Tainted Dumplings From China Upset Relations With Japan

The incident triggers food-safety alarm among Japanese consumers.

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In January, Japanese media reported 10 people fell ill after consuming dumplings produced in China.

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TOKYO—Japan and China have postponed Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Japan from April to May because of strained relations after 10 Japanese were sickened by eating pesticide-tainted imported dumplings from China.

The two uneasy Asian neighbors have reacted to the incident, which occurred in January, with mutual suspicion and finger-pointing. As a result, relations between the two countries—never particularly good—have soured significantly.

A senior official at the Ministry of Public Security, Yu Xinmin, summed up the impasse at a Beijing press conference last month: "The Japanese side says there is no possibility they were poisoned in Japan. We say there is very little possibility it occurred in China."

China's Public Security Ministry maintains that the incident was "an isolated deliberate crime" perpetrated by someone in Japan who wanted to harm Chinese-Japanese relations. The Japanese dismiss this conspiracy theory.

In a press conference last month, Japan's Minister for Foreign Affairs Masahiko Koumura once again pressed China to investigate further: "The Chinese way of doing these things may not be perfect. But it is important for both sides to continue cooperating properly from now on ... to uncover the truth."

The incident has become a national obsession in Japan, where thousands more Japanese have visited doctors and hospitals with what they fear are poisoning symptoms since the incident was made public in late January.

Further stoking the fires, the Japan Broadcasting Corp., known by its Japanese acronym NHK, has featured 20-minute exposés on Japan's lack of food security. The broadcaster had its reporters plant tiny Chinese flags in the various ingredients in takeout food purchased at average Japanese convenience stores to illustrate just how much of Japan's food comes from China. The plates of Japanese-style curry rice and Japanese fried vegetables were covered with little red Chinese flags.

Newspapers here carry weekly updates and editorials on the investigations, and supermarkets have taken to listing the source of ingredients in packages of frozen food. Japan's nightly news reports have featured person-on-the-street interviews with ordinary Japanese stating, "I try not to buy Chinese-made products."

That is a challenge in this tiny, densely populated island nation. Japan imports over 60 percent of its food, much of it from China.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is easy to whip up in this country, once Asia's strongman and now a bit player in the shadow of China's economic miracle.

Recently, Japan has clashed with China on a number of issues. China has blocked Japan's efforts to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The two countries have conflicting claims to offshore natural gas deposits. They are also at odds over China's pollution, which pours acid rain down on Japan's forests and feeds a growing population of giant, yard-wide jellyfish in the Sea of Japan.

Japanese investigators' stinging assertions that the pesticide in question, methamidophos, is banned in Japan and that the sample taken from the dumplings was of such poor quality it couldn't possibly have been produced in Japan, have only served to reinforce Japanese feelings of superiority over its more populated neighbor.

This comes at a time when China, host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, is trying to clean up its image as producer of toxic toys and faulty drugs. The continued Japanese insistence on further investigations and negotiations on the matter strikes many in China as an attempt to humiliate the country, said Harvard University Professor Ezra Vogel, an expert on both China and Japan. This coupled with the recent editorials in Japanese newspapers calling on China to react with restraint in Tibet, where violent protests have erupted, are just further evidence, to the Chinese, of Japan's desire to shame its neighbor.

The Chinese have resented the Japanese ever since Japan conquered and occupied China in the 1930s and '40s. Japanese prime ministers' yearly visits to a Tokyo shrine for war veterans has always played in China as a reminder of Japan's wartime brutality and continued lack of remorse. Given this long and bitter relationship, Vogel said, the current crisis is "not surprising."