Political Handling of Food Insecurity in Post-3/11 Japan

The food regulatory system in Japan underwent a series of major institutional reforms from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, which covered various policy areas, as the following list indicates:

  • 1. The revision of the Food Control Act into the Act for Stabilization of Supply-Demand and Prices of Staple Food in 1995;
  • 2. The establishment of the Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas in 1995;
  • 3. The Introduction of the Basic Plan on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas into the policymaking process as a result of the previous item;
  • 4. The instalment of the Basic Law of Food Safety and the subsequent establishment of the Food Safety Commission (FSC) in 2003, through which scientific risk assessment and risk communication became integral parts of the process of policymaking and implementation;
  • 5. The revision of the Consumer Protection Basic Act into the Consumer Basic Act in 2004 and the subsequent establishment of the Consumer Agency in September 2009;
  • 6. The deployment of the national food education movement based on the Basic Law for Food Education in 2005.

Due to the effects of these reforms, the food regulatory system in Japan started to shift towards a model of ‘food governance’, a term used by Andrew Flynn, Terry Marsden and their collaborators to describe outcomes of the food regulatory reform implemented by the New Labour government in the UK.[1] Food governance is essentially a neoliberal governing system in which food producers, retailers, and consumers are expected to autonomously act to optimize personal/individual interests, backed up by information provided by the national government. Through the institutional reforms since the 1990s, a more consumer-centred approach was introduced into Japan’s food regulatory system, while the national government was accorded the role of information disseminator to facilitate its citizens’ autonomous decision-making. At the same time, the Japanese case of food governance also displays some idiosyncratic qualities in comparison with the British case: first, deregulation in agriculture policy has frequently been slowed down through the presence of strong interest groups such as Nokyo.[2] Second, as observed in the national food education campaign started in 2005, Japanese women are clearly positioned as the main managers of food practices in the home, being expected to play a principle role in the organization of food in everyday life.[3]

The DPJ achieved a full government change from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2009. In terms of food regulatory reform, however, the impact of the government change was limited to the introduction of a new scheme of income compensation for farmers. Shogenji Shinichi, an agriculture policy expert who was a member of various governmental committees on food and agricultural policies under both the LDP and DPJ governments, has observed that the DPJ’s approach to the food regulatory reform lacked a clear strategy so that they were unable to formulate any meaningful policy proposal.[4] That is to say, the food regulatory system with which the DPJ tried to manage food insecurity in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster was mainly a legacy of the institutional reforms implemented by the LDP from the 1990s to 2000s.

As aforementioned, food insecurity incurred by the Triple Disaster was experienced in terms of the food supply as well as food safety.

According to a survey conducted by the MAFF in January/February 2012, 42.9 per cent of respondents answered that they were unable to purchase sufficient food due to the lack of supply or sales restrictions. As expected, the ratio for those living in Eastern Japan was higher than the national average, with a figure of 55.6 per cent, but the figure for respondents living in Western Japan was as high as 23.4 per cent. The personal experience of food scarcity was, therefore, not limited to the devastated and nearby areas.[5] Importantly, over 60 per cent of the respondents in the same survey acknowledged the need, first, to secure the transportation routes in a time of emergency, and second, to improve utility infrastructure such as water, electricity, gas and roads, and little difference was observed between those living in Eastern and Western Japan, indicating widespread anxieties over the food supply system in post-3/11 Japan.[6]

Furthermore, the sense of food insecurity was intensified by the spread of radiological contamination triggered by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission set up within the Diet (hereafter, the Diet Commission) estimates that the amount of radioactive materials released from the power plants was about one sixth of that of the Chernobyl accident, while the figure submitted by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (hereafter, the Independent Commission) was about one-tenth.[7] Radioactive materials were dispersed not only into the air but also the sea water through the discharge of contaminated water, resulting in massive contamination of the natural resources in Japan’s prime food production areas. Subsequently, shipping bans were placed on agricultural products from five prefectures (Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba). In Tokyo, the drinking of tap water was briefly restricted. High levels of radiological contamination were also detected in agri-products from Iwate, Miyagi, Saitama, Kanagawa and Shizuoka besides the prefectures already mentioned. All in all, contamination caused by radioactive materials brought about devastating damage to agriculture and food industries in Eastern Japan, while individuals were left to face the daily task of dealing with the risk posed by contaminated food.

As such, the task of governing food insecurity in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster was overwhelming for both the government and individuals. Unfortunately, what emerged during this crisis was that the Japanese state was not equipped with the necessary measures to handle the situation; in other words, institutional deficiencies in the food regulatory system were present. To start with, immediately after the initial earthquake, MAFF set up an emergency food procurement team to facilitate the process of providing food aid to the devastated areas. Food manufacturers and retailers swiftly responded to the government call, and a stock was soon piled up. Yet, the delivery of food aid was delayed due to a lack of a system to organize administrative coordination between different ministries involved in the process (MAFF 2012: 9).[8]

