3rd October 2023 – (Hong Kong) Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are struggling with up to an 80% drop in customers since Japan began releasing treated radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean last month.
Despite government assurances that imported Japanese seafood is still safe, public worries over radiation risks have led many Hong Kong diners to avoid sushi and other Japanese fare.
The wastewater discharge is part of decommissioning the Fukushima plant crippled in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But the controversial release, which started in August, has stirred debate over its environmental and health impact.
Hong Kong banned seafood imports from 10 Japanese prefectures near Fukushima when the wastewater release began. Authorities insist they are rigorously testing all products and will only lift the restrictions once safety is confirmed.
But the import ban itself has further damaged public confidence, leave Japanese restaurants struggling with the sudden customer exodus.
“People are scared of seafood from Japan,” said the head chef at a long-established Central sushi restaurant. Dinner reservations have plunged as much as 80%, he lamented.
Industry representatives estimate Hong Kong has around 4,000 eateries specializing in Japanese cuisine, all now feeling the chill. Some have tried reassuring customers by emphasizing they source fish well away from Japan’s northeast coast.
But proprietors say fear lingers among Hong Kong diners, who remain unconvinced about safety. Some guests have asked whether salmon used is from Japan, while others explicitly demand their food be Fukushima-free.
With the discharge process expected to take years, businesses worry the consumer anxiety will persist. “Hopefully people will come back soon,” said one restaurant owner bracing for the long haul.
The release of 1.34 million tonnes of once-radioactive water into the ocean has also heightened regional political tensions, with China and South Korea banning all seafood imports from Japan. The discharge decision has been backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which says radiation levels are negligible. But Japanese authorities have faced criticism over transparency and doubts about filtration effectiveness.
Some experts say public ignorance over nuclear technology has further fueled misunderstanding and exaggerated fears. They contend the wastewater poses limited health risk at current radiation levels based on scientific data. But sceptical citizen groups and environmentalists point to past issues with disposal methods at Fukushima. They remain unconvinced the wastewater has been adequately decontaminated despite assurances.
For now, Hong Kong authorities say they are maintaining import controls until extensive testing confirms Japanese seafood’s safety for consumption. But already reeling Japanese restaurants will likely take longer to recover lost business, even after the government gives the all-clear.
Proprietors can only hope consumer confidence eventually returns as memories of the Fukushima controversy fade but they may face lingering wariness among local diners for months to come.