In Japan, Fukushima reactor sparks food fears

A sushi restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo is empty.

Chef Kazunori Kawaguchi from Bois Vert.

A sushi restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo is empty.

Kai Ryssdal: In Japan today, electrical power has finally been connected to all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. That's the promising news.

More troubling are reports that radiation's been found in the ocean nearby and in the food supply. Over the weekend, milk and vegetables from Northeast Japan were found to be contaminated. Restaurants and grocery stores are having a tough time getting any supplies because of a gasoline shortage. All of which are hurting Tokyo's normally vibrant food industry.

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz explores the economic dimensions of this disaster.


Rob Schmitz: If you want to eat dinner at Bois Vert restaurant in Tokyo's bustling Shimbashi district, you normally need to book a month in advance. But this past week was anything but normal.

Kazunori Kawaguchi: On Friday night, right after the earthquake, everyone called to cancel their reservations.

At dinnertime on a Saturday night, chef Kazunori Kawaguchi sits at an empty table in his empty restaurant. In the kitchen, his sous chef is preparing a sauce nobody is likely to eat. The threat of blackouts in the city is keeping people at home. Even if Kawaguchi had customers, there's not much to serve them. His restaurant specializes in food from Tohoku, the region hardest hit by the disaster. A gas shortage and widespread damage to the region have closed off supply routes.

Kawaguchi: I'm doing what I can with the food I've got left. I've added a dish to the menu called 'Relief Risotto.' If you order that, I'll donate half of the price of the dish to a rescue fund for those who've lost their homes. But I have to be careful how I advertise this; it's now considered shameful to be chasing profits, because everyone is facing a tough time.

Down the street, customers pour out of a grocery store, stocking up in case of electricity blackouts. They're limited to one pack of toilet paper and three bottles of water. These limits don't apply to fish and vegetables. That's because hardly anybody's buying them. Radiation found in spinach and milk has dominated the headlines, and many here know that much of the fish in Japan is caught off the Northeastern coast, near to the failing Fukushima nuclear power plant. Shopper Shigeyo Kimura is nervous.

Shigeyo Kimura: I'm through with eating fish. When I shopped for vegetables today, I checked to see which region they came from. I'm not buying anything grown near that power plant.

This anxiety poses a threat to Japan's international brands, too. Some of the country's best beef is exported from Sendai, just north of the disabled plant. Even the perception of contamination could hurt Japan's seafood industry.

A Shinto priest strikes a prayer drum at a hilltop shrine overlooking the Tokyo business district of Akasaka. The sound reverberates off skyscrapers and into the vacant pedestrian shopping district below. That's where Kotah Haijiki sits outside his empty sushi restaurant. He estimates he's lost 90 percent of his customers in the past week. He's cut staff, business hours, and now he's wondering what to do.

Kotah Haijiki: We might start buying our fish from the western side of Japan, away from the reactors. We're planning to start testing all of our fish for radiation. We'll also put out ads saying, 'We test our fish.'

Kazunori Kawaguchi, the chef who serves food from the Tohoku region, lost $25,000 in the past week, and he's not sure when he'll get his next food shipment.

Kawaguchi: I can't imagine how long I'll be able to go on like this. If it continues, it'll be hard to stick to the cuisine of that region. I've been getting offers from other regions from southern Japan to serve their cuisine instead.

But Kawaguchi has politely turned down these offers. He says it's a painfully difficult decision, but for now, he'd rather lose money than turn his back on a region that's helped make him successful. Especially now, when the people there need him most.

In Tokyo, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

Chef Kazunori Kawaguchi from Bois Vert.

A sushi restaurant in the Akasaka district of Tokyo is empty.

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