictions previously imposed on seafood imports from Fukushima prefecture following a plant merger in 2011.

Despite the import ban in effect, Fumi, a Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong, filled tables on August 24, 2023. Kathleen Magramo/CNN

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

But while the international and well-heeled crowd that inhabits Hong Kong’s sushi restaurants may have largely ignored local government warnings, the public reaction in mainland China has been much lower.

Appeals of neglect

Chinese media – both traditional and social media – erupted in anger at Japan’s actions, with many state-owned media publishing critical editorials and opinion polls. A hashtag criticizing the ban gained more than 800 million views on the Chinese site Weibo within hours of its launch on Thursday.

China insists the ban is necessary to “avoid the risk of radioactive contamination of food” and accuses Japan of “extremely selfish and irresponsible action that ignores international public interest”. Japan has repeatedly rejected its claims that the water is properly treated and has very low levels of radioactivity.

Many Chinese social media users — or at least the most vocal ones — appear to support their government’s stance, and many have called on authorities to go further with widespread boycotts.

“We should ban all Japanese products,” reads one of the top comments on Weibo. “The Japanese are irresponsible”, reads another comment.

According to experts, the severity of the backlash reflects, in part, the long history of hostility between the two Asian giants, which dates back to World War II and includes a series of maritime territorial disputes.

Calls to boycott Japan arise relatively frequently, whenever old grievances or regional conflicts flare up, they point out.

Trade relations hit an all-time low in 2012 when Japan nationalized a group of islands in the East China Sea claimed by Tokyo and Beijing, sparking violent anti-Japanese protests in several cities across China. Boycotts turned into violent attacks against Japanese-owned or Chinese-branded factories and car manufacturers and equipment sellers.

Hit the sore spot

This time around, we haven’t seen the same level of violence, at least not yet, although the ban seems designed to hit Japan.

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

By 2022, there will be 789,000 Japanese restaurants in China, a sector worth around 23 billion euros and growing. In fact, there are now more Japanese restaurants in China than before the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic.

These restaurants are likely to be hit hard by the ban, as are business relationships in general.

Last year, Japan exported about 870 million euros worth of fish and seafood to China, its main trading partner, while Hong Kong was responsible for another 400 million euros, according to the Japanese government.

To think of the Japanese fishing industry, local fishermen resent what they consider disastrous publicity.

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

After a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, committee chairman Masanobu Sakamoto said, “Fishermen across the country are now very worried.”

“We fishermen have only one hope: that our fishing industry will continue to function peacefully,” Sakamoto added.

“Doesn’t Do Harm at a Distance”

Critics have accused China and Hong Kong of propaganda and double standards, using the issue to score political points for a regional rival at the expense of scientific rigor.

Public utility Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) points out that in the years following the 2011 disaster, contaminated wastewater will continue to be treated to filter out all the harmful elements that can be removed, processed a second time, and highly diluted before being released for decades.

This process removes almost all radionuclides from wastewater, except for 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, about 7,800 cubic meters of water containing 1.1 trillion becquerels of tritium was released in the first 17 days of the release, TEPCO says.

That’s the equivalent of 0.003 grams of tritium — about the weight of 10 human hairs — said Nigel Marks, an expert on radioactive waste and associate professor at Curtin University in Australia. On the other hand, the Pacific Ocean currently contains about 8,400 grams of tritium, he says.

“It’s not even remotely harmful,” Marks said, adding that people are exposed to more radiation on an airliner.

“Japan’s release is completely consistent with past practice around the world. 60 years of scientific data on tritium have been released into waterways like this, usually in high doses, and nothing has happened.”

More tritium has been released from conventional nuclear power plants in the North Pacific Ocean off China, South Korea and Taiwan, said David Grofcheck, a physics professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

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

China’s Fuqing nuclear power plant released 52 billion becquerels of tritium in 2020, according to a Japanese government study.

But these debates are largely absent from China’s state media and its heavily censored Internet.

A series of articles attempting to explain the science behind the discharge — including one by a Chinese nuclear expert who previously worked for a government-linked company — were deleted after gaining traction on social media.

A drop in the economic ocean?

While some critics accuse China of exaggerating the risks, others question whether the country is overestimating the power of its neighbors.

Although China is Japan’s main seafood export market, it accounts for only 15-20% of Japan’s food exports, and only 1% of Japan’s total exports, said Stephen Angrik, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.

To put this scenario into context, even in the “worst-case scenario” of China banning all food imports from Japan, the direct impact on Japanese GDP would be about 0.04%,” Angric added.

That’s not to say Japan shouldn’t worry. And it is. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is said to have “strongly” urged China to “immediately” lift the ban through diplomatic channels.

But Tokyo may be barking up the wrong tree if it thinks arguments about science will sway China.

Fei Xue, senior analyst for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), says regional governments’ reactions to Japan’s actions largely reflected the state of their diplomatic ties with Tokyo.

However, Fei also believes that the China and Hong Kong sanctions will have a limited impact on Japanese trade.

Seafood exports will account for only 0.3% of Japan’s total merchandise exports in 2022, with exports to China and Hong Kong accounting for 35.8% of the total. Given the damage to the reputation of Japanese seafood, Japan’s global exports may not exist. significantly affected,” Fee said.

See you and thanks for all the fish

Back in Hong Kong, it is hard to detect any lingering feelings of concern or outrage over Japan’s actions.

Indeed, the release appears to have had little effect on the appetites of the crowds lining up at downtown restaurants.

One reason for this may be that chefs and restaurateurs have been anticipating a ban, which Hong Kong officials have indicated was on the horizon since earlier this year.

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

So, apart from a small card informing customers that the restaurant has followed new import restrictions and that its ingredients come from all over the world, Fumi’s menu doesn’t have to change much.

At a nearby mall, Diner Kara Man, 33, was having lunch at the Senryo sushi chain. Kara Man, 33, was having lunch at the Senryo sushi chain and said people were still craving their favorite Japanese dishes despite the news.

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

“So we’ll just keep eating Japanese food like nothing happened.”

CNN’s Francesca Annio and Amy Josuka contributed to this article.

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