Japanese Consumer Awareness on Food Safety

The Mainichi Shimbun dubbed the Japanese summer of2000 ‘the summer of eating dangerously’.[1] Food safety issues in Japan suddenly dominated the headlines, as the first domestic case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was followed by scandals about mislabelled foodstuffs and excessive pesticide residues found on imported foods. 2000 seemed to mark the beginning of a decade of food scandals in Japan, related to both imported and domestic food products. These developments led to a belief in the media, among certain NGOs, in governmental publications and to some extent in the scholarly literature that consumer awareness of food safety in Japan had become a major issue in the 2000s.[2]

Indeed, Japan has endured its fair share of food safety incidents and scandals during this period, ranging from tainted rice to poisoned seafood, and including mislabelled food products and high pesticide residues on vegetables.[3] Although undoubtedly these more recent issues led to an increase in consumer concern over food safety, the reality is that consumer awareness of food safety had already been well established in previous decades.

Food safety concerns among Japanese consumers evolved in the 1960s and 1970s, but developed out of an earlier sensitivity about food supply.[4] One factor contributing to this attitude shift was the widely reported spate of food poisoning cases such as the 1955 Morinaga arsenic milk contamination[5] and the Kanemi rice oil case of 1968,[6] directly affecting public perceptions of the food industry and triggering changes in the national framework ensuring food safety and sanitation.[7] [8] There was an increase in public awareness that pollution incidents could have a direct impact on human health through their effects on food safety.11 The Minamata poisoning affair,[9] which started off in the 1950s in Kumamoto prefecture but continued well into the 1970s, is probably the most famous of a number of pollution incidents that affected public health as locally harvested foods proved to be contaminated by industrial waste. The increasing dependence on imports further made the public realize the consequences of this dependence for food safety and food security matters.[10]

Against the background of growing citizen movements in general, these serious consumer problems resulted in the emergence of local grass-roots consumer cooperative movements, such as Shufuren (Japan Federation of Housewives’ Associations, 1948), Japan Consumers Cooperative Union (JCCU, 1951), or Shodanren (Consumers Japan,

1956). In 1969, Takeuchi Naokazu founded the Consumers Union of Japan (CUJ) or Nihon Shohisha Renmei (or Nishoren), one of the country’s most prominent consumer organizations, which promotes domestic produce and culinary traditions.[11] Initiated to protest against the food industry and governmental institutions and their policies, these consumer movements later organized themselves in order to create alternative systems of food supply.[12] MacLachlan shows that the consumer cooperatives, which had developed out of the immediate post-war period food safety concerns, flourished in the 1980s and were firmly established by the 1990s.[13] Realizing the deleterious effects of Japan’s post-war boom on the food supply, the main motivation of households in joining these coops was to gain access to safe and high-quality food. In the aftermath of many food-related incidents, food safety thus gained increasing importance in the discourse of social movements and civil society in Japan.[14]

In fact, the very notion of ‘food safety’ (shokuhin anzensei) is not that new at all in Japanese discourse. It emerged in the Japanese media as early as 1885, linking cholera with the consumption of fish products (Yomiuri Shimbun, December 9, 1885). A century later, another article in the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1974 stated that 93.3% of the respondents in a questionnaire said they paid attention to chemical additives when buying groceries (Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 1974).[15] Indeed, as early as 1992, Jussaume and Judson compared consumer concerns over food safety in the USA and Japan, and concluded that food safety concerns proved to be significantly higher in the latter.[16] Moreover, they showed that at this apparently ‘early’ stage, Japanese respondents already questioned the competence of governments, businesses, and farmers to ensure a safe food supply.

Rather than being an issue of the 2000s, food safety as a concern thus appeared in Japanese discourse much earlier. Due to the eruption of local consumer problems as mentioned above, this awareness was primarily focused on the domestic situation. However, because of the agricultural trade situation, the main import partner, which at that time was not yet China but America, also became the target of attention and a source of concern. The US demand for the liberalization of food additives that were previously banned was seen by the CUJ as a threat to Japanese consumer health and it feared that if not stopped, the Americans might come to ‘occupy the stomachs of the Japanese’.[17]

Under increasing pressure, Japan had opened its market to the USA in the 1960s and ever since, bilateral relations had been plagued by a widening trade imbalance, unfair dumping practices, and forced regulatory changes. As a result, consumers developed an awareness of the relationship between food safety and trade issues. This rising trade friction between the USA and Japan beginning in the early 1960s, demonstrates that if nascent consumer awareness was directed against an importing country, that country was the USA rather than China.

Newspaper articles at the end of the 1960s mention in their titles phrases such as ‘Commotion concerning harmful American foods’ (Yomiuri Shimbun, October 28, 1969) or ‘Dismissed Food and Drug Administration Officer inept in task of protecting food safety’ (Yomiuri Shimbun, December 11, 1969),[18] giving proof of the distrust or anxiety concerning American foods and additives at the time. Also a qualitative questionnaire on local food safety perception, which I conducted in Japan in 2013, showed that the older respondents tended to mention the USA when talking about food safety, as opposed to the younger generation of participants. When specifically asked about Chinese products, one older respondent stated, ‘Products imported from the US are similarly dangerous.’

