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Safe to Eat? Dealing with Food Safety after the Fukushima Disaster

Giulia Nicolini, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge


This article investigates the notion of 'safety' as a social construct by exploring the experiences of a group of Japanese mothers with young children in dealing with nuclear contamination of food since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. It finds that concerned individuals socially negotiate, contest and interpret a range of sources in order to construct their own idea of 'safety' in relation to food, and manage risks related to radiation. It will argue that for women who had an awareness of food safety risks prior to the nuclear disaster, radiation contamination concerns were to some extent incorporated into established social practices and frameworks of risk management.


Social construction of risk; Fukushima disaster; Japan; food safety; motherhood; food contamination.


They say, you know, we should not worry about Fukushima … that we shouldn't worry about the radiation because Fukushima is under control … I think it's just a lie.
(Informant E)

The catastrophic events which took place at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on 11 March 2011 provoked a barrage of criticism directed at the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), for constructing a 'myth of safety' (anzen shinwa) around nuclear energy which they had persuaded the general public into believing (Sand, 2012: 315; Onishi, 2011). The havoc wreaked by the triple disaster helped to dispel this myth swiftly, creating a vacuum in many people's understandings of what 'safety' now meant. As the above quotation from one of my informants demonstrates, government assurances of safety were increasingly met with scepticism and disbelief. Public trust in the ability of the government to handle the situation and to protect its citizens adequately was significantly undermined, leading some individuals to take matters into their own hands.

On 11 March 2011 an earthquake of magnitude 9.0, with an epicentre off the north-eastern coast of Japan, triggered a tsunami which swept across the Tōhoku region, disrupting the cooling systems of TEPCO's Fukushima No. 1 plant. This prompted the almost immediate evacuation of residents living within a 20-mile radius, as well as urgent restrictions on tap water and food consumption in the prefectures closest to the nuclear plant (Gill, Steger and Slater, 2013: 3–4; 11–12). These events collectively came to be known as the 'Tōhoku disaster', the 'Fukushima disaster' or variations on '3/11' (Bricker, 2014: 127–34). Given that I will be focusing in particular on the effects of the nuclear disaster, I will use the term 'Fukushima disaster' to refer to the complex set of repercussions which followed the incidents at the nuclear plant.

In the months following the nuclear disaster, the spread of radioactive material into the food chain and water cycle became pressing concerns for both the government and the wider population. Seemingly trivial tasks such as going to the supermarket to buy previously popular Tōhoku leafy greens and rice became fraught with uncertainty and risk. Officials identified infants as the group most at risk from radioactive iodine (which was detected in Tokyo tap water), leading many parents to be on high alert to protect children's health (Aoki, 2012).

Prior to the disaster, no legislation concerning permissible levels of radiation in food existed in Japan. Within a month of the accident the Japanese government established emergency procedures to test for radiation in food, including provisional standard values for the maximum level of radiation to be contained in food and water (Umeda, 2012). However, in April 2012 these guidelines were tightened and the upper limits of radiation allowed in food were lowered (Umeda, 2012).

Throughout these discussions, the absence of a coherent idea of what could be deemed 'safe' with regard to radiation in food meant that ordinary individuals were left to their own devices to make sense of scientific terms and knowledge. Furthermore, the discrepancy between government assurances of safety and many retailers' promises to not sell any contaminated food forced consumers to make their own assessments about food safety (Berends, 2013).

This article will examine how a group of Japanese mothers, as ordinary individuals who buy and consume food, dealt with risks from radiation and socially negotiated the idea of what is safe to eat following the Fukushima disaster. I will explore how a small number of Japanese mothers with pre-existing concerns about food safety made sense of scientific information pertaining to radiation, and investigate how they constructed their own notion of 'safety' in relation to food, through the interpretation and contestation of different sources and claims.

