The health ministry just never gets a break. As the guardian of the nation’s physical well-being it is expected to warn the populace about practices and products that may pose a danger to health, but whenever it gets up the wherewithal to actually give advice people cry foul.

On June 3, the ministry cautioned pregnant women about two species of fish, one a type of sea bream called alfonsin (kinmedai) and the other swordfish (mekajiki), which may contain higher than normal levels of mercury. It was the first time the government had ever issued an advisory that mentioned specific types of fish and the reaction was immediate. Wholesale prices for the two species dropped by as much as 40 percent.

Fishermen who catch alfonsin decided to suspend operations to stabilize the price and are now thinking of lodging an official protest.

The ministry, while defending its actions by saying that such an advisory would be pointless “if we did not specify the kinds of fish,” quickly went into damage-control mode, emphasizing that the advisory was only aimed at pregnant women and that everyone else had nothing to fear. In fact, even pregnant women could eat either type of fish as frequently as twice a week with no problem.

Taken at face value, it’s difficult to understand what the big deal is, especially since swordfish isn’t very popular in Japan. Even alfonsin is far from a staple. The ministry, in fact, might have avoided controversy if it had timed its announcement differently. Right now happens to be the alfonsin season.

The health ministry’s skittishness is easy to explain. Last month, the Tokyo High Court ordered the government to pay almost 17 million yen to farmers for the damage they suffered in 1996 when the ministry linked an outbreak of food poisoning in the Kansai region to daikon sprouts. Current Democratic Party chief Naoto Kan, who was the health minister at the time, still defends his decision and the government has never apologized for the advisory, which the farmers claim “destroyed people’s trust” in daikon sprouts.

When the court made its ruling May 20, the ministry was still recovering from its clumsy handling of the Taiwanese Doctor Incident. Upon returning home after a tourist jaunt through western Japan, the doctor was diagnosed with SARS, and had in fact shown symptoms of the disease while in Japan.

After the media carpeted the weekend news shows with apocalyptic speculations about the possibility that the doctor had introduced the disease to the archipelago, public-health facilities were flooded with calls from people who wanted to know where the doctor had been.

Reporters asked the health ministry when it would make public the doctor’s itinerary. A spokesman said that releasing such information was “meaningless.” The ministry was trying to track down every single person who might have come into contact with the doctor based on the information they had, an enormous task given the tour route and the fact that time was of the essence. Wouldn’t it be easier and faster, not to mention more effective, to announce the itinerary and advise anyone who might have come into contact with the tour to visit his or her nearest public-health facility?

That, in fact, is exactly what the ministry did the next day. Fortunately, it turned out that the doctor apparently did not infect anyone, but the ministry’s initial fears were borne out: hotels that the doctor visited closed temporarily and the resort island of Shodo, where the tour stopped for one night, saw a steep drop in visitors.

The damage to the ministry’s reputation may have been greater. By not publicizing the itinerary right away, it showed that it had no plan in place for a possible SARS outbreak. Considering the health crisis that could have resulted, the isolated economic hardship that the ministry tried to avoid seemed trivial.

Balancing the public’s need to know of potential health threats against the possible economic consequences of such disclosures is a problem in Japan, where the line between public welfare and private rights has always been blurry.

By endeavoring to cause as little damage as possible to isolated economic interests and recoiling when attacked, the government, not to mention the media, creates a climate of overreaction that often obscures the real issue.

The real issue in the fish debacle is mercury. The advisory to pregnant women mirrors concerns in the United States and Europe about alarming levels of the toxic element found in seafood, but by backpedaling in the face of price decreases the health ministry showed that it would prefer not to explain the issue in too much detail. After fishermen complained, the ministry stressed that they had “no data that showed any other type of fish” was dangerous in terms of mercury content.

That’s not entirely true. A study by a group of California physicians last year found that some people who ate seafood several times a week exhibited symptoms of acute mercury poisoning, while researchers at Hokkaido University recently discovered that the livers of whales sold in Japanese stores contained 5,000 times the maximum amount of mercury considered safe by Japanese law.

Considering the size of the Japanese fishing industry, it’s doubtful that the health ministry wants to discuss the ramifications of these and other similar studies (for what it’s worth, neither does the U.S. government, which has its own fishing industry to think of), but they still need to demonstrate publicly that they are protecting pregnant women, whose unborn children are most at risk when it comes to mercury. They seem to prefer to keep quiet, hoping that the controversy will soon go away — even if the mercury doesn’t.