The World Trade Organization (WTO)'s appellate body has overturned an earlier dispute settlement panel ruling against an import ban South Korea imposed on Japanese fishery products in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The decision represents a defeat for Japan.
The result came as a disappointment to eight prefectures including Fukushima subject to South Korea's import ban.
Eight years have passed since the outbreak of the disaster. Still, 23 countries and regions continue to restrict imports of Japanese fishery products. The ban imposed by Seoul is particularly strict and Japan had filed a complaint with the WTO over the measure on the grounds that such restrictions are without scientific basis. If the WTO dispute settlement panel's decision in favor of Japan had been upheld by the appellate body, Japan would have urged China and others to lift their restrictions.
Many within the Japanese government say the loss was unexpected. However, Tokyo should closely review its response to import restrictions imposed by many countries and regions
What is particularly worrisome is that the loss could spread a global misunderstanding that Japanese fishery products are dangerous.
Still, the WTO's latest decision does not deny the safety of Japanese fishery products. The appellant body called into question the procedures taken by the lower panel. South Korea insisted that the environment in areas where the fish Japan exports inhabit should be taken into consideration in evaluating Seoul's import ban, and the appellant body deemed that the lower panel failed to discuss the matter sufficiently.
The appellant body did not overturn the lower panel's recognition that Japanese fishery products are scientifically safe. Safety inspections conducted in Japan on fishery products are stricter than international standards and radioactive substances exceeding the upper limit have not been detected in such products.
Tokyo is poised to discuss import restrictions separately with Seoul and other countries concerned. In such talks, Japan needs to provide a thorough explanation on the safety of its food.
Every country is sensitive about the safety of imported food products. Japan previously clashed head-on with the United States when it demanded that Washington conduct stricter inspections on beef to see if it is infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
South Korea is wary about the safety of Japanese fishery products partly due to a lack of information.
It is also important for Japan to try to convince consumers overseas of its food safety. The number of visitors to Japan from South Korea hit a record high last year. People in the world are highly interested in Japan's cuisine culture. If Japan can convince global citizens that Japanese fishery products are safe, then such information will likely spread globally through the internet. To convince people overseas about the safety of Japanese food, it is indispensable to prevent groundless rumors within this nation about the safety of food products from areas affected by the nuclear disaster.
Bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea have been chilled over the issue of wartime forced laborers. Japanese firms have been ordered by South Korean courts to pay compensation to former forced laborers while Japan has taken the position that the matter has been settled under a bilateral accord.
Due to the WTO's latest decision, it is increasingly unlikely that Seoul will accept Japan's assertions. However, Japan should take measures to prevent this decision from further worsening bilateral ties. Tokyo should patiently try to convince Seoul about food safety in Japan.