Safe food is getting scarcer in Japan, even out of the no man’s land, in what I call the monitored land. Surviving in Japan supposes boycotting any food from areas northeastern of Nagoya included and of course any sea product from the North Pacific Ocean. This strict rule makes shopping complicated but nowhere as eating out. The end of the year brings a new threat in traditional food gifts that Japanese offer, i.e. “oseibo” (in Japanese 「お歳暮」. It is hard to be always on one’s guard and make rational choices as to what to eat and it is socially a burden when one constantly has to ask for the source of ingredients of any food in shops and restaurants. Furthermore, when the temptation is from one’s relatives and friends, it is almost impossible for anyone to resist and discard the gift, like Snow White could not decline the shiny red apple for the gentle old, poor woman who actually was intent on killing her.

Snow White ate a shiny red apple - "oseibo" from Nagano or Aomori ?

In any defense system, failure always arise from exceptions: one virus infected-email, one Greek soldiers-concealing wooden horse let in the city of Troy, one gate opened in the fort rampart, one unprotected sex intercourse, one radioactive Nagano apple. No man’s land parents who deemed to be reasonably careful about the food and drink their children consumed found that they had cesium in their urine (as a reminder, the no man’s land on SurvivalJapan includes Kanto, i.e. Tokyo area). Japanese and expats alike are getting aware of the food contamination and take steps to favor safer products yet they do it on a casual basis. When the Meiji radioactive baby milk scandal occurred earlier this month, many were surprised and still believe it is an isolated case. Most still purchase Meiji products, which include chocolate, ice cream, etc. as they still trust Meiji scandal-ridden competitors such as Snow Brand.

Meiji Dairies - How many of these products are safe regarding radioactive contamination?

When some parents discovered that their efforts were not enough to save their children from ingesting cesium as proved by their urine tests, the usual and wrong reaction has been to declare that it was no use monitoring food after all. In fact, the issue is to be consistent, exhaustive and to allow zero exception. Children are especially at risk from adults who force them to ingest contaminated food, for instance radioactive milk in most schools and even to gargle with radioactive green tea in a specific school in Saitama prefecture (residential suburb north of Tokyo). Effects of radioactivity are stronger on children. Besides, how can they resist accepting contaminated food offered to them in Christmas parties, at birthdays, etc. when adults cannot refuse oseibo? Staying in Japan with children does not seem sustainable in the medium term, even inside the monitored land, as fatal exceptions in our food defense system are bound to occur.

Even for adults living in the monitored land, safe food is scarce and eating out is an issue whereas it used to be a large part of the fun and joy of living in Japan (Japanese are obsessed with food as can be seen on the omnipresence of television food programs). In Osaka city, I searched for a restaurant and inquired about the origin of ingredients in two different places before giving up and settling for some foreign cheese bought in a shop.

The first restaurant I picked made an eel and rice dish called “unadon” in Japanese (「鰻丼」), thinking that it may be relatively safe as eels are fresh water fish. They were imported from China so it was a lesser evil and it seems that I had been eating this Chinese-import for the last twenty years without really asking questions anyway. One of the positive outcomes of the March eleven Fukushima disaster is that I became aware about the food chain in general to the highest level and this will not pass when I leave Japan – but still Chinese eel seemed acceptable that day. I was therefore willing to compromise but the rice origin could not be certified except “Japan” as it “changed everyday”. This is the kind of code sentence for Japanese to let you know what you want to know short of saying it – and for the sake of everyone’s pride and business, the point should not be labored. I politely thanked the cook and told him that I would pass this day. The rationale for using Chinese eels is of course cost-cutting, which probably extends to rice supply – I will check in supermarkets where the cheapest Japanese rice comes from.

Unadon - Eel (Unagi) & Rice Bowl

Next restaurant offered a prawn “tempura” and rice dish, in Japanese “ebi tendon” (「海老天丼」) as prawns are usually imported from Thailand farms. The cook confirmed that the origin was “from abroad”, not the most satisfying traceability statement but still one that I could live with knowing that it was probably from Thailand, but the issue again was rice, which was from Niigata.

