Four top Japanese government ministers, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, ate sashimi from Fukushima this week, seeking to dispel safety concerns about fish from the region after the release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The officials on Wednesday had sashimi of flounder, octopus and sea bass, which was caught off the Fukushima coast, along with rice harvested in the prefecture, according to Economy and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who was at the lunch meeting.
“We will do everything in our power to bridge the gap between safety and peace of mind,” he said.
Photos and video showed the prime minister eating the seafood, which he called “safe and delicious,” and then on Thursday visiting a fish market in Tokyo. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel was also photographed eating during a visit to the Fukushima region on Thursday and said he had “no reservations about the safety of my activities and engagements” there.
Japan began releasing water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, last week. Its plan to discharge more than 1 million metric tons of treated wastewater – more than 500 Olympic-size swimming pools – into the Pacific Ocean is expected to take more than 30 years.
Japanese authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly issued reassurances that the process is safe, and scientists have described the levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, in the planned water release as insignificant.
Still, the release has faced opposition from Japanese fishing groups, worried about damage to the reputation of their goods, which still carry the stigma of radioactive exposure.
It has also sparked controversy in neighboring countries, chief among them China, which has now banned Japanese seafood imports, and where a campaign of state-supported outrage against Japan has gained momentum.
The uproar stirred in China, including a wave of calls to Japanese businesses and government departments, comes at a time of widening divisions between Beijing and U.S.-aligned countries in the region.
The U.S. ambassador to Japan, after his Thursday visit to Fukushima, described Beijing’s decision last week to ban all Japanese seafood imports as “overtly political.”
In a gesture of support, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea – where people have also expressed concerns about fish in the region and protested against Japan’s water release plan – ate seafood for lunch Monday with his staff to show that it was safe, the presidential office said.
Japanese authorities say the wastewater must be discharged to allow for the eventual decommissioning of the plant, where a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2011 led to a meltdown of nuclear reactors.
Japan’s prime minister has said he will soon announce measures to bolster Fukushima’s fishing industry – which is still recovering from the post-disaster effect on its reputation and fears the potential economic impact of the release.
“Publicly consuming food to prove its safety is a piece of political theater with a long history,” said Makoto Takahashi, an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who has extensively researched the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.
He noted that treated water containing trace amounts of tritium is routinely released from nuclear power plants around the world, but added that Japan’s “water plan does not need to be dangerous to do real economic harm.”
Takahashi said Fukushima’s agricultural sector was hit hard by consumers avoiding its produce in the early years after the 2011 disaster. While Japan has since tightened food safety standards and engaged in large-scale communication campaigns to rebuild confidence in goods from Fukushima, fishing groups fear the wastewater release “threatens to reverse the progress that has been made,” he said.
As the government urges Japanese citizens to help fight against reputational damage, businesses in Fukushima have reported a surge in support from across the country.
Under Japan’s hometown tax program – where taxpayers have the option to contribute a portion of their taxes to a chosen city in exchange for goods – donations to the city of Iwaki in Fukushima in the week after the release were nearly seven times higher than the week before the discharge, according to local authorities.
“We hope to turn this support into strength to move forward dispelling rumors,” Iwaki Mayor Hiroyuki Uchida told a news conference, expressing his gratitude.
Outside of Fukushima, some vendors have also made efforts to sell fish specifically from the region. At 21 locations in regions around Tokyo, Japanese supermarket chain Aeon set up sections specifically for fish coming from Fukushima, announcing after the release that it would “continue to support seafood from Fukushima.”