On February 9, the Tsai administration in Taiwan announced the lifting of a ban on food imports from prefectures of Japan affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The move was not exactly unexpected, taking place after weeks of speculation.
The Fukushima food import ban has long been a stumbling block to closer economic relations between Taiwan and Japan, and the Tsai administration’s move to lift the ban is broadly viewed as angling for admittance to the Japan-led CPTPP. At the same time, lifting the ban would open up the Tsai administration to criticisms that it is endangering the food safety of Taiwanese, with the issue of Fukushima food imports having proved controversial in the past.
A 2018 national referendum that was backed by the pan-Blue camp voted down the notion of restarting food imports from Fukushima. Yet the Tsai administration’s willingness to move ahead with lifting the ban reflects the strength of its position currently, particularly following a referendum vote that took place in December.
Taiwan’s ban on food imports from Japan’s Fukushima, Chiba, Gunma, Ibaraki, and Tochigi prefectures lasted for 11 years. Batch inspections of eight different food categories of food from prefectures of Japan began on March 15, 2011, with a ban enacted on March 26 of that year. This took place under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT.
The KMT has already announced plans to protest the lifting of the ban. Ironically, the KMT has also been a strong proponent of nuclear energy in Taiwan, with the KMT pushing for a referendum vote against goals to gradually phase out nuclear energy in 2018. As a result, the KMT was at the same time campaigning for a continuation of nuclear while campaigning against food imports from Fukushima.
By contrast, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of current President Tsai Ing-wen has consistently been critical of nuclear energy in Taiwan, with the view that frequent seismic activity in Taiwan makes it vulnerable to a nuclear disaster similar to the one that ravaged Fukushima. Anti-nuclear activism from Taiwanese civil society dovetailed with the pan-Green camp in the years before Tsai’s 2016 election victory.
But as the pro-China party in Taiwanese politics, the KMT is opposed to closer relations with Japan. The KMT’s animosity with Japan stems from lingering historical grudges that date back to the Sino-Japanese War. It is not surprising that the KMT has a political incentive to make the issue of Fukushima food imports into an obstacle for closer relations between Taiwan and Japan, even as the DPP hopes to strengthen economic relations with Japan so as to increase the political incentive for Japan to defend Taiwan against the threat of Chinese invasion.
The Tsai administration had similar aims of strengthening political and economic relations with the United States when it announced plans to lift the longstanding ban on the import of U.S. pork to Taiwan in September 2020 and passed a bill to that end in December 2020. This had also long been a controversial issue, with concerns about the use of the growth hormone ractopamine in U.S. pork. Ractopamine is not used in 180 of the world’s 200 or so countries, leading to safety concerns in Taiwan. However, the ban on U.S. pork has long been a barrier to trade talks between the United States and Taiwan, specifically trade talks that could potentially lead to a bilateral trade agreement.
In response, the KMT campaigned against imports of U.S. pork and pushed for a national referendum to be held on the issue. This was an issue that the KMT and DPP traded positions on, however. The KMT had proposed lifting barriers to U.S. pork under the Ma administration, which was opposed by Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP, which was then serving as the opposition.
While the KMT was successful in gaining the number of signatures needed for the referendum to be held, its position was defeated in the vote, which took place in December 2021. Not only did the referendum not meet the number of votes required to be binding, but the KMT’s four referendum proposals – including the U.S. pork ban issue – received fewer votes than the positions that the DPP called for. As such, the referendum resulted in a resounding DPP victory.
Tsai and the DPP’s position was further consolidated by a January recall vote against pan-Green independent legislator Freddy Lim in Taipei and a by-election to fill the seat formerly occupied by Chen Po-wei of the pan-Green Taiwan Statebuilding Party. The recall vote against Lim did not meet the benchmarks required to be binding, and the by-election resulted in a win for Lin Ching-yi of the DPP.
It is probably due to Tsai’s strong position at present that she has been willing to lift barriers on pork imports from Fukushima. Certainly, it should be noted that Tsai decided to move on this in her second term, rather than her first term, even as she does so with enough time left in her term (which will end in 2024) that she is not currently viewed as a lame duck. In lifting the ban, Tsai and the DPP are taking a calculated risk that the move will not the party’s performance in local elections later this year. But the Tsai administration may be expecting the KMT’s efforts to attack the DPP on the issue to be unsuccessful.
For its part, the Tsai administration has sought to emphasize that the lifting of the ban is not total, with wild game and mushrooms still among the food products banned, and that Taiwan and China are the only countries to maintain the food ban, with Macau and Hong Kong having relaxed requirements. Likewise, the Atomic Energy Council has announced that it will expand its food testing capacity nationwide.
It remains to be seen whether the Tsai administration will institute any sort of food labeling system to show if food is from Fukushima-affected Japanese prefectures, as it did with labeling U.S. pork imports. Pan-blue Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je has suggested that he may retain the ban in some areas of the city, raising the possibility that other pan-Blue mayors might do the same.
Since the Tsai administration announced these plans, the KMT has accused the DPP of violating the institutions of Taiwanese democracy by disregarding the 2018 referendum. But KMT accusations against the Tsai administration of violating democratic institutions are nothing new, with the opposition party having now spent years accusing the Tsai administration of carrying out a “Green Terror” worse than the “White Terror” that it carried out during the martial law period. The KMT also accused the Tsai administration of being “dictatorial” for lifting the U.S. pork ban. But given the results of the December referendum, such accusations have not found fertile ground in domestic Taiwanese politics. The Tsai administration may be counting on a similar public response this time as well.
It is not impossible that the Tsai administration will provoke some blowback within the pan-Green camp itself regarding its shift on Fukushima food imports and U.S. pork, as well as a controversial incident in which Tsai spoke at the opening of a memorial park to former dictator Chiang Ching-kuo. Part of Tsai’s strong position at present is reflected in that she was able to get her own party to fall in line on the issue of lifting the ban on Fukushima food imports. Yet it also could potentially be the case that this opens Tsai up to criticisms of being overly conservative from other elements of the DPP.