I was prompted to investigate the experiences of mothers in particular after speaking to a Japanese acquaintance and mother (Informant A) living in Tokyo, in September 2013. She told me that she and other mothers at her son's nursery avoided buying food products from Fukushima prefecture for fear that they might be contaminated. As well as this personal insight, I found that women and mothers have been the focus of research and media attention in the post-disaster context, often for their anti-nuclear activism and campaigns for measures to protect children from radiation, often in or near Fukushima prefecture (Morioka, 2013; Aoki, 2012; Holdgrun and Holthus, 2014).
Although I was interested in this phenomenon of politicisation, I narrowed the focus of my investigation to one aspect of mothers' radiation concerns – food – partly because this was the most salient for my informants. They all lived in Tokyo at the time; though they may not have had to clear up the rubble of their homes or deal with the death of loved ones, for many the idea of radiation in food and water presented a real and alarming risk to the health of their children, as well as to their own. Therefore, although post-Fukushima research has tended to look at victims of the disaster directly affected by the tsunami, my focus will be on the longer-term repercussions of the disaster for those living beyond the evacuation zone. In approaching the study of disaster through the issue of food safety and the everyday choices mothers make when buying food, I aim to contribute to sociological understandings of risk and safety, as well as an understanding of how the disaster has been experienced in personal, rather than national or collectivistic terms.

Literature review

A distinction has been made in the literature between risk – a situation to which we can attribute probability – and uncertainty, a situation about which we lack the information needed to measure the odds (Knight, 1940). For the purpose of my research, I have not found it useful to theorise these concepts as discrete; rather, on the basis of my findings below, I would suggest that individuals often construct and act upon risk despite uncertainty.

There are several approaches to risk in the literature (Lupton, 1999); this article follows the sociocultural perspective, according to which risks do not exist objectively 'out there', but rather are socially constructed and defined (Lupton, 1999; Beck, 2009). Cultural theories of risk promote the idea that perception of risk is rooted in culture and shared values (Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982). Phenomenological perspectives focus on the 'situated meanings that are given to risk' and the 'micro-context of risk meaning' (Lupton, 1999: 27). Risk perception refers to 'how an individual understands and experiences the phenomenon' (Oltedal, 2004: 11). A phenomenological approach to researching risk is therefore useful for understanding how actors in different sociocultural settings 'construct their risk understandings as part of their interaction with others, albeit within the broader frame of social structures' (Lupton, 1999: 27).

Individualisation of risk perspective

Beck argues that in contemporary societies there exists a 'hierarchy of knowledge' in which experts are considered superior to laypersons, and, as a result, are given control over the 'means of definition'; that is, the power to define, through legal and scientific methods, what will be deemed a 'risk' (Beck, 2009: 33). The individualisation of risk perception calls into question the relationship between experts and lay people, and I would suggest that in the post-Fukushima context, this notion holds for the definition of 'safety' too.

In the case of the Fukushima disaster, 'the massive uncertainty caused by nuclear contamination [has engendered] … a breakdown of trust' in both governments and experts (Sand, 2012: 316). In the wake of disaster, the power of governments and experts to impose their definitions on the public is diminished. Furthermore, the binary between lay people and experts has been complicated by the individualisation of knowledge used to construct individual 'risk narratives by way of local and mediated cultural representations' (Tulloch, 2008: 148). Indeed, Ikeda (2013) found that in the post-Fukushima context, the proliferation of multiple and competing sources of often contradictory information produces a situation in which the construction of risk is individualised and decentralised. Thus individuals engage in 'self-negotiations to determine where they draw the line between 'safe' and 'unsafe' and between acceptable and unacceptable risks' (Ikeda, 2013: 164).

When the construction of risk and safety becomes individualised, the notion of trust is foregrounded. Trust is a critical concept within the study of post-disaster contexts, given its close relationship to risk and uncertainty (Sztompka, 1999). Trust plays a crucial part in enabling social relations and interactions in everyday life, and is therefore necessary for coping with the increased conditions of risk and danger which characterise modernity (Giddens, 1990).

Looking at disaster through food

Food consumption can act as a lens which enables the understanding of individual responses to wider issues. Sociological and anthropological perspectives on food are premised on the idea that food is a 'political issue' (Jussaume et al., 2000: 211). Lien argues that in the politics of food, actions which '[contest] existing power relations' are in danger of going unnoticed, due to their 'everyday' quality (2004: 9). In looking at the everyday choices of mothers buying food for their children, I aim to capture how seemingly trivial actions such as buying rice from Eastern Japan or choosing to not buy mushrooms from Fukushima prefecture can be read contestations of 'existing power relations'.

Due to the nature of the act, in which the object consumed becomes incorporated into the body, food habits and eating are 'both banal and fraught with potentially irreversible consequences' (Fischler, 1988: 279). This vulnerability is heightened during moments of panic over food contamination, which highlight the lack of control we have over our food (Fischler, 1980: 945). Looking at how consumers have dealt with food-related risks since Fukushima can further our understanding of how people respond to disaster through adaptation and compromise in daily life.

