Disaster and Gastronationalism

In addition to gendered stereotypes, nationalism also shaped the experience of the safe school-lunch movement. The Triple Disaster in 2011 brought forth a surge in nationalist discourses. While disasters heighten social schisms from divergent interpretations of risks and varying degrees of damages and recovery prospects, they can bring forth what is called a therapeutic community where people come together in times of disaster and exhibit strong social capital.[1] The events of March 2011 came to be imagined as a national crisis,[2] with the Emperor urging the nation’s citizens to ‘treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times’.[3] The slogan Ganbaro Nippon (Don’t give up, Japan) became ubiquitous, appearing on posters and billboards.[4] Disaster nationalism naturalized and glorified the nation as a place of kizuna, or bonds.[5]

In this context, ‘eating together’ was equated with helping national reconstruction and supporting the devastated areas. Concerned with consumer avoidance of foods from affected areas due to the nuclear accident, the government started the ‘Eat and Support’ (Tabete Oen) campaign in April 2011.[6] For instance, in August 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Ndrinsuisanshd, MAFF) and the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (Keizaisangyosho, METI) asked the private sector to encourage the purchase of goods from the affected areas. They also issued requests to local municipalities and universities to join the movement. Between April 2012 and September 2015, more than 1,000 events were held within this context.[7] In addition to holding expo-type events, the mass media were mobilized. Advertisements for beef from the affected areas - to combat negative images from the aforementioned ‘caesium beef scandal - were featured in popular magazines with mainly female readerships such as Kyono Ryori, Esse, Sutekina Okusan, Saita, Orange Page, often along with recipes for beef-based dishes. Advertisements featuring other foods from affected areas were also printed in major newspapers such as Asahi and Yomiuri.[8]

While the campaign ostensibly aimed to address the economic hardships for food producers in the affected regions, it was also a project of patriotism. The patriotic investment in ‘eating together' in the government's campaign was evident, for instance, in a TV advertisement created for the ‘Eat and Support' campaign. It featured TOKIO, a long-time popular singing group of five men. The ads started with a shot of one of its members eating a big rice ball, followed by the others biting into a whole cucumber, then an apple, a skewer of beef, and a tomato, all smiling happily. The voiceover said, ‘Today, all of Japan is closely connected through our good food and our pleasure in eating together. Itadakimasu! [Bon appetit]’. This was followed by the slogan, ‘Let’s continue to eat to support!’ spoken in cheerful unison by the stars. The advertisement finished with an image of the ‘Food Action Nippon’ logo which is a smiley figure with a red dot in the middle, invoking the national flag. ‘Eating together’ was a patriotic act of moral support and solidarity in a nation facing enormous challenges.

The Triple Disaster also raised the stakes in the national branding of Japanese food on the international market; gastronationalism. The nuclear accident prompted many countries to impose import restrictions on Japanese food products. Hong Kong, the USA, Taiwan, and Korea constituted Japan’s main export markets before the accident (Hong Kong 25%, the USA 14%, Taiwan 12%, Korea 9% of total export value of 492 billion yen in 2010), and all four countries started to impose import bans on certain products from certain regions and/or the provision of radiation measurement certificates for the items to be imported.[9] The bans continued beyond 2011, and these major markets still have similar requirements on Japanese imported foods as of November 2015.[10] The Japanese government was highly concerned about these trade restrictions and sometimes took retaliatory action. For instance, it filed complaints in 2015 to the World Trade Organization against South Korea, claiming that its import restrictions were arguably scientifically unjustifiable. The imposition of trade restrictions also had domestic consequences, as the importing countries rationalized their decision on the basis of health concerns, thus going against the official Japanese position that Japanese food was safe.

However, there was more than the economic stake in the idea of good Japanese food in the global arena. Food has been integral to the government’s vision of a cool Japan, a strategy aimed at enhancing Japan’s position in the world through ‘soft power’ or non-coercive, culture/ value/moral-based attraction (see Assmann in this volume). Government policies have positioned Japanese food and washoku as quintessential Japanese soft power. Just as Japan embarked upon its ‘soft power’ diplomacy to push ‘cool Japan’, the nuclear accident cast profound doubt over its technological sophistication and exposed cultures of corruption and mismanagement. The nuclear accident seemed to further tarnish the image of Japan in the international community at a time when Japan was already struggling with its national branding[11] in the shadow of both China and a prolonged recession.[12]

The citizen movements that voiced safety concerns over food after the nuclear accident, such as the safe school-lunch movements, seemed to go against the grain of gastronationalism in times of perceived national crisis. School lunches in particular conjoin two sites that beckon powerful symbolic and moral investments: food and school. School lunches are a quintessential time for ‘sharing the same pot of rice’ (onaji kamano meshi wo ku) as a Japanese saying goes, which is the praxis of building solidarity and camaraderie. Eating together is not only about the sharing of nutrition, but also the sharing of happiness and hardship. Refusing to eat the same school lunch was interpreted not only as the manifestation of safety concerns but also as a sign of deteriorating bonds and national belonging.

Given that school lunches were a highly charged and emotive object in the context of post-disaster nationalism, the criticism the movement faced was particularly harsh. For instance, when the safe school-lunch groups asked for children to be able to opt out of the school lunch programme, they felt they were risking social ostracism. Interviewees talked about how school administrators were not receptive to their concerns, repeating what was relegated by the national government.

They talked about how they needed to be discreet; for instance, even when some of the mothers decided to pull their children out of the school lunch programme, they felt that such actions could trigger bullying and reactions from the school. They tried to make lunch boxes that had the same items as would be served that day for school lunch.

In sum, concerns over the radiation contamination of food went against gastronationalism in a dual sense; by going against the idea of high-quality Japanese food as a globally marketable ‘cool’, and by fracturing the notion of bonded Japanese subjects who share the same meal in both good times and bad. Even mentioning contamination seemed to be against the national yearning for a positive spin and the dictum that good Japanese citizens are forward-looking and positive thinking, all sharing the national aspiration for the ‘rebirth’ of the



  • [1] Barton, Communities in Disaster.
  • [2] Sand, ‘Living with Uncertainty after March 11, 2011’; Dudden, ‘The Ongoing Disaster’.
  • [3] BBC News, ‘Japan’s Earthquake: Emperor Akihito “Deeply Worried”’.
  • [4] Hurnung, ‘The Risks of “Disaster Nationalism”’.
  • [5] Sand, ‘Living with Uncertainty after March 11, 2011,’; Dudden, ‘The Ongoing Disaster’.
  • [6] Tabete oen can be translated as ‘eat and support’ or ‘eat to support.’ Elsewhere, I have adoptedthe latter translation. Takeda (in this volume) uses the former but we are referring to the samecampaign.
  • [7] Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Tabete oen shiyo.
  • [8] Reconstruction Agency, ‘Nosanbutsuto shohi’.
  • [9] Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Fukushima genshiryoku.
  • [10] Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Shokuryd, Nogyo, Ndson Hakusho TV Asahi,‘Washoku kanren ga zoka’. Overall food exports have increased as Japan stepped up its campaignfor washoku and other Japanese food items. Japanese exports of agriculture and fisheries productsincreased after a significant decline in 2011—2012. In 2014, it reached 612 billion yen, and thegovernment is aiming to increase it to 1 trillion yen by 2020.
  • [11] Cf Hymans, ‘East Is East, and West Is West?’
  • [12] McGray, ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’; Valaskivi, ‘A Brand New Future?’.
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