Yomiuri Shimbun article count, based on search input shokuhin, anzensei, Chugoku, Amerika/Beikoku (food products, safety, China, the USA)

Fig. 7 Yomiuri Shimbun article count, based on search input shokuhin, anzensei, Chugoku, Amerika/Beikoku (food products, safety, China, the USA)

The increased media coverage of food safety issues in the 2000s does not necessarily correspond to an increase in the actual cases of food contamination (see below); it should rather be seen as a long-standing consumer concern, which was finally picked up by the media. The increased coverage can be partly attributed to the 1994 Product Liability Law (Seizobutsu Sekininho), the eventual implementation of which led to widely publicized legal cases of food contamination. Over the course of a few years, the government was forced to further reform its food safety policy framework, initiating the Food Safety Basic Law (Shokuhin Anzen Kihonho) and establishing the Food Safety Commission (Shokuhin Anzen Iinkai) in 2003. The timing of this again contributed to the (mistaken) perception that food safety consciousness in Japan did not develop until the 2000s.

A swift media analysis corroborates this trend, as well as the role of China and the USA as the Other in the discourse in Japan (see Fig. 7).[19]

Although hardly a precise measure, a significant increase around the 2000s in articles dealing with China and food safety is visible. The articles dealing with food safety relating to the USA also rise over time, but this tendency seems to have started in the earlier days, due to the debate about chemical additives mentioned above, and a fear of genetically modified organisms coming from America since the 1990s.

Thus, although there is a perception that increased food safety awareness in the 2000s can at least partially explain the heightened risk perception of imported Chinese food products, this section has shown that in fact food safety awareness was already well developed and consolidated prior to this change in attitude towards Chinese food.

  • [1] Kishi, ‘Recalling the Summer of Eating Dangerously’.
  • [2] Examples of this are among others: Kakuchi, ‘Scandals force Japanese to watch what they eat’;Organic Consumer’s Association, ‘Food Scandals Help Japan’s Organic Movement Grow’; Sato,‘Cultural Politics of Food Safety’, 575; Cwiertka, ‘Culinary Culture and the Making of a NationalCuisine’, 415—428; Nottage, Product Safety.
  • [3] See Kojima, 63; Jonker et al., 6—7.
  • [4] See also Farina in this volume.
  • [5] In 1955 in the western areas of Japan, some 12,000 newborn babies suffered from poisoning andanother 130 died after consuming milk contaminated with arsenic from the Morinaga MilkCompany. This event was particularly notable for the large number of people of the same agegroup who fell victim to the poison. See Ui, Industrial Pollution in Japan.
  • [6] In 1968, rice oil from the Kanemi depot in Fukuoka was found to be contaminated with PCBs(Polychlorinated Biphenyl). The estimated number of victims was around 15,000 persons, butonly 1,081 cases were officially recognized as poisoning. See Ui, Industrial Pollution in Japan.
  • [7] An example of this is the 1957 revision of the Food Safety Law (1947), after the Morinaga Milkincident.
  • [8] Jussaume et al., ‘Food Safety in Modern Japan’, 218.
  • [9] The Minamata mercury poisonings occurred in Minamata (Kyushu) as of 1956 and in Niigata(Honshu) as of 1965, where inhabitants were inflicted with mercury poisoning as nearby chemicalcompanies dumped their industrial toxic waste directly into the local bay and water streams,affecting the local food supply. Many of the more than 2,000 recognized victims brought theircase to court and in the 2000s the Minamata company, Chisso Corporation was forced to paycompensation and clean up its contamination.
  • [10] It is important to distinguish between food safety (shokuhin no anzen) and food security(shokuryd anzen hosho). In the Japanese context, the first refers to whether or not food is safe toeat, the second is a reference to food supply and availability. A third term often used is selfsufficiency (shokuryd jikyuritsu), which refers to the ratio of domestically consumed food that issupplied by domestic production.
  • [11] Maclachlan, ‘Global Trends vs. Local Traditions’, 250—251. Nihon Shohisha Renmei.
  • [12] Jussaume et al., ‘Food Safety in Modern Japan’, 218—219.
  • [13] Maclachlan, Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan, 175—200.
  • [14] Jussaume and Judson, ‘Public Perception’, 237; MacLachlan, Consumer Politics in PostwarJapan, 175—200; Nihon Shohisha Renmei, interview with author, December 9, 2015, Tokyo,Japan.
  • [15] Of that percentage, more than 70% of the women did not know why certain additives wereadded. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 1974.
  • [16] Jussaume and Judson, ‘Public Perception’, 246.
  • [17] Takeuchi, Nihon no shdhisha, 104. Interestingly, Takeuchi Naokazu, the founder of the JCU, atthe time does not speak yet of shoku no anzen (food safety), but rather of shokuhin no osen (foodpollution), linking the problems to boom-era Japan and its industrial pollution of agricultural landand fisheries.
  • [18] The Food and Drug Administratin (FDA) is an American agency in charge of public health,through the monitoring of e.g. food safety, drugs and pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and medicaldevices.
  • [19] During the media analysis, I encountered some difficulties concerning the Japanese translationof ‘food safety’. The earliest accounts of food safety incidents reported, often used for exampleshoku no osen, tightly linked to Japan’s industrial pollution and those related food problems.
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