It might seem hard to believe that a comic could provoke such anger but over the past week in Japan a popular and long-running cooking manga called Oishinbo has done just that. It has been denounced by prime minister Shinzo Abe, upset the Fukushima prefectural government, been refuted by the government of Osaka and prompted an editorial from the conservative daily the Yomiuri Shimbun about how free speech comes with responsibility.
So, how did a comic about the exploits of a food journalist upset the political establishment? Oishinbo, for those who don’t follow Japanese manga, has been appearing in the magazine Big Comic Spirits since 1983 and has sold more than 130 million copies. Its title, Oishinbo, is a mix of oishii – the Japanese word for delicious – and kuishinbo – a food lover.
The trouble started in a recent issue when the author strayed from stories about rice, sushi and sake and moved onto the sensitive topic of Fukushima.
Our hero and other journalists suffer fatigue and nosebleeds after visiting the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that was wrecked in the tsunami of 2011. One fictional character, who is based on a real-life former mayor of Futaba – one of the towns that hosts the plant – says that he too had been sick since the disaster and that the area had been made unliveable because of radiation. Another character, based on a real-life medical expert, says that people living near an incinerator in Osaka, where debris from Fukushima was being burnt, had also suffered health problems.
The complaints were quick to appear. The Fukushima prefectural government released a written response saying no health issues had been linked to radiation and that the manga would damage the area’s agriculture and tourism industries. Osaka prefectural government added their own statement refuting the idea of health problems relating to burning debris from the tsunami-hit region.
The magazine put up a robust defence, arguing that the author Tetsu Kariya had done extensive research and never explicitly said that the symptoms were caused by radiation from Fukushima. A statement from the editorial team pointed out that previous issues of the manga had said that consumers shouldn’t avoid eating food from Fukushima.
It wasn’t enough. Shogakukan, the publisher of Big Comic Spirits, has announced that the manga will be suspended from 26 May. The latest issue will conclude the story and contain comments by the chief editor, Hiroshi Murayama, along with 10 pages of opinions by more than a dozen experts plus letters of protest from the Fukushima prefectural government, Osaka and the Fukushima town of Futaba.
That fiction could cause such outrage in Japan shows how sensitive the Fukushima issue is. At a time when Tepco, the operator of Fukushima Daiichi, is reporting new radiation highs in the waters adjacent to the plant, it could be argued that a comic is the least of the government’s problems.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.