Taipei – Two years ago, Taiwanese voters approved a referendum to continue a ban on food from five Japanese prefectures after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and that ban seems unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.
Of 10 million votes cast in the Nov. 24, 2018 referendum, approximately 78% favored keeping the ban in place.
President Tsai Ing-wen said at the time that, despite opposing the referendum, she would respect the vote, and her government would continue barring food imports from Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Chiba prefectures for two years.
Fast-forward to today, and the administration should lift the ban the same way it did with restrictions on U.S. pork and beef this summer, which was by presidential order, according to a member of Tsai’s inner circle who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This may take time, however, the member said.
“Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party government cannot afford another failure,” he said, alluding to the legally binding referendum result.
Unlike bans on American meat products, which stemmed from conflicting policies on the use of drugs in raising livestock, Taiwan’s ban on certain Japanese products is due to a disaster and the contamination that followed.
While the effects of a nuclear meltdown can be severe, the scientific community concluded some time ago that the dangers posed by fallout from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 reactors have receded. Government agencies have continued to test food from the region, with results falling well within established safety guidelines.
The World Health Organization has certified Japanese efforts to monitor food contamination and prevent the distribution of contaminated food both inside and outside of Japan.
Thanks to these efforts, most countries that initially imposed bans have lifted them, with regional neighbors China and South Korea opting to retain theirs, although it could be argued this is for reasons to do less with food safety than long-standing political differences with Japan.
However, Taiwan has no such differences, and most Taiwanese regard Japan as a close friend and ally.
In addition, Taiwan’s own Food and Drug Administration also published a report last year saying that food imports from areas in the vicinity of the Fukushima power plant carry “negligible” radiation risk.
And the Tsai government wants very much to end restrictions the restrictions.
In its annual white paper this year, the Taipei branch of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that economic agreements Taiwan hopes to sign with Japan remain stalled due to the continuing food ban.
These agreements include a free trade deal long in the works. Taipei also hopes Tokyo will support Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation free trade agreement in which Japan plays a leading role.
Tsai’s struggle to clear the way for closer Japanese economic ties stems not from health risks or regional differences but domestic politics.
On stepping down as premier last year, current Vice President William Lai admitted that problems like the food ban were distorted by inter-party strife.
The 2018 referendum was proposed by the main opposition Nationalist Party, or KMT, which, along with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has spent years politicizing food safety, effectively removing science from the decision-making process.
Before radiation, it was the leanness enhancer, ractopamine, used in the production of U.S. beef and pork. Before that, it was mad cow disease.
“While political parties routinely politicize issues, as an American who is a lifetime consumer of U.S. beef and pork, it’s hard for me to think these products are harmful to the people of Taiwan,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Yet, the KMT regularly claims that the United States sells “poisonous” meat to Taiwan.
Ironically, the DPP is itself responsible for its current dilemma. Before it came to power in 2016, the previous KMT administration under President Ma Ying-jeou attempted to lift the ban on Japanese food products only to have the DPP turn it against them, forcing Ma to back down.
Such disputes also have a history of blocking trade deals.
Taiwan signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the United States in 1994 only to have negotiations stalled since 2007 over U.S. food bans.
Seeking to finally move matters forward, Tsai announced in August that her government will lift the existing restrictions on U.S. pork imports beginning Jan. 1, even though the party will likely pay a political price.
Chen Shih-min, political science professor at National Taiwan University, said in an interview that a more lasting solution to the Japanese problem might be to hold another referendum, this time making sure the public is better informed about what is at stake, with fair and balanced debate from all sides.
But after years of decidedly unbalanced debate, the stakes are often elusive.
Questions of self-determination often arise, emerging on some occasions from protectionist sentiments voiced by island farmers, on others from nationalism.
Chang Ching, a research fellow at the Society for Strategic Studies, said the bottom line on food imports is “national sovereignty.”
Finally, Japan has China to consider if it decides to move forward on a free trade deal with Taiwan, said Albert Chiu, a political science professor at Tunghai University.
While firm in demanding import bans be dropped, those bans have shielded both Japan and the United States from trouble with China, said Chiu, which vehemently opposes any normalizing of relations with Taiwan.
But things have changed with the United States, and perhaps with Japan too.
If Tsai does resolve to take another political hit by lifting the ban on food from the five Japanese prefectures, the ball will be clearly, and perhaps uncomfortably, in Tokyo’s court, Chiu said.
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