Photo/IllutrationFukushima Governor Masao Uchibori, right, samples sushi in Hong Kong on Jan. 25 to promote the safety of rice grown in the prefecture. (The Asahi Shimbun)

About five years ago, I saw a poster at a Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong that declared in large print, “Absolutely no rice or any other food from Fukushima, Japan, used here.”

The overly harsh tone made me sigh.

When I visited Hong Kong recently for the first time in many years, I was surprised by the popularity of sake from Fukushima Prefecture. Locals seemed to be thoroughly enjoying “Sharaku,” “Toroman” and other noted brands from the Aizu area in western Fukushima Prefecture.

People’s perceptions must be changing.

According to a Fukushima prefectural government official, 54 countries and regions around the world imposed restrictions on imports from the prefecture in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The number is down to 24 today, of which Hong Kong is still one.

Last summer, the government of Hong Kong lifted restrictions on imports from Gunma, Ibaraki and two other prefectures around Fukushima. The last remaining restrictions are on vegetables, fruits and dairy products from Fukushima.

Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori visited Hong Kong in late January.

Hong Kong was Fukushima’s top customer before the 2011 disaster. Eighty percent of the prefecture’s agricultural exports went there.

Uchibori strongly asserted the safety of Fukushima’s produce, but failed to obtain a commitment from the Hong Kong government to resume imports.

“(Hong Kong’s) perceptions about Fukushima (are unchanged), and anxieties, worries and concerns remain deep-rooted,” the governor noted.

He must have sensed that acutely from interacting with locals.

When I was stationed in Hong Kong in the past, even for a short while, I was aware of the high trust locals placed in Japanese food.

“It's expensive, but safe,” I was told repeatedly.

Perhaps the lingering negative publicity surrounding Fukushima produce is the flip side of the absolute trust people used to have for many years.

Whether at home or abroad, it is hard to focus on a goal when fighting negative publicity. Still, I felt encouraged by how much Hong Kong citizens seemed to be enjoying Fukushima’s sake.

This time, I didn't see a single poster proclaiming “absolutely no (Fukushima food).”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 5

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.