Tendon - Prawn Tempura

Niigata prefecture is a mountainous area just 100 km / 60 miles west of Fukushima. It used to be beautiful and a fine skiing region during the winter, with hot springs, etc. but its inner beauty has been ravaged by the nuclear disaster. Niigata is now in the epicenter of the no man’s land and rice from the region must not be eaten.

Outerly beautiful Niigata is innerly ravaged by Fukushima disaster - local food must not be eaten

These two examples from Osaka city, far away from the no man’s land, are representative of the current food scene: restaurants will be careful about some ingredients in the best case, while most of the time they will keep their usual supply chain for cost and availability reasons, but they will not be consistent overall. Now that Japanese Prime Minister Noda declared officially on Friday night that the Fukushima accident was over, the few restaurants that heeded their customers’ concern will resume business as usual. This important statement changes again the risk landscape in Japan and actually let the axe fall and divide the population in two categories: the first, large majority of residents who accepts the lie and get confirmed in their denial state until they pass away prematurely, and the second, ultra minority who must now draw conclusions and act upon them, i.e. leave and try to find a safer place to live in a globally challenged world. In the short-term, it means that eating out has become out of the question in Japan.

Bakeries I inquired with had no special policy about their wheat and butter supplies which just continue as before March eleven, i.e. mostly Canadian wheat and northeastern Japan butter or untraced margarine. Sultana raisins, walnuts are usually imported from western US which probably received as much radiation fallout as Tokyo area.

Japanese convenience stores offer almost no healthy food product at all and ironically, their least dangerous snack is probably naturally radioactive bananas.

It is strange to live in a country where the safest food sources are on-line retailers who sell their organic farm products (with the caveat of some scams, cf. Warning About On-Line Bio Food Retailers) – however, this could well be the same everywhere in the world nowadays, even without the nuclear threat. Streets look empty when one cannot trust any food store or restaurant. I will lose more weight and I think time has come for a medium term exit strategy from the developing nightmare.

To finish this post and wish readers happy year end parties – “bonenkai” (in Japanese 「忘年会」) – where food – and often drink – control is out of the question, here is an article that illustrates the probable fate of anyone who eats in a Japanese institution these days, even in Osaka – hospitals, schools, universities, firms, etc. – of course this is officially non-radiation related, but just don’t get sick and sent to an hospital as you might end up worse. Actually, if you show some signs of irradiation, Japanese hospitals seem to refuse patients.

Japan Today – More than 1,000 inmates suffer food poisoning at Osaka prison

Dec. 18, 2011 – 10:03 PM JST


A food poisoning outbreak at a prison in Sakai, Osaka, last week affected more than 1,000 prisoners, the justice ministry and prison officials said.

According to TV Asahi, 1,074 prisoners suffered from diarrhea and stomach aches on Tuesday and Wednesday and had to be treated at the prison hospital.

Osaka Prefecture health officials conducted a sanitary inspection of the prison kitchen on Thursday, but have so far failed to pinpoint the cause of the food poisoning, TV Asahi reported.

Prison officials say that about 40 prisoners work in the kitchen each day, supervised by two guards.

Health officials suspended cooking in the kitchen for three days until Saturday, with food being brought in from outside the prison to supplement stockpiles of emergency food for the 2,500 inmates, TV Asahi reported.

The original article may still be available here.

For more articles on this topic in SurvivalJapan, click on the tag “Food” under the title of this post.

  1. roundabout says:

    It seems obvious to me that the innmates are suffering from radiation poisoning, all the signs are there. The beef supply was tainted, the rice was tainted and who are they going to sell this stuff to? The prisoners.

