China as the Scapegoat

In 2009, Nikkei BP, one of the major business publishers in Tokyo, dedicated a series of columns to Fuanteina jidai ni ikinokori or ‘Surviving in an age of uncertainty’.[1] Since the late 1990s, the Japanese popular mindset seemed to have gradually become one of anxiety and worry. Social structural changes and events such as the Hanshin Earthquake (199 5)[2] or the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo Subway (199 5)[3] shook the commonly accepted idea of Japan as a safe country. The food crisis could just be another threat, one of the many, which the Japanese public was facing and the government was not ready or able to deal with.[4] The abovementioned crises left the Japanese public with a sense of permanent potential danger, invisible threats that could just befall anyone. This is one of the defining characteristics of the hazards in Ulrich Beck’s ‘Risk Society’, a society categorized by insecurities and risks that were ‘induced and introduced by modernity itself.[5]

As these risks are invisible, they only exist as ‘knowledge' until they manifest themselves in actual harm. As shown above, this knowledge can thus be manipulated and influenced, which makes the constructed concept of risk a fertile ground for ‘social scapegoating’. Beck argued that modern ‘risk society’ has the tendency to become a ‘scapegoat society’, implying that it is not the hazards anymore, but ‘those who point them out that provoke the general uneasiness’[6]. Rather than focusing on the inability or inaction of the authorities to deal with the crises, the focus is shifted towards the Other who arguably brought these threats upon the Self. As an example for this, I refer back to the poisoned dumpling incident in 2008. The Chinese employee who poisoned the gyoza did not know they were meant for export to Japan, nor did he have any anti-Japanese aim in mind with his deeds.[7] Nevertheless, from the beginning, anti-Japaneseness was seen as a potential motive in Japanese public opinion, and the public discourse turned towards China as the culprit. Furthermore, the failing Japanese food safety system - how could these poisoned foods have passed the rigid net of Japanese food safety regulations? - is not questioned. The socially constructed ‘risky’ Chinese foods, and China in general, in fact become a displaced fear (resulting in displaced action and perception) and at the same time function as a convenient ‘lightning rod’[8] for the actual food crises Japan is facing and for the Japanese government’s inaction to tackle them. It is precisely within this narrative framework that the development of the ‘Chinese food threat’ should be understood. The reputational damage of Chinese foods is a long-lasting secondary effect of a series of food-related incidents in Japan, triggered and reinforced by the dynamics of a scapegoat society.

Denoting supposedly erroneous stories affecting the sales figures of certain products or brands, the term fuhyo higai (harmful rumours) became widely dispersed in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster.[9] It is interesting to see however that it had already been used before in the context of Chinese foods. The victims of the harmful rumours were in this case Japanese importers, manufacturers, and restaurant-owners with Chinese business links.[10]

In response, industry started taking countermeasures, while acknowledging improved conditions on the Chinese side. As a report by the World Bank in 2004 shows, China enjoyed high esteem from Japanese importers for its efforts to tackle the problem of pesticide residues.[11] Importers and business alike appreciate the dedication on the Chinese side to improve the quality of (at least) their exported products,[12] and violation statistics show the effects of this determination (see above). Moreover, despite the fear of fuhyo higai and avoidance behaviour through public opinion, the ever increasing volumes of Chinese agri-food imports, the majority of which are used in processed foods and restaurants, do not reflect this damage.

  • [1] ‘Fuanteina jidai ni ikinokori’.
  • [2] The Great Hanshin earthquake was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake which occurred on January 17,1995 near Kobe, killing approximately 6,500 people.
  • [3] The Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack was an act of domestic terrorism in March 1995, whendeadly sarin gas was released in five Tokyo subway stations in the government district. TheJapanese cult movement Aum Shinrikyo was found guilty of the crime.
  • [4] Leheny, Think Global, Fear Local, 144. Suzuki and Ito, ‘Acceptance of Beck’s Theory in Japan’,119-121.
  • [5] Beck, Risk Society, 21.
  • [6] Ibid., 75.
  • [7] He wanted to draw the attention of the company’s management to the poor working conditionsin the factory, and in doing so he also affected Chinese customers. This part of the story, however,is largely ignored in the reporting in the Japanese mainstream media, leading to a lack ofunderstanding about the Chinese side of the story.
  • [8] Beck, Risk Society, 75.
  • [9] See also Kimura in this volume. Fuhyd higai (harmful rumours) is a term that gained increasingresonance and acceptance in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster in 2011, when food productsfrom the northeastern region of Japan were stigmatized for fear of radioactive contamination.
  • [10] ‘Chugoku-sei shokuhin, tsuzuku keikai shohisha, kibishi me’ [Chinese-made foods, vigilancecontinues. Consumers with a strict eye], Asahi Shimbun, March 27, 2010. ‘Chugoku-sei shokuhin, tabeta futari ga ken ni sodan supa nado 81 shisetsu ni kaishu shohin’ [Two people whoconsumed Chinese foods consult the prefecture. 81 establishments like supermarkets recallproducts], Yomiuri Shimbun, February 1st, 2008.
  • [11] Jonker et al., ‘Fod Safety’, 4.
  • [12] UNIPAC (Trading house), Interview with author, December 4, 2015, Tokyo, Japan. SaitoSatoshi, Food Watch Japan (Food business analyst, journalist), Interview with author, February16, 2016, Tokyo, Japan.
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