Sternsdorff Cisterna (2013) has examined the issue of food safety in relation to risk and trust; he found that trust in the state is central to shaping people's perceptions of safety, and as a result, whether consumers choose to buy food from Fukushima certified as 'safe' by the government. Although Sternsdorff Cisterna provides a valuable contribution to thinking about trust and food safety since March 2011, his focus was on organised groups such as anti-nuclear activists. I will elaborate on this by introducing the narratives of less politically-minded mothers.

The politics of motherhood in the aftermath of Fukushima

Although my research centred on the experiences of mothers in particular, making gender a potential area for investigation, this has been adequately dealt with elsewhere and is outside the scope of this article. For an overview of gender and gender relations in Japan see Sugimoto (2010) or Hendry (2003); and Morioka (2014) for specifically post-Fukushima studies.

Women in Japan engage with politics through many different channels (LeBlanc, 2011); however, the literature investigating the experiences of mothers in the post-Fukushima context has focused almost exclusively on the intersection of motherhood and political activity. This has often been with the aim of challenging the traditional depiction of Japanese women (and mothers in particular) as 'apolitical' (Morioka, 2013). For example, Holdgrun and Holthus (2014), in their research of the Tokyo-based Chiyoda-ku kodomo mamorukai ('Chiyoda group to protect children'), formed in the aftermath of the disaster, conclude that 'women often become aware and concerned of political problems only through their role of mothers' (2014: 6).

I did not find that the mothers in my study engaged in any form of political activity in response to their concerns about radiation in food. Therefore, the literature investigating mothers' responses to the disaster through the prism of politics was not relevant in the analysis of findings below. However, it is worth nothing that my interviewees did report becoming concerned about food safety, and more active in their approach to food consumption, through their interests as mothers protecting their children.


The data was collected in Tokyo in September 2014 by the author. Informants were recruited using a snowball sampling method (Hendricks, Blanken and Adriaans, 1992). I conducted two semi-structured group interviews with Japanese mothers, all with children between 18 months and 6 years old, and one interview with an unmarried Japanese woman with no children (Informant G). All informants lived in the suburbs of Tokyo at the time.

As stated in the introduction, the focus of my research was the everyday repercussions of the Fukushima disaster for women and mothers living outside the tsunami-afflicted region. The decision to interview mothers living in Tokyo, rather than Fukushima, also stemmed from constraints on the researcher. I was working in Tokyo and conducted interviews in my spare time at the weekends; as such, it was difficult to make time to travel to northern prefectures, and I also faced obstacles in accessing interviewees in the region, having no prior contact with residents there. The research was also self-funded, leading to a very limited travel budget. Lastly, traveling to Fukushima unaccompanied could have presented a number of risks to the researcher, relating to the problem of nuclear contamination in the region.

Aside from Informant G, who was 28 years old and employed in an architecture firm, my informants were all mothers between 30 and 40 years old, from educated, middle-class backgrounds. Two of the mothers worked full time, while the other six either worked part time from home or were stay-at-home mothers.

There was one group of four (Informants A, B, C and D) and one group of two (Informants E and F), giving seven interviewees in total. In both group interviews, informants knew one another, but did not know the women in the other interviews. Interviews were conducted in the home of one of the interviewees in each group; this was at the request of the interviewees, who offered their homes as settings for the interviews and for whom it was more convenient to meet in a relaxed, informal and familiar location. Conducting interviews in such a setting is likely to have helped interviewees to feel more comfortable and open to the discussion, leading to the collection of richer data.

The research received ethical approval from the Sociology Ethics Committee at the University of Cambridge. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the study and signed written consent forms permitting the use of their responses in the author's research. An example of the consent form is given in Appendix 1.

My participants were all native Japanese speakers; however, in both group interviews one informant spoke near-fluent English. Although I asked questions and responded to interviewees in Japanese, the presence of an English speaker helped facilitate the discussion. All conversations were recorded and later transcribed and translated into English by the author.

I used a template analysis approach to thematically code my interview data (King, 2012). The template is given in Appendix 2.


The methodology presents a number of limitations relating to the representativeness of the sample and, consequently, the generalisability of the findings, which should be borne in mind throughout the article.