  2. Bob says:

    One thing worth investigating is Haagen Daz ice cream, i went into a shop for ice cream and asked where their milk comes from, well I was told its from Gunma and there is a factory there … I left the shop empty handed.( .no one dared asked them before it seemed as the staus quo is relegion here in Japan, and the status quo says radiation is rumour)

    • I used to be a believer in macha / green tea Häagen-Dazs ice-cream but I lost my religion. And I cut my belt 2 inches short. Today I craved for some delicious chocolate cake at a favorite small cafe of mine and asked where the butter in the cake was from – Hokkaido was the answer of the waitress who understood very well when I said I’d pass. The only sweet without any Hokkaido butter was some gelatinous “blanc-manger”. I drank my coffee and watched the black rain fall outside the window. It’s OK to come out and ask discreetly, or else we can vote with our feet and change shops. Good night, Bob.

  3. john says:

    Hi SJ,

    Just found your blog and am enjoying reading it but admittedly troubled.

    Do you know of any food co-ops or farmers markets in west Japan that are screening food from troubled areas? Any information would be appreciated, keep up the good work.



    • Hi John,

      Thanks for reading us, you seem to enjoy a nice living in Hyogo. I saw your snow pictures and it make me feel like skiing in the country (not in a resort) !

      As you are probably aware, there is a food co-op in most urban places. Vegetables are mostly local, i.e. in Kanagawa prefecture (Yokohama etc) it would include produce from Kanto and north-east Japan (!) while in Hyogo it would be much safer. Nowadays, information about geographical origin is provided but it is up to us to decide what is acceptable as there is no screening and every customer has their personal policy (usually we tend to see where we live as being safe…). Officially, there is no radiation problem and it is only us stupid citizens who are scared !

      Consequently, we chose to get our vegetables delivered home by a local grower, “slow food” style and it also sustains the local economy as our provider is young and there is no job. We used to buy everything from the co-op but it failed to take the right actions quickly to protect and inform their customers so we now only purchase very selected products there, mostly from overseas.

      A company based in Kanagawa called Oisix invested in radiation measurement equipment to screen contaminated food which they source from any area in Japan. Pricing is exclusive and we don’t trust measurements which support sales or political agenda. It is much more efficient, trustworthy and natural to eat food from radiation-free zones instead of playing the Russian roulette with hot spots.

      Most of the Internet companies that ship fresh food from south-western Japan are listed on the OK Food website which has done an amazing job (most of them are hosted on Rakuten Ichiba). Here are a couple of posts in which you will find more information along with the URL for OK Food :

      Safer food quest

      Warning About On-Line Bio Food Retailers

      Although not so “slow food”, and sadly as we love Japanese food and beverages, we eventually had to resort to imported food for most of our consumption. It is not sustainable economically nor does it make sense, especially since now that Japan has destroyed most of its cultural and environmental wealth, food – which used to be the only major indigenous source of pleasure here – is gone for the next century. Nice to see that you seem to have found some relatively unspoiled playground !

  4. Elle says:

    I would like to know the answer to John’s question as well. I’ll be travelling to Osaka & Kyoto, and being a non-japanese I dont think I will be able to ask about the source of ingredients.

    • If you are in Japan long enough to place orders on the Internet, you may try Safe Food Market English section, please read my answer to John for links and further details. Express delivery in Japan is outstanding so even for a week it should work nicely. Please note that we recommend avoiding food from north-east Japan, i.e. from Nagoya up to Hokkaido included, contrarily to Safe Food Market and to most people who chose to stay in Tokyo area. Actually 95% of people you would ask would tell you that food from their region is safe (Japanese and non-Japanese alike). Nowadays the risk is about the same as in Shanghai, something to keep in mind if you are to travel with children.

  5. Bob says:

    Just to let you know that even outside the fallout zone food may not be that safe, Im in Kyushu and i still worry about where the food is from in restaurants… green tea in Fukuoka has some cesium in it and meat from supermarkets are often from East Japan… just be very aware..check out this website for sampling of food and radiation

    that site takes a while to load up but its full of useful facts on sampling of radiation..

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