Discourse on Food Safety and the TPP: 2011-2013

Japanese newspapers usually mentioned food safety concerns (among other concerns) when discussing the TPP before and shortly after Japan joined the TPP negotiations. In November 2011, when Prime Minister Noda announced he had decided to enter into TPP consultations, Asahi Shimbun published 309 articles with TPP in the headline. 282 articles mentioned agriculture and 51 brought up food safety in connection with the TPP.[1] When food safety was mentioned, it was usually together with concerns over the future of Japan’s agriculture and food security, but often without explaining the concrete relationship between the two. This quote by a JA representative from Kitakyushu, in the Asahi Shimbun from 2011, is a typical example of this rhetoric:

If cheap food is imported to Japan because of the TPP, this would mean a deadly blow to Japanese agriculture. But can the safety of our food be guaranteed in that case? I cannot forget the scandal about the poisoned

dumplings from China.[2]

It seems quite obvious that Japanese farmers fear for their livelihoods when domestic rice, wheat, and beef are deprived of tariff protection. This might be especially true for rice farmers. Interestingly, imported foods are automatically equated with low prices and risk without further explanation. The gydza-scandal from 2008 is an oft-cited example, although China is not even a TPP partner. Other newspaper articles that elaborate on the food safety issue in relation to the TPP show similar contradictions and are rather suggestive. For example, an article from the Asahi Shimbun[3] quotes complaints from Monsanto about mandatory labels for GMO foods, although GMO labelling was not a topic in the TPP talks. Speculation over the content of the TPP talks was built on experience from earlier bilateral trade negotiations with the USA and structured discourse about the TPP. This is partly due to the fact that information about the actual content of the talks was difficult to obtain before the TPP deal was reached in 2015. This allowed and still allows for much speculation. Newspaper coverage in Japan was prompting fears that the TPP may undermine food-labelling requirements for food additives and genetically modified food, as well as standards on pesticide residues.

It was not only the mass media that were sceptical about the TPP’s impact on food safety. Since November 2011, various stakeholders in Japan have protested against the TPP. Most of the rallies were jointly organized by agricultural and consumer groups. JA, for example, collected 11.7 million signatures on a petition opposing Japan’s participation in the TPP in 2011.[4] Food and food safety were prominent issues within the protests against the TPP. In the following, I will focus on three organizations that strongly oppose the TPP and are members of the Stop TPP Network: CUJ, Fujinkai, and Nominren. All three organizations are also active on a global scale and participate in TPP negotiations, protests at G8 summits and WTO meetings as stakeholders from Japan’s civil society.

Founded in the late 1960s, CUJ is a Tokyo-based consumer advocacy organization that represents the interests of consumers throughout Japan. The CUJ deals with various aspects of consumer rights and appeals to Diet Members and ministries regarding consumer issues by, for example, writing open letters. As a member of the Seikyo Network[5] the organization also receives money from Seikyo. It is closely linked to the NO! GMO campaign that successfully pushed the government to establish GM labelling in the 1990s. CUJ has been critical of the WTO and Preferential Trade Agreements (PTA) since the 1990s and its representatives participated in anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Cancun, and Taiwan. CUJ invites international specialists on trade and food safety to Japan and cooperates with international organizations, in addition to providing information and commenting critically on the TPP since 20 08.[6] My informant, Mr. Ide, who works at the CUJ office, participated in the Brunei Round of the TPP in August 2013 as a representative of CUJ. In a report for CUJ’s website, he described how he had witnessed first-hand how civil society stakeholders were denied access to the negotiations while global business representatives received special treatment.[7] Accordingly, the CUJ’s critique of the TPP targets the global ‘free trade system’ as a whole for its ‘economism (the reduction of all social facts to economic dimensions)’[8] and its inequalities and the WTO in particular.[9] A CUJ representative also states that the WTO is dominated by the USA and by multinational corporations such as Monsanto and stresses the importance for consumers and farmers to form grass-roots movements to monitor it.[10]

Regarding food safety and its relationship with the TPP, Mr. Ide from CUJ states that ‘the safety of food in Japan is highly endangered’ because ‘the US will probably demand that Japan adjusts its food safety standards in line with America’s, although American safety standards are very low’.[6] The CUJ takes a stand against the global free trade system and the TPP that is critical of global capitalism and the WTO in general, which it considers as dominated by TNCs and the USA. This is perhaps the reason why Mr. Ide fears that American food safety standards could become relevant in a multilateral PTA. Thus, food risks are assigned to the US, whose food safety standards are generally regarded as ‘low’.[9]

Founded in 1989, Nominren promotes the direct sale of agricultural products, it lobbies politicians and helps farmers to achieve more autonomy from JA and retailers through all kinds of activities. Nominren is politically independent and runs its own food safety research centre where it conducts monitoring for pesticides and radioactivity. While the other two groups do not concentrate solely on TPP-related issues, this has been at the forefront of Nominren’s work for some time. It is a prominent topic on Nominren’s website and was made all the more apparent during a March 2013 visit to its Tokyo headquarters, which was plastered with anti-TPP posters and banners. Nominren believes one of the most important issues that could be affected by the TPP is the labelling of GM food. Standards and thresholds for food additives and pesticides are also a cause for concern to the movement. One representative argued in our interview that the voluntary No-GMO label is being ‘attacked by America’,

