China’s Fukushima radiation warning worries tourists, triggers ideological debate

2017-02-15 23:42:49 GMT2017-02-16 07:42:49(Beijing Time) Global Times

○ The Chinese Embassy in Japan issued a warning over Fukushima radiation last Sunday, causing panic in China

○ Meanwhile, in Japan, everything went on normally, tourists and residents remain largely unaffected by the matter

○ In recent years, as the popularity of Japan as a tourist destination increases, Chinese people have developed a love-hate relationship with their neighbor. Any political rift or societal change between the two countries can cause large-scale effects

Chinese tourists celebrate the Eve of Spring Festival at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan on January 27. Photo: CFP

An update of an old issue in Japan has sent ripples across the East China Sea to shake China. After the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced its latest analysis of the inside of its crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima that showed the radiation level there has seemingly risen from 73 sieverts per hour to 530 - a potentially lethal dose - the news has been traveling fast on the Chinese Internet.

Last Sunday, the Chinese Embassy in Japan issued a safety warning in reaction to this announcement, telling Chinese citizens to manage their travel plans to avoid potential radiation risks that may come if nuclear material leaks out into the surrounding environment. The warning caused even more discussion and when rumors started spreading, many Chinese became worried, some even canceling their trips to Japan. 

Trash bags filled with collected radioactive soils, plants and other trash are packed at a temporary waste storage site in Tomioka, Fukushima prefecture, Japan on February 24, 2016. Photo: IC

Business as usual

A couple of weeks after the news came out, people in Japan seemed as calm and reserved as ever. There are still many Chinese tourists on the streets and in shops. According to Chinese tourism agencies, their business has been basically unaffected.

The director of a large Chinese travel agency told the Global Times last Sunday that Fukushima wasn't a regular travel destination for Chinese tourists anyway, and the company doesn't offer any travel packages there.

Li Dan, manager of a branch of the Beijing-based Tianping International Travel Agency, said that there haven't been any tour groups traveling to Fukushima since the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. She also said that even tourists who travel independently do not usually go to Fukushima.

Last week, Will Davis, a member of the American Nuclear Society, refuted claims that radiation levels are soaring at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as "demonstrably false." In a post on the society's blog, Davis wrote that the readings have not changed and that TEPCO's reported 530 sieverts per hour estimate was not "unimaginable" or particularly worrying.

His argument is that rather than a real increase from 73 to 530 sieverts, the 530 reading is simply a more accurate estimate of the radiation level at a particularly affected area that has remained relatively unchanged over the past few years.

Compared with China, news of the radiation levels in Fukushima has not generated much discussion in Japan. The responses from the media or public to the Chinese safety alert are also few.

For people living in Tokyo, three hours' drive from Fukushima, life has continued as usual. While they feel a little concerned whenever such reports come out, they are not actively worried in their daily lives, several Japanese white-collar workers said.

For people trying to get their lives back to normal in the affected area, their biggest headache and frustration is the bad reputation and rumors that dog their agricultural products.

In supermarkets, consumers who are concerned about radiation contamination choose more expensive products from different areas over cheaper product from Fukushima. Local residents, NGOs and governments are still working to scrub the stain off the reputation of food produced in Fukushima.

"I am concerned about the long-term effects on our bodies," said Zhang Chen, a sociology student at Sophia University of Tokyo. "Even if they were to call off the alert, I would still be worried." Despite these concerns, she said she would continue to stay in Tokyo for the time being and try finding a job in Japan.

Meanwhile, several Chinese residents in Japan the Global Times interviewed expressed their faith that the Japanese government and media would keep people accurately updated on the Fukushima situation and any potential dangers.

Zhao Xue, a Chinese woman who works for a Japanese company in Tokyo told the Global Times she hasn't seen much focus in the newspaper headlines concerning this matter, the big stories recently are Trump and Toshiba's financial problems.

"Why would we panic over something like this? It's an updated version of old news," she said. 

