Japan's Food Security Crisis and its Dependence on China

The Chinese threat is thus not limited to merely traditional security issues. China also figures recurrently in the discourse on the two food crises Japan is currently facing: food security and food safety, both of which are inherently linked. The threat China poses is twofold: the risk associated with the consumption of Chinese foods, and the risk related to Japan’s import dependency on China.

Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio (calorie based) has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s: the country went from a ratio of 79% (1960) to 39% in 20 1 4.[1] Since the end of the 1990s, imports of agricultural products such as leek or shiitake mushrooms, had started to rise rapidly, causing a demonstrative fall in farmers’ incomes, and even leading to provisional safeguarding measures and emergency import restrictions by the Japanese authorities.[2] As the proportion of cultivated agricultural land continues to drop, and the farming population progressively ages, Japan is not likely to be self-sufficient in the foreseeable future.[3] Despite the reported scandals and negative image, the import value of agricultural produce coming from China rises every year. Chinese imports constitute the main share of the Japanese consumer’s vegetable consumption: figures for 2010 show that almost half of the frozen vegetables (40%), more than half of the fresh vegetables (57%), and 80% of the dried vegetables consumed in Japan are of Chinese origin.[4] The figures released by the Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF, Norinsuisansho) for matsutake mushrooms, one of the favourite autumn vegetables among the Japanese, are indicative: Chinese imports account for 97% of Japan’s matsutake consumption.[5] Another striking example is leeks, 99% of which are sourced from China.

This dependency on China (and its highly mediatized food incidents - see below) stands in sharp contrast with Japan’s aforementioned culinary nationalism, which celebrates the purity, the healthy character, and the safety of Japanese food.[6] Government programmes such as shokuiku (food education) or chisan chisho (local production, local consumption) at first sight seem to promote healthy and safe dietary patterns while supporting and reviving the local economy, yet on closer inspection the campaigns are very political and nationalistic in nature.[7] By promoting a ‘traditional’ Japanese diet, policymakers aim at reducing Japan’s import dependency and basically at protecting domestic agriculture.[8] The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) guidebook for exports of food and agricultural products leaves little doubt about the link: ‘In reaction to food poisoning incidents caused by processed foods imported from China, there is a recent trend to promote domestic products as high value-added products.’[9]

  • [1] See Farina in this volume. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), ‘MonthlyStatistics’.
  • [2] George Mulgan, Japan’s Agricultural Policy Regime, 152. Also see same volume for a moredetailed account of the initial Japanese debate on how to deal with rising Chinese imports, andtrying to satisfy worried farmers as well as demanding industry.
  • [3] See O’Shea’s contribution in this volume.
  • [4] Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), ‘Guidebook for Export to Japan (Food Articles)2011’.
  • [5] ‘Matsutake kokusan shiko’ [Domestic Orientation for matsutake Mushrooms], Asahi Shimbun,October 9, 2008.
  • [6] Cwiertka, ‘Culinary Culture and the Making of a National Cuisine’, 415.
  • [7] See also Assmann’s article in this volume.
  • [8] Jentzsch and Walravens, ‘Consuming the Nation’.
  • [9] JETRO, ‘Guidebook for Export to Japan (Food Articles) (2011)’, 35.
 
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