BEIJING, July 31 (Reuters) – It has been just over three weeks since China stepped up controls on Japanese food imports due to radiation concerns, but Kazuyuki Tanioka is already fearful for the future of his high-end sushi restaurant in Beijing.
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 faces a shortage of both customers and seafood ahead of Japan’s plans to dump into the sea treated radioactive water from its disaster-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“I am very worried about whether we can continue,” said the 49-year-old chef-restaurateur from Kumamoto in southern Japan. “The inability to import food ingredients is really a life or death situation for us.”
China is the largest importer of Japanese seafood. Shortly after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake damaged the Fukushima plant, it banned imports of food and agricultural products from five Japanese prefectures. China later expanded its ban, which now covers 10 of Japan’s total of 47.
It has remained Japan’s largest seafood export market.
The latest import restrictions were imposed this month after the UN’s nuclear watchdog approved Japan’s plans to discharge the treated water. China has sharply criticized the initiative, which has also met with opposition at home, and says that the discharge endangers marine life and human health.
Imports have since come to a near standstill, and some Japanese officials fear the worst is yet to come. The stricter Chinese controls have led to massive delays at customs and the stark warnings have kept customers away: posts and hashtags saying Japanese food is radioactive and should be boycotted are rife on Chinese social media.
“China says it’s contaminated water, while Japan claims it’s 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 huge, and it affects the level of understanding.”
Seafood suppliers are also having a hard time.
Waiting times at Chinese ports have increased from between two and seven days to about three weeks, a spokesman for a major seafood trader said, adding that the company plans to circumvent those restrictions by diverting shipments to a third country. The spokesman declined to name the company for fear of a 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 are stopped at customs, we will have to spend a lot of money on the yard and storage fees, and that’s something we don’t want to see.”
While Japanese officials have appealed to their Chinese counterparts, particularly in their second-biggest market, Hong Kong, to avoid a ban, several Chinese eateries said they approved of stricter controls. “Every 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 policy, we feel comfortable.”
With Japan set to begin draining Fukushima waters in a few weeks, some Japanese restaurateurs said they are adapting their menus and sourcing ingredients from elsewhere to survive.
“Our main focus is sourcing seafood in China or sourcing from other foreign suppliers,” Tanioka said. “If these efforts are successful, there is an opportunity for our business to continue into the future.”
Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher, Tom Bateman, Mariko Katsumura and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo, Xiaoyu Yin, Justin Fung and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Miral Fahmy
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