Firstly, time and access constraints in the field meant that I was only able to recruit and interview a small number of women. Partly as a result of the obstacles I faced in accessing informants in a city which was unfamiliar to me and far from my university, I chose to use a snowball sampling technique to recruit interviewees. This led to my recruiting a group of women with very similar backgrounds, including similar views, fears and attitudes as regards radiation, food and safety. In particular, it is notable that all of my informants reported purchasing the bulk of their food from supermarkets which were deemed ethical, organic and strict about radiation.
Secondly, it should be noted that the interviews were conducted three years after the disaster, therefore increasing the risk of recall bias among my informants. However, the issue of radiation in food continues to present a danger while the Japanese government deals with the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 plant. As such, I explored my informants' current attitudes and consumption practices, as much as I did their retrospective assessments of food safety and their recollection of the events three years previously.

Despite these limitations, however, I believe my initial findings provide a window into how mothers with pre-existing food safety and hygiene concerns navigate new and unfamiliar contamination risks in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.


The government cannot be trusted

My informants unanimously expressed distrust towards the national government, which was seen to have managed the disaster recovery poorly, and even manipulated the media in order to conceal the extent of the damage. The government was seen by many of my informants to be either explicitly lying or hiding 'the truth' about conditions at the nuclear plant.

The reluctance of my informants to trust the government was sometimes explained in terms of the latter's perceived values and priorities; for example, it was seen by some to put economic recovery above the well-being of citizens:

They tried to start the plant again, right? So I still don't think, you know, that the government is working for people … I think they try to start the plant again for the economy.
(Informant E)

Many informants did not feel adequately protected by the state, nor did they feel that enough was being done to minimise the risk of radiation to children's health. As will be seen below, distrust of the government led sceptical individuals to seek out alternative sources of information about the disaster and radiation, so that they could construct and deal with risk on their own terms.

Contesting government radiation standards

Following the disaster the Japanese government set up emergency guidelines for the maximum permissible level of radiation to be contained in food and water. However, food containing amounts beyond this level was found on store shelves, contributing to further erosion of trust in the government's ability to deal with radiation risk (Fackler 2011; Sternsdorff Cisterna, 2013). In April 2012 the government lowered the permissible level of radiation for food, giving rise to doubts about how 'safe' food currently on the market was.

My informants expressed uncertainty and anxiety about how to make sense of these fluctuating standards, and how they should interpret contradicting information when making choices in the supermarket. This led many of my informants to seek food suppliers who abided by alternative, stricter standards:

Seikatsu Club [a federation of consumer cooperatives formed in 1965] has more restrictions about their checking system. As far as I know, Pal System [part of the Japan Consumer Cooperative Union (Seikyo)] is just following the standards of the country … [Seikatsu Club] have their own standard, and that's the one thing that I like about them.
(Informant E)

Informant E explained why she had recently changed which supermarket she shopped at, citing radiation guidelines as the reason. It is significant that she distinguished between supermarkets which abided by government standards and those which established their own stricter guidelines, seeing the latter as more trustworthy.

My respondents expressed a preference both for lower permissible traces of radiation in food, as well as for stricter testing procedures. They claimed to prefer shopping at cooperatives such as Seikatsu Club because such stores clearly displayed figures about radiation, as well as other information about pesticides and additives, on product labels. Although these supermarkets were not naively promising 'zero radiation', they at least ensured that their products would contain less radiation than those tested using government standards.

Making sense of the science behind radiation

My informants consulted a host of sources in order to inform themselves about radiation and make decisions about the safety of food. Having rejected national news outlets as untrustworthy, many of my informants turned to foreign media for what they considered to be a more accurate or unbiased coverage of the situation at the nuclear plant, as well as to obtain information about the health risks of leaking radiation. Some informants also talked about local government websites – which were seen as distinct from the national government – in order to inform themselves about the radiation in their area.

Most mothers did not have a solid understanding of the scientific information they consulted; many informants made only vague references to radiation levels, which suggested a lack of – or at best limited and uncertain – knowledge concerning the meaning of the values they sought on labels. Rather, their aim was to reduce their children's intake of radiation as much as they could by seeking out food suppliers which boasted the lowest levels of contamination.

The importance of place

I recruited my informants on the basis that they claimed to avoid buying food from Fukushima prefecture since the nuclear disaster. When asked about their consumption habits, some informants expressed a preference for buying food from 'western Japan', rather than merely avoiding food from Fukushima prefecture. However, not everyone had a clear-cut idea of which areas were contaminated, and there was significant variation in my informants' understandings of radiation in relation to place.

