Potential Alternative Factors for the Stigmatization of Chinese Food in Japan

From Food Poisoning to Poisoned Foods in China

China, like Japan, has been plagued by food contamination scandals of all kinds, including inadvertent and deliberate poisoning, local as well as national. Just as several of the most serious cases in Japan date back to and indeed were partly a product of the post-war economic boom, also some of the food scandals in China have direct parallels with bubble-era Japan, specifically those resulting from the industrial pollution of agricultural land or fisheries. Others, such as the infamous tainted milk powder scandal in 20 08,[1] are the product of deliberate decisions to adulterate or to otherwise knowingly sell tainted food products. It is precisely this ‘deliberate’ aspect that characterizes the Chinese food incidents since the late 1990s.

Until then, Chinese food safety issues were caused mainly by a lack of modern scientific knowledge and hygiene regulations. Many large-scale food poisonings occurred in public canteens due to poor sanitary conditions, the absence of rules regarding hygiene, or the use of spoiled or unsafely stored foods. Food problems arising in home kitchens were largely due to similar sanitation problems. Moreover, under the planned economy in China, workers in canteens just performed their task without having corporate interests in mind.[2]

At the end of the century however, there was a qualitative change in the nature of Chinese food incidents: from ‘food poisoning’ caused by ‘backwardness’ and lack of regulation, towards deliberate contamination or adulteration scandals, with clear profit-making in mind. The emergence of a new term in Chinese language around 2000, youdu shipin, or poisonous food (as opposed to the previously used term food poisoning) represents this shift in focus from food hygiene to food safety matters.[3] Scandals involving food adulteration by using cheaper, inferior, or even toxic substances, fake food, excessive use of additives and pesticides hit the headlines worldwide. Probably the best-known and most widely publicized example is the aforementioned 2008 milk scandal, in which infant formula was knowingly adulterated with melamine, resulting in over 300,000 victims including six lethal cases.

As deliberate contamination has a greater impact on consumers than inadvertent contamination,[4] the changed nature of Chinese food incidents can thus be interpreted as one of the reasons why China’s food safety record became an issue in the 2000s. The sensational coverage in the domestic and international media on the Chinese incidents, and the public focus on the ‘intentional’ aspect of the scandals confirms this point.

The intentional nature of the Chinese food incidents is conceptualized to the extreme as ‘food terrorism’ or shokuhin tero in Japan, as the quote below, from the right-nationalist magazine Sapio, exemplifies, ‘Shrimps, chicken, tea... It’s not only vegetables. Dangerous Chinese foods are terrorism to the health of the Japanese people [nihonjin no kenko e no tero]’ (Sapio, August 15, 2002).

Political analyst Sato Yumi discusses the discourse of the Chinese food threat for Japan, comparing and confronting China’s ‘deplorable’ food safety situation with the highly esteemed Japanese framework ensuring food safety, addressing not only institutions and regulations but also personal characteristics: ‘China is absolutely ill-equipped with social manners and morals; also concerning the labelling of commodities, they are lacking strict institutionalized criteria and checking institutions such as the Fair Trade Commission in Japan’ (Shukan Asahi, August

3, 2007).[5]

Therefore, the Chinese food threat not only represents impure and unsafe food, it also carries moral implications, against which Japanese culinary tradition should be protected. The term ‘food terrorism’ further ideologizes mere concerns over the health-related properties and the safety of foods by linking these with more power-laden and politicized bilateral relations and even identity politics.

  • [1] The 2008 melamine scandal was a food safety incident in China, when milk and infant formulawere found to be adulterated with melamine. Official reports state an estimated 300,000 victimsof melamine-related illnesses and six children died. Tracy, ‘The mutability of melamine’, 4.
  • [2] Interestingly, as of the 1970s, incidents involving pesticides are found in the records. However,the occurrence of these poisonings were proven to result from unawareness or mistakes. Yan,‘Food Safety’, 709.
  • [3] Ibid., ‘Food Safety’, 709—710.
  • [4] Just et al., ‘Biosecurity’, 108; as mentioned in O’Shea, ‘Dodgy Dumplings’, 5.
  • [5] ‘Abunai shokutaku dai, 4-dan: konmei no “Chugoku media, bakuro gassen”’ [The dangerousdinner table: part 4. Chaotic ‘Chinese media, exposure battle’.] Shukan Asahi, August 3, 2007.The Fair Trade Commission (Kosei Torihiki Iinkai) is a Japanese government commission,regulating economic competition.
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