Japanese Food Identities Inside-Out

Tine Walravens


‘We don’t use processed foods or frozen foods that are manufactured in a Chinese food company.’ This is how a note on the lunch schedule in a primary school in Gamagori City in Aichi Prefecture reassures parents of the quality of food they provide to the students (Figure 6). Spelling out clearly the non-Chinese origin of (some of) the ingredients for school lunches is not a rare occurrence in Japan, and can be seen equally often on restaurant menus, lunch boxes, or in shops (Fig. 6).

This chapter is based on an unpublished manuscript, written in cooperation with Paul O’Shea, Aarhus University. Portions of this work have been presented at the international workshop ‘Food, Feeding and Eating In and Out of Asia’, Copenhagen University, Denmark, June 24—26, 2015, and at the Nordic Association of Japanese Studies Annual Conference, Lund University, Sweden, March 5—6, 2015. The author wishes to thank Paul O’Shea for useful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.

T. Walravens (*)

Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017 253

A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_10

of a lunch schedule at a primary school in Gamagori City in

Fig. 6 of a lunch schedule at a primary school in Gamagori City in

Aichi Prefecture. The second line of the listing reads 'We don't use processed foods or frozen foods that are manufactured in a Chinese food company'. (The author wishes to thank Kyoko Ito-Morales at the Universidad de Granada for sending her a copy of this lunch schedule of her children.)

Stating that imported Chinese food has a negative image in Japan is neither new nor surprising. Japan faced a series of food-related scandals in the 2000s, ranging from excessive pesticide residues, through false labelling and fake foods, to the recycling of out-of-date ingredients. The incidents involved domestic as well as international companies, and this caused Japanese policymakers to reform the national framework ensuring food safety. Despite stricter import control mechanisms and their (statistically proven) positive effects in Japan, the negative image of imported, and particularly Chinese food products is ubiquitous. This is visible in general public opinion and in the mainstream media, with headlines that read, ‘Food produced in China, deep-rooted mistrust (nezuyoi fushin)' (Asahi Shimbun, April 26, 2009), or ‘China invading the Japanese table (Nihon no shokutaku ni shinto suru Chugoku)’ (Shukan Asahi, August 3, 2007). This narrative is easily confirmed or complemented by the story found on the webpage of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW, Kosei Rodosho) which year after year, publishes different figures but one clear message: ‘China accounts for the highest number, with X cases of violations against the Food Safety Basic Law (X% of the total number of violations), (... )’.1 Opinion polls reflect the widespread acceptance of this narrative. A joint Sino-Japanese survey carried out by Gallup International and the Nihon Research Center in 2009 showed that 96% of the Japanese respondents said they were concerned about the safety of food coming from China.[1] [2] Interestingly, in that same survey, also 79.3% of the Chinese respondents said they were wary of the safety of their domestic food. The idea that Chinese consumers do not trust their own food is compounded by talk about Chinese farmers who apparently do not eat the food they grow for commercial sale, but grow a portion of their farm products according to ‘traditional methods’ for family use.[3] Stories such as these evidently confirm Japanese public opinion relating to Chinese food. By contrast, Japanese domestic produce still enjoys the reputation ofbeing safe and healthy, despite numerous incidents.

Conventional explanations of this phenomenon focus on the litany of food scandals associated with imported Chinese food, together with a near-constant wave of scandals in China itself, which have been subject to saturation media coverage in Japan since the turn of the century. However, this chapter argues that the hyperbolic public and media response is disproportionate to the food safety risks associated with the consumption of Chinese food. The chapter starts by assessing two common explanations for the widespread negative perceptions of Chinese food: (1) the development of a consumer awareness in Japan and (2) a heightening risk of consuming Chinese imported foods in the 2000s. Having established that these conventional explanations are insufficient to account for the extent of the stigmatization of Chinese food in Japan, the chapter then outlines potential alternative factors, which have also played a key role in the increasingly negative perceptions of Chinese food imports. While there has been an overall increase in the number of reported Chinese food scandals since the 2000s, broader

Japanese perceptions of China, the related nature of media coverage of events in China, and the changing nature of Chinese food incidents, among others, are central factors in the development of the perception of a Chinese food threat.

  • [1] The biased portrayal of these figures will be touched upon below. Ministry of Health, Labourand Welfare (MHLW), ‘Statistics of imported foods monitoring’.
  • [2] Equally interesting is that 61% of the Chinese respondents mentioned their doubts about thesafety of Japanese food. Nihon Research Center, Gallup International, ‘Ryoko, shoku noanzensei’.
  • [3] Zhou and Fang, ‘Multiple Rationality’.
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