Informants' ideas about place and radiation were often shaped by the way they informed themselves about radiation issues, which in turn shaped their food consumption choices. For example, while one informant merely claimed to avoid buying food grown in either China or Fukushima prefecture, other informants claimed be equally wary of produce from regions neighbouring Fukushima, such as Iwate or Miyagi prefectures.

Some informants described which areas they avoided in terms of prefectural borders, given that the spread of radiation does not stop at artificially-imposed divisions between administrative units. Equally, it is important to consider that food product labels usually mark provenance according to prefecture, possibly leading informants to think about consumption avoidance in these terms. However, not all informants spoke about radiation in such clear-cut terms. As suggested above, those who were informed more by scientific knowledge expressed different ideas about contamination, as this quotation from Informant D demonstrates:

After the earthquake they released a map showing how the radiation was spreading … and how the wind was moving the radiation. The map indicates areas with high levels of radiation in different colours; normally the red colour is the area with the highest level. As much as possible I avoid these areas … Chiba, Ibaraki, and Saitama. Hmm, when there are mountains, it kind of depends on the place.

The contrast between informants' responses was indicative of the range of ways in which people concerned with radiation have constructed their own ideas about safety and contamination.

Fukushima prefecture as 'contaminated'

We saw on TV, news of the radiation breaking out in Fukushima, and we have … something about Fukushima in our minds … that the food from Fukushima should be contaminated. For me, like, I cannot change that impression of Fukushima, you know?
(Informant E)

A number of informants reported that the idea of Fukushima as a contaminated place has been difficult to dislodge, despite test results sometimes showing no traces of radiation in Fukushima-grown produce. Given their aforementioned distrust in the government, it is not surprising that many informants chose to disregard scientific evidence published by the latter, relying instead on their subjective impressions about contamination when choosing what food to buy.

One informant suggested that her impression of Fukushima prefecture was informed more by media reporting and prejudiced expectations rather than scientific claims or radiation tests; moreover, she found it difficult to shake this impression, and claimed it continued to guide her consumption choices. This is an example of how mothers negotiated between competing discourses and their own subjective idea about what is safe and what is unsafe. Furthermore, it highlights the role of trust in shaping people's ideas about radiation, safety and food consumption.

More than just radiation

The food at Seikatsu Club doesn't have artificial additives, like chemicals and stuff.
(Informant E)

The cooperative vegetables... don't really use pesticides, so I choose to go there.
(Informant B)

In my conversations with informants about food shopping, the topic of radiation featured prominently, but it was not the only food safety issue we discussed. Many mothers also expressed concerns over pesticides, agricultural chemicals and food additives. Almost all of my informants claimed to have avoided foods containing such substances since before the disaster. Thus, even before the emergence of potential radiation health risks, my informants had a heightened awareness of different kinds of contamination which could be harmful to children's health, which influenced where they shopped and what they bought.

What these pre-existing concerns with food safety and provenance show is that for many of my respondents, the 2011 disaster may represent less of a turning point in consumption practices, but rather the addition of new concerns to the already risky task of buying food. In fact, a number of respondents recalled the birth of their children representing the biggest shift in how they thought about food and safety:

I am totally different now [compared with when I didn't have children]. Like, when I didn't have kids, I seldom thought about the safety of the food, you know? I didn't care about what I ate.
(Informant E)

For my informants, the threat of radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 plant became one more variable to consider when looking at food labels and deciding what to feed their children, rather than marking a fundamental shift in the way they thought about food safety and contamination.


My informants' narratives demonstrate that the notion of 'safety' in the aftermath of disaster is uncertain, fluid and contested. Individuals take on the burden of deciding for themselves what is safe to eat, particularly when public trust in experts and government is undermined. As we have seen, concerned individuals draw on a range of often contradictory sources of knowledge and information in order to shape their own understanding of 'safety'; these include media coverage, scientific values, measurements and tests, but also subjectively held ideas about contamination. These understandings are ideals which are translated into everyday practices, incorporated into shopping routines, and negotiated pragmatically in light of existing concerns, habits and beliefs.

Slater argues that 'surviving disaster requires compromise, navigating between diverse uncertainties and risks … Often the result is some sort of mixed form of behaviour: pragmatic, tactical attempts to adjust to unfamiliar situations whilst still pursuing familiar goals' (2013: 37). My informants had to fit their concerns with radiation and health around the demands of their everyday lives, and this often meant incorporating the risk of nuclear contamination into their pre-existing practices of avoiding pesticides, additives and other harmful chemicals.