More fundamentally, the Japanese government had no legal framework or administrative system in place to handle food contamination by radioactive material in the face of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The Nuclear Safety Commission (Genshiryoku Anzen Iinkai), an advisory council attached to the Cabinet Office, compiled a report entitled ‘On Accident Prevention in the Areas around Nuclear Power Plants’ in response to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident in 1979, and the report has been updated over time to accommodate the latest scientific and technological developments of nuclear power stations. As explained in the August 2010 version of the report (the one applicable when the Fukushima disaster happened), the purpose of the report is to offer scientific and professional advice and guidelines for drawing up nuclear disaster prevention measures, which the national government, subregional authorities and business operators are obligated to set up under the Act on Special Measures concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness (Genshiryoku Saigaku Taisaku Tokubetsu Sochi Ho). The report has a section that contains index values for placing restrictions on food and drink intake in the case of a nuclear accident. On 17 March 2011, 5 days after the explosion of the nuclear power plants, acknowledging the fact that nuclear materials were released from the wrecked power plants, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) issued a note to local authorities, directing that the index values set in the Nuclear Safety Commission’s report should be used as provisional regulatory standards to monitor and control radiological contamination of food as an effect of the Food Sanitation Law.[9] Yet, the provisional regulatory standards immediately caused controversy as acceptable levels were calculated at an annual effective dose of 5 mSv, higher than the 1 mSv prescribed in other laws regulating nuclear power, and hence, the values in the provisional standards appeared more relaxed than those for imported food introduced after the Chernobyl disaster.[10] On 20 March 2015, the MHLW officially requested the FSC to conduct a risk analysis of food contamination by radioactive materials, and on 29th March, the commission issued an urgent interim report which generally endorsed the adequacy of the provisional standards as an emergency measure. The final FSC report was released in October 2011, and a new set of stricter regulatory standards was introduced in April 2012. Throughout this process, highly contaminated foodstuffs as well as suspended products were spotted being shipped to and even sold in the market, eroding public confidence in the food regulatory system. Indeed, the number of public responses to a draft of the final FSC report exceeded 3,000 within a period of less than one month (from July 29 to August 27, 2011), and written messages from the public illuminated intensified concerns over the issue among Japanese people.[11] Yet, risk communication by the government did not seem to contribute to alleviating the anxieties felt by the Japanese people. Public polls conducted in April 2012 by Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun, two major quality newspapers in Japan, indicate that over 60 per cent of respondents answered that they regarded the government’s conduct on information delivery over the nuclear disaster as being inadequate.[12]

The lack of institutional arrangements to respond to food insecurity in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster and the resultant slow and faltering handling of the issue stirred fierce criticism of the then DPJ Kan Naoto government.[13] The approval rate of the Kan government was already slumping before the Triple Disaster, but, as Maeda points out, it declined even further as mass media reports on the government mishandling increased from May 2011,[14] and Kan decided to step down in August 2011. The Independent Commission report concludes that the government’s conduct was ‘inapt and ad hoc’, carried out by ‘a small number of politicians who lack expert knowledge and experiences’, confirming the view of the government’s failure in the management of the Triple Disaster and its aftermath.[15]

These analyses offered by the mass media and the Independent Commission are based on testimonies and personal accounts given by those who were involved in the governing process, and certainly contain useful insights into problems concerning the governing system in the context of securitizing food in a crisis. Simultaneously, Beck’s theoretical discussions on the ungovernability of scientific risk raise some questions over these analyses which tend to only emphasize the Kan government’s misconduct.[16] In Risk Society, Beck presents a long list of problems posed by scientific risk, which tends to result in the call for decisive political action. According to Beck, first, scientific risk, as being articulated and measured through highly professionalized knowledge, tends to extend the area of the unknown among non-professionals. Laypersons often lack the (economic, social, and educational) resources to access such specialized scientific knowledge, while there are always disagreements among scientific professionals, further complicating the process of understanding scientific risks. Second, technological and scientific efforts to control risk facilitate technological and knowledge innovations, through which new types of scientific risk are generated. Third, scientifically rational methods to manage risk can be irrational when they are applied in the concrete socio-economic environment. As Beck discussed, in the process of political and social decision-making, the drive for improvements in productivity (e.g. the use of nuclear power) needs to be balanced by the consideration of harmful social and economic side-effects (such as the occurrence of nuclear disasters), and in this sense, scientific rationality is not omnipotent.[17] All in all, scientific risk tends to self-propagate, and in so doing further extends the sense of uncertainty. This is why Beck argued that the acknowledgement of scientific risk can lead to the creation of a scapegoat society and undemocratic ruling: because it exposes human society to ungovernability.[18]