[If Japan joined the TPP], food labelling in Japan would definitely change. Thresholds for food additives and pesticides would be relaxed. [... ] But I think what is actually necessary today is exactly the opposite policy by the government. Standards should become far stricter. [... ] I think that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the life and health of its citizens. From this perspective, the current policies of the Japanese government are very strange. [... ] But if we join, we will call on the people who do not want to eat imported foods to eat the safe food we produce. This is the kind of movement we will start and we will boycott imported foods.[13]

This quote clearly defines food imports as a threat to domestic food safety. The actor held responsible for protecting the Japanese people from food risks is the Japanese government, which is criticized by Nominren. Finally, Kobayashi calls for a boycott of all imported foods, regardless of their place of origin and whether they are considered ‘safe’ according to current Japanese standards.

Fujinkai was founded in 1962 by the famous feminist Hiratsuka Raicho. It is committed to the protection of women’s and children’s rights against the danger of nuclear war, it opposes the revision of Japan’s peace constitution and militarism, works for better living conditions, food safety, national independence, and more democracy in Japan. The organization considers the TPP to be part of the American domination over Japan and is strongly opposed to it. It locates the TPP within the discourse of US military bases and the post-war history of US-Japan relations. Therefore, a representative of Fujinkai fears that the USA will apply pressure on Japan to accept the lower American standards for food safety if Japan joins the TPP.[14]

We oppose the TPP because the safety of our food is endangered. In America there is no labelling for genetically modified foods. [... ] For many years the US has been demanding that Japan abolish its GMO labelling. When it comes to food additives [... ], the US pressures Japan to allow more, in addition to demanding the legalization of postharvest chemicals. For the simple reason that they want to export more food to Japan, the US claims Japanese safety standards for GMO, food additives, pesticides and herbicides are too strict. Therefore, they want them to be relaxed. If we join the TPP, the US will demand this to abolish non-tariff barriers to trade.[9]

This quote suggests that ‘our’ Japanese food is safe, while the USA is putting pressure on Japan to import GM foods and other ‘dangerous’ foods, thus endangering the health of Japanese consumers simply for economic reasons. Again, as is the case with the arguments of the CUJ and Nominren, of all the nations participating in the TPP, the USA is the ‘significant Other’[16] that poses a threat to Japan’s food safety. In summary, newspapers and TPP opponents alike view the TPP as a threat to food safety. The threat is further identified as pertaining to ‘unsafe imported foods’ entering Japan due to lower agricultural tariffs on the one hand and changing food safety and/or labelling standards caused by US pressure on the other. Only the CUJ addresses the problem of global capitalism and free trade, while the majority stick to (food) nationalism and a kind of anti-American rhetoric familiar to the Japanese public ever since the US-Japanese trade friction of the 1980s.[17]

  • [1] In March 2013, when Prime Minister Abe announced that Japan would join the TPP, AsahiShimbun published 386 articles on the TPP; 232 of them discussed agriculture and 43 addressedfood safety concerns.
  • [2] Asahi Shimbun, ‘TPP hantai, JA Kitakyugakisei. Tokubetsuketsugi wo saitaku’ [Against TPP.JA KitakyUshU Shows Grit and Adopts a Special Resolution], January 14, 2011, 25.
  • [3] Oyamada, Kenji, ‘TPP kosho 5’, 7.
  • [4] George Mulgan, ‘Japan’s TPP “Shock”’.
  • [5] Seikyo is a network of consumer co-operatives that cater to 20.6 million members in Japan. Theumbrella organization Nisseikyo consists of regional chapters whose main focus is the provision ofgoods, especially food, via delivery or co-op supermarkets. Seiyo co-operates with other smallerconsumer co-ops that only cater to consumers in some areas of Japan like Seikatsu Club or Pal-System on a number of political issues such as environment, peace and consumer advocacy (seeHartmann, Konsumgenossenschaften in Japan).
  • [6] Interview with Ide Hiroyuki, Tokyo, 2012.
  • [7] CUJ, ‘Civil Society’.
  • [8] CUJ, ‘Why Are Consumers Opposing TPP?’.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Chan, Another Japan Is Possible, 137.
  • [11] Interview with Ide Hiroyuki, Tokyo, 2012.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Interview with Kobayashi Jiro, Tokyo, 2013.
  • [14] Interview with Machida Yoko, Tokyo, 2013.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Clammer, Japan and Its Others, 45.
  • [17] See, for example, Ishihara and Morita’s 1989 book No to ieru Nihon. Kobayashi Yoshinori’s2012 manga Han TPP ron is a recent nationalist publication about trade, Japan and anti-Americanism in the context of the TPP.
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