The politics of 'acceptable levels'

The acceptability of risk has been seen as a 'political issue' (Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982: 4) insofar as it is contested, but also in that 'acceptable levels' legitimate contamination 'to just that limited degree', without us knowing how much harm the controversial 'bit' of contamination might cause (Beck, 1992: 64). However, given the wide variety in individual understandings of, and 'comfort levels' for, risk (Ikeda, 2013: 168) it is almost impossible to determine an 'absolutely safe threshold' for risk which satisfies everyone (Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982: 54).

Beck describes 'acceptable levels' as a 'phony trick' concealing the fact that those who determine them – scientists, experts, governments – do not actually know the extent of the damage they will inflict (Beck, 1992: 64, 69). However, these tricks are not always taken at face value. As Sternsdorff Cisterna (2013) suggests, the government's standard is only one 'interpretation' of what it means for food to be safe, which is challenged by those consumers seeking alternatives.

My informants' rejection of government standards demonstrates that official experts do not have an uncontested monopoly over defining risk or safety for everyone. In light of this, I agree with Ikeda's (2013) claim that the state had little control over the construction of risk following the Fukushima disaster; however this does not preclude its influence in other ways. For my informants, government standards were used as a reference point for determining the safety of a food supplier, and more broadly, for shaping their idea of what 'safe' meant in terms of food.

Acceptable levels are also political in that they are seen to function as a 'symbolic tranquiliser pill' in response to media and public panic, which signal that 'someone is making an effort' (Beck, 1992: 64; 69). Although the supermarkets at which my interviewees shopped did not promise zero radiation, they did try to reassure consumers by demonstrating that their products would at least contain less radiation than foods tested to government standards. For the mothers I interviewed, supermarkets such as Seikatsu Club created the impression that they were making more of an effort than the government, and therefore could be deemed a safer choice.

Radiation, place and 'imaginary boundaries' of contamination

Ikeda suggests that concerned individuals have drawn 'arbitrary imagined boundaries' around Fukushima, positioning themselves outside the contaminated space in order to create a 'sense of security' (2013: 170). However, my informants' responses, particularly those taking into account different variables affecting the spread of radiation (such as wind direction) indicate that individual perceptions of contamination are not always determined by 'pre-existing social and geographical boundaries' (Ikeda, 2013: 168). My informants' imaginary boundaries of nuclear contamination ranged from a direct correspondence with prefectural borders, to notions based on vague divisions between east and west, to uncertain and shifting ideas based on changing environmental conditions. Significantly, for informants who did not limit their conceptualisation of contamination to prefectural borders, it did indeed seem that 'the line where contamination begins and ends is a blur' (Ikeda, 2013: 170). Choosing which areas to avoid when looking at labels can therefore be seen as another instance of pragmatic compromise in the aftermath of disaster.

Imaginary boundaries, although they may be 'arbitrary' and shaped by media images (Ikeda, 2013: 169), have played a crucial role in the construction of 'safety' for my informants. My respondents' concern with where their food came from is indicative of this. I would suggest that these boundaries result from a negotiation between subjective ideas about Fukushima prefecture as contaminated – partly fuelled by media images – and scientific information or knowledge, which at times challenges this image of contamination. This tension between the scientific and the subjective can be seen as inherent to the idea of safety itself, as I will explore further below.

Reconciling the subjective and the scientific

The literal Japanese translation of 'safety' is anzen (安全); however, Sternsdorff Cisterna (2013) argues that in discussions about food safety since the Fukushima disaster, increasingly the phrase anshin anzen (安心安全), 'safe and secure', has been used (anshin means 'relief' or 'peace of mind'). Sternsdorff Cisterna suggests that anzen denotes a 'quantifiable form of safety that has thresholds and can be measured in units', whereas anshin 'speaks to questions of the heart' and 'describes the degree of confidence one feels about the safety of food' (2013). For many concerned individuals in the wake of the disaster, particularly given the lack of knowledge concerning radiation, scientific data may not be enough to reassure everyone; rather, the role of trust has taken a more centre-stage position.

Most of my Japanese-speaking respondents discussed food safety using the word anzen, however, there were times when the affective side was exalted. For example, speaking about the possible consequences of radiation contamination in food, one informant claimed that:

If we talk about our family at least, we don't buy food which isn't safe (anzen), so we have peace of mind (anshin).