The risk posed by radiologically contaminated food falls into this category of scientific risk. To start with, to this day, there is no scientifically conclusive view about the impact of constant internal exposure to low-dose radiation through food and drink intake on human health. Japanese laws mandate 1 mSv as the maximum allowance of annual effective dose, in accordance with the recommendations by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) in 1991. As Kageura Kyo, a professor of Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, has already pointed out, however, this requirement was adopted by the government as a socially acceptable level of risk rather than based on rigorous scientific logic. In an explanation given by the Nuclear Safety Commission in 2001, the value of 1 mSv is regarded as ‘a socially-acceptable level under which there is very little likelihood to cause biological damage’[19]: according to the Linear Non-Threshold (LNT) model adopted by the ICRP - which supposes a causal relationship between radiation exposure and the development of cancer - annual radiation exposure at the level of 100 mSv is estimated to increase the cancer death rate by 0.56 per cent (FSC 2011: 8).[20] At the same time, the scientific relevance of applying the LNT model to low dose exposure is itself contested. In other words, there were no clear scientifically agreed views on the ways in which individuals would be affected by consuming food contaminated by radioactive materials. This signals a crack in scientific rationality which, as Beck argued, invites ungovernability. Indeed, Beck straightforwardly pointed out the problem of ungovernability caused by radiological contamination in his short essay published in Japan in July 2011. In his words:

Radiological contamination seizes the meaning, and citizens lose their capacity to make decisions over threats and dangers to their life conditions. Like in all other academic disciplines, the studies of radiation are mutually in competition. For example, there is a theory that supposes the genetic disorder is only caused when exposed to a certain level of radiation - perhaps. In contrast, there is a hypothesis that contends even a small dose of exposure damages genes, and the likelihood of genetic disorder increases as doses are accumulated temporally, spatially and socially. Generally, there is a veil of secrecy over the acculturated and long-term effects. As research progresses, new outcomes and hypotheses will be presented. At the same time, disaster victims start their own interpretations of contamination. General knowledge acquired through such activities is refuted as ‘radiophobia’ by scientific rationality. In any case, the boundary between the knowing and the unknown is not fixed.[21]

Subsequently, Beck offered two ways to overcome the ungovernability of radiological contamination by following the works of Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel and Carl Schmitt. On the one hand, the ‘Hegelian scenario’ seeks to form political action based on cosmopolitan cooperation, at both the national and global levels, and to challenge nationalism and the neoliberal alliance of capital and the state, when responding to nuclear disaster. On the other hand, the ‘Schmittian scenario’ prioritizes the normalization of threats of nuclear power, in other words, the state of (potential and real) exception, when taking political action. That is to say, the latter leads to a type of authoritarian politics in which nationalistic and populist discourses proliferate. The launching of the Eat and Support campaign by the Kan government, which will be examined below, makes us wonder whether the Japanese government took the latter option to manage food insecurity in post-3/11 Japan.

  • [1] 4Flynn, Marsden and Smith, ‘Food Regulation and Retailing’.
  • [2] Nokyo refers to cooperatives organized and operated by those who engage in the agriculturesector across Japan. Local cooperatives are assembled within the National Federation ofAgriculture Cooperative Association (Zen-noh), which has been regarded as one of the biggestinterest groups closely tied with the LDP.
  • [3] Takeda, ‘Fudo gabanansu; Takeda, ‘Securitizing Food in Japan’.
  • [4] Shogenji, ‘Shin-nosei wo do miruka’.
  • [5] MAFF, Shokuryd, nogyo, noson hakusho, 32.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Tokyo Denryoku Fukushima Genshiryoku Hatsudensho Jiko Chosa Iinkai, Kokkai jikochdhokokusho, 329; Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Dokuritsu Kensho Iinkai, Chdsa/kenshd hokokusho, 44.
  • [8] MAFF, Shokuryd, ndgyd, noson hakusho, 9.
  • [9] MAFF, ShokuryO, ndgyd, noson hakusho, 53; Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Dokuritsu KenshoIinkai, Chdsa/kenshd hokokusho, 49.
  • [10] The Sievert is the unit of several biophysical metrics, but essentially parametrizes the averagebiological damage due to the interaction of radiation with specific biological tissues. For moreinformation, see Cherry, Sorenson and Phelps, Physics in Nuclear Medicine, 407—408 and 417-424.
  • [11] The public comments can be accessed via the following link: https://www.fsc.go.jp/iken-bosyu/iken-kekka7kekka-risk_radio_230729.pdf.
  • [12] 5 Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Dokuritsu Kensho Iinkai, Chdsa/kenshd hdkokusho, 121. CabinetSecretary Edano Yukio in particular received strong criticism for his conduct regarding riskcommunication. See Ibid.; Yomiuri Shinbun Seiji-bu, Bdkoku no shushd.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Maeda, ‘Minshu-to seiken’, 313—322.
  • [15] Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Dokuritsu Kensho Iinkai, Chdsa/kenshd hokokusho, 119.
  • [16] My argument here is not to defend the DPJ’s management of the Triple Disaster and itsaftermath. Rather, I concur with the conclusion of the Independent Commission cited above. Atthe same time, I would argue that the LDP’s performance would not have been largely differentfrom the DPJ’s, due to the institutional deficiencies and ungovernability of risk, if they had beenin government. In other words, the main point here is that the problem was not only about KanNaoto, as suggested by mainstream media sources.
  • [17] Beck, Risk Society, 50—62.
  • [18] Ibid., 74-75.
  • [19] Kageura, 3.11-igo no hdshand ‘anzen’, 35.
  • [20] Food Safety Committee, ‘Hoshasei busshitsu’, 8.
  • [21] Beck, Ulrich. ‘Kono kikai ni’, 9—10.
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