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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Cardboard-bun incident serves up more distaste for China


Though it wasn't the most significant news story of the summer, the video that circulated worldwide in early July about the Dalian street vendor who sold pork buns stuffed with cardboard was certainly the most fun for local news outlets since it involved two subjects Japanese media can't get enough of: food and Chinese scruples. The video, taken secretly, showed the nameless, faceless vendor soak the cardboard in broth, chop it up with other ingredients, and fold the mixture into dough that was then steamed.

It was aired repeatedly on all the news shows for about a week, and at least one program, Nihon TV's "Bankisha," re-created the counterfeit delicacy with the help of a professional chef. The buns were lovingly prepared and set out on a tray in front of the show's regulars and that week's guest. However, no one actually took a bite, thus rendering the whole stunt meaningless. At the very least, the segment violated the rules of Food TV, where someone has to serve witness to the savor and texture of a dish using the standard cliches. Maybe there were no comedians available.

As everyone knows, the Chinese government soon announced that the video was a hoax whipped up by an independent journalist who thought he could make a lot of money, as well as a name for himself. The authorities said they were concerned about the pork-bun scandal and scoured the streets of Dalian for the vendor, but couldn't find him. So they interrogated the reporter, who eventually confessed to staging the whole thing.

The media dropped the story, but there's a lingering sense that many Japanese people believe it was not a hoax. In the Sept. 10 issue of Aera is a story that says the cardboard-bun incident has drawn forth the Japanese citizenry's deep-seated "hatred of China." In the past, this sentiment was "concealed" by "rationality," but the string of "poison food" scandals that have plagued Chinese exports recently have brought their enmity into the light. When it comes to food, Japanese people are no longer willing to act nice.

Aera points out that even in China many people believe the video was not a hoax, but that opinion is related to the larger belief that everything the government says is a lie. In Japan, the suspicion is deeper. Japanese people, according to the article, think that Chinese people as a whole cannot be trusted, and Aera uses the results of an Internet survey to back up its claim.

To the query "Have you stopped buying Chinese food materials since the [cardboard bun] incident?", 74 percent responded that they have or buy less than they used to. Aera backs up these results with a quick trip to Yokohama's Chinatown, where restaurants and grocery stores say their business has dropped noticeably since the incident. In fact, almost all their customers now are Chinese tourists. Only 21 percent of respondents say that they have come to "hate China" since the cardboard-bun incident, with everyone else stating that their "feelings toward China" haven't changed. However, no one said their view of China has become more positive, and among those who said their opinion is unchanged are some who say "I've always hated China."

The United States is also going through an anti-China phase right now, occasioned by scandals involving tainted pet food and snacks, as well as hazardous toys. Several weeks ago, NHK's "Closeup Gendai" reported on the American reaction, which has resulted in at least one consumer-boycott movement. However, the nature of the Japan backlash as reported by Aera seems to be more emotional. The danger, as Aera points out, is that this heretofore repressed resentment toward China, fueled by years of stories about Chinese criminals in Japan and Japan-bashing in China, and exacerbated by historical guilt, will be exploited by hardliners who think the current administration is too soft on Beijing.

Coverage of food problems brings this resentment to a boil, though it tends to avoid the bigger picture. A Chinese consulate official told Aera that the amount of food imported to Japan from China is so huge that the fraction that fails inspection also seems huge, but according to Japanese government statistics, the failure portion is only 0.58 percent, which is lower than it is for imports from Vietnam, Thailand, or even the U.S. Last week's Sunday Mainichi also reported that domestic produce isn't always that safe, either.

Statements from Chinese officials always need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Japan has more at stake in China's export policies than meets the eye. As pointed out on the NHK program, almost all of the agricultural and seafood products exported to Japan from China are produced by companies that were tutored by Japanese experts. Many still have close business connections to Japanese trading companies. That may explain why the government has basically ignored the problem. When BSE was found in American beef, Japan said it wouldn't import any more until certain standards were met. The Japanese government has made no such demand in cases related to tainted food from China, thus leaving it up to individual consumers to decide whether or not they will buy Chinese products. Apparently, they have decided not to.

And that's their right. The problem sounds social and political, but it's really economic: Japan demands cheap food and China, which is still a developing country, will do whatever it has to do in order to sell it to them. In this light, the Japanese reaction to the "poison food" issue sounds more like disappointment than hatred. They may not want Chinese people moving in next door to them, but they've always considered them fellow culinary snobs. One Miyagi woman told Aera that she used to be obsessed with Chinese cuisine, but since the bun scandal she won't touch it. How dare they sell cardboard as pork!



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