Others said as long as one stays out of the evacuation areas the Japanese government designated around the nuclear power plant, one has nothing to worry about. Besides, Tokyo is more than 300 kilometers from Fukushima and as so little radiation can reach there, there's nothing much to do besides go on with one's daily life.

Members of the media and TEPCO employees wearing protective suits and masks walk past storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima on November 7, 2013. Photo: CFP

Flood of worries

Meanwhile, it's an entirely different story in China.

Concerns over Japanese radiation have been brewing for a long time. Some netizens have questioned why the Chinese government did not issue a travel alert as far back as November, 2015.

At a press conference last June, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei also touched upon the matter, urging the Japanese government to deal with the matter and reminding Chinese residents of Japan and tourists to be safe.

Their words expressed little worry about the overall situation, but this didn't stop Chinese netizens from getting worried. Articles circulated on the Internet speculating whether the meltdown would be harmful to people.

Zhao said she received several messages from concerned friends and acquaintances who were thinking of traveling to Japan, but are now too scared. Some people who she hadn't talked to since high school even started ringing her up and telling her that the foreign ministry had issued "breaking warnings." She had to send the original warning to them and explain it's only a less severe, ordinary alert.

Ding Shibei, a graduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo, said her parents have warned her to be careful but she is quite used to such news now and doesn't feel the need to worry or panic.

"People who are afraid will always be afraid no matter what you say," she said. She said she heard about the discussions back home but simply feels bemused by all the fuss.

"People panic because they don't understand radiation, they don't know what level is dangerous to humans and how to protect themselves," said Ding, a Shanghai native. Some Chinese students in Tokyo said their parents have warned them not to eat food from the affected area.

Frank Zhu, a resident of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times he's concerned about accidentally consuming food from that area. He read an article that has been circulating on the Internet for the past few days that claimed "Taiwan is filled with foods from Fukushima". He's worried that contaminated seafood might also find its way to the Chinese mainland.

The story quotes a local newspaper article saying consumers in Taiwan found many products from Fukushima in the region's shops. The local health bureau pulled 600,000 items from supermarket shelves and sent some to be tested for radiation. 

Ideological debate

Many dismiss the worry in China as unnecessary and ridiculous. "They have a much bigger problems," one Chinese resident living in Japan commented. "Don't come to Japan if you're afraid of the radiation, live in Beijing's air pollution instead."

Pan Ziqiang, a radiation expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering told the Technology Daily on Monday that there's no basis to claims that the nuclear incident is more severe than before, because the nuclear reactor that's releasing high radiation is within a safety containment shell, and hence it won't affect the outside.

But quickly, discussions on the Internet over the incident itself and worries about safety turned into an ideological war. Because of Japan's history of conflict with China, in recent years even small matters can lead to groups of people hurling insults in each other's faces.

In the discussions, some netizens guessed that the Chinese embassy's safety warning was a way of spiting the Japanese government, as a slap in their face. They also accused people who were defending the safety of Japan as traitors who suck up to the Abe administration. One even said, "You must have taken money from the Japanese government!"

Some others became angry at these accusations and said, "Just stay in Beijing, stay in your smoggy weather."

This mentality and excessive concern over China's neighboring country is rooted in the fact Japan is becoming a more popular destination for the Chinese. Even though there are unresolved political and historical issues between the two countries, the culture and tourist attractions of the country's old enemy have become ever more appealing to its people.

According to a 2016 report by international media company Travelzoo, 22 percent of Chinese surveyed planned to travel to Japan in 2017, making it the most popular choice. The second hottest destination is Australia.

Rifts in the Sino-Japanese relationship and domestic news can have a ripple effect on tourism. A few weeks ago, protests against the APA hotel chain over material in its rooms that denied the truth of the Nanjing Massacre triggered a decrease in tourism and the China International Tourism Service even announced a boycott on the hotel.

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