The relationship here is almost causal: my respondent claimed to buy food which she saw as quantifiably or scientifically safe, which produced confidence and the trust needed for her to consume it.

Sternsdorff Cisterna argues that there must be trust in the 'science that determines something is safe' in order for the anzen/anshin relationship to exist; only then will conscientious consumers feel comfortable buying food which may contain traces of radiation. I have suggested that my informants gave different weight to the scientific and subjective influences which shaped their ideas about food safety, and that trust in food or food suppliers often hinged on the clear execution of scientific tests and procedures. However, rather than being premised merely on trust in science, the relationship between the scientific and subjective aspects of safety was also dependent on trust in the institution – government, retail supermarket or school – employing scientific methods to determine what was safe.

The concept of trust has been critical both in the construction of safety as well as ensuing consumption choices; a lack of trust in the government led to the discrediting of scientific evidence produced by the latter and a stricter definition of safety, followed by a decision to shop at supermarkets with independent radiation guidelines or which supplied food from a range of Japanese prefectures.


I set out to explore the experiences of Japanese mothers concerned with food safety in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. I wanted to investigate how, as active, concerned consumers, these mothers constructed and dealt with risks relating to food safety in everyday life. I found that trust has been a pivotal factor in shaping how individuals interpret official communication and come to their own understanding of risk, as well as how they negotiate the tension between subjective and scientific considerations inherent in the notion of 'safety'. I also found that for mothers who were already concerned with food safety, the disaster did not represent a critical turning point in consumption habits, but rather, forced my informants to incorporate one more risk into their pre-existing social practices.

Due to the limited generalisability of the research, as discussed in the methodology section above, it is outside the scope of this article to draw broad policy implications from the data presented here. However, I would suggest that these initial findings point to the need for further research into a number of key issues which arise in post-disaster contexts, particularly nuclear disasters. These include relations of trust between individuals and government, between consumers and food suppliers, and between experts and the lay public. A more in-depth investigation of consumers' complex and contradictory understandings of food safety, as well as how these understandings may be challenged and reconstructed in the wake of disaster, could indeed contribute to shaping disaster-response policies.

The 2011 nuclear disaster debunked the 'safety myth' which had seemingly lulled officials, experts, and the public into a false sense of security regarding the man-made risks of nuclear energy. The experiences of my informants suggest that filling this lacuna and making renewed sense of what 'safe' is, has involved shifting relations of trust, as well as the social interpretation of knowledge and the negotiation of competing ethical and pragmatic considerations.

Appendix 1: Consent Form

Buying food after the Fukushima disaster: choices and attitudes

Name of researcher: Giulia Nicolini

I am conducting interviews as part of a research project on food consumption since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. You will be asked questions about your food habits and your attitudes to buying food from different regions in Japan, and how you decide what food to buy. This research is being conducted for a dissertation in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

The interview will take about one hour.

You can interrupt me at any time with any questions about the research, or contact me after the interview.

Please tick box

1. I confirm that I have understood these instructions and have had the opportunity to ask questions. ▢

2. I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw at any time without giving a reason. ▢

3. I understand that my responses will be anonymised and only used for academic research. ▢

4. I understand that the interview will be recorded. ▢

5. I agree to take part in the above project. ▢

Name of Participant
Name of Researcher

Appendix 2: Coding Template

1. Perceptions of national government
1.1. The government cares more about the economy
1.2. The government is lying or hiding the truth
1.3. Distrust government information about radiation
1.3.1. Radiation standards
1.3.2. Individual research Internet Friends
2. Perceptions of risk
2.1. Concern with children's health
2.1.1. Concern with possible effects of radiation
2.1.2. Adults are less of a concern
2.1.3. Maybe mothers are stricter
2.2. Concern with radiation in food
2.2.1. Avoid buying food from regions near nuclear plant
2.2.2. Prefer food from Western Japan
2.2.3. Idea of Fukushima prefecture as contaminated
2.3. Concern with other harmful substances
2.3.1. Pesticides, additives
2.3.2. Avoid food from China
3. Buying and consuming food
3.1. Cooperative supermarkets
3.1.1. Wider choice of producing region
3.1.2. Display label with radiation, organic certification
3.2. Eating outside the home
3.2.1. School meals
3.2.2. Restaurants


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Nicolini, G. (2016), Safe to Eat? Dealing with Food Safety after the Fukushima Disaster', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 9, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at