Jun Sato and Kosuke Fukui
The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has affected the exports of farm and marine products from eastern Japan. According to the estimates of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, 44 countries and territories either ban the import of food items produced in Japan, or demand that they be inspected when imported, even though they are regarded safe and marketed domestically.
While the government had aimed to reach 1 trillion yen of agricultural and marine exports, this goal has been hampered by regulations that could be based on overblown fears.
On Thursday, high-grade apples in the first auction of the year at a fruit and vegetable market in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, sold at prices about 1.6 times higher than the previous year, partly due to short supply. Farmers and others were greatly relieved by the prices of almost all varieties, which were higher than those of last year.
The prefecture is the nation’s largest apple producer and relies on exports, but its exports were hit hard last year by the nuclear crisis at Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
In May, apple shipments to Taiwan, the largest export destination for the prefecture, dropped to zero. Prefectural officials invited business operators and news reporters from Taiwan as part of large-scale efforts to stress the produce’s safety.
Exports resumed, with apple shipments reaching 1,809 tons in November, almost the same amount as the previous year. Shizuo Kasai, a director of Hiroka Hirosaki Chuo Seika Co., which operates the wholesale market, said domestic food is tasty and always sells well. “We want to strengthen exports, too,” he said.
In December, Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura made his third visit to Taiwan since March 11 in an effort to boost apple exports.
Fukushima seriously damaged
Farm exports from Fukushima and neighboring prefectures have been devastated.
Tochigi Prefecture usually sells rice and strawberries to Hong Kong and Southeast Asian nations, but exports for all farm produce except for rice were suspended after March 11.
Radiation levels in farm produce throughout the prefecture are below limits set by the national government. But the prefecture’s rice exports dropped to a mere 1.23 million yen in fiscal 2011 as of Jan. 6, from 6.86 million yen in fiscal 2010. The rice sold in fiscal 2011 was harvested in fiscal 2010, before the crisis in Fukushima.
A prefectural official said import restrictions have hampered regional efforts to increase awareness about the safety of local produce through visits to other nations.
The export of rice produced in Niigata Prefecture also dwindled sharply. According to the Niigata division of agricultural cooperative JA Zenno Niigata, the prefecture exported 104 tons of rice to China and Singapore in fiscal 2010, but this fell to only 22 tons in fiscal 2011 as of December.
China, which until recently accounted for 70 percent of the prefecture’s rice exports, banned the import of all food items from Tokyo, Chiba, Niigata, Nagano and six other prefectures, despite the fact that no radioactive materials were detected in sample inspections of products from these areas.
An official at JA Zenno Niigata’s rice division said other nations are not distinguishing between Japan’s food producing areas. While Niigata is more than 150 kilometers away from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the official said other countries must have incorrectly thought the prefecture was close to the stricken plant.
There is a similar problem for the export of marine products. Although Ibaraki Prefecture exported about 10,000 tons of frozen mackerel last year, overseas demand dropped due to an import ban from China, while Thailand and Vietnam demanded inspection certificates when buying fish from Japan.
The export of farm and marine products decreased to 364.4 billion yen during the Jan.-Oct. period in 2011, an 8.2 percent decrease from the same period the previous year. Exports were 492 billion yen in 2010, and this year’s total is expected to fall far short of the government’s 1 trillion yen goal.
The situation could be changed if other nations dropped their regulations against Japan.
During talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called for the easing of import restrictions on Japanese marine and farm products.
Wen said his government would do so one product at a time based on scientific data.
Countries that made a drastic review of import restrictions are limited to Canada and Chile so far.
The high quality of Japanese products made them popular in Singapore, despite their high prices.
But the managing director of Singapore’s Takashimaya department store, Yutaka Yamaguchi, said people there believe the whole of Japan has been contaminated with radioactivity.
The overseas reputation of Japanese products has suffered because of safety concerns. The government believes it is important to accurately publicize inspection results and patiently demonstrate the safety of domestic produce. The ministry hopes to hastily reverse Japan’s diminishing exports by allocating a 600 million yen budget that will be used to organize tasting parties and host cooking events at mass retailers in other Asian nations.
(Jan. 11, 2012)