Downstream of Fukushima

The Japanese seafood industry has rebounded, but is anyone worried about irradiated water?

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

I am two levels down in Tokyo’s massive central railway station, eating seafood with my wife, Penny, and a crowd of hungry Japanese commuters and travelers. In August 2023, the Japanese government, with the blessing of the International Atomic Energy Agency, released more than a million metric tons of still-radioactive water from the nearby Fukushima nuclear power plant, which had suffered a catastrophic meltdown 12 years earlier. The seafood we are eating—large pieces of shrimp tempura and fatty tuna laved with soy sauce—could well have been caught in waters containing traces of radioactive tritium, but no one seems particularly bothered. If they are, they’re not letting it interfere with dinner.

Most of the Japanese people we talk to seem to believe that their government would not advise them to do something that wasn’t safe. We learn that surfers, for example, have returned to much of the Pacific coast near Tokyo, even if only a few dare to catch a wave in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima.

The Tokyo train station is jammed with every imaginable kind of Asian cuisine, and the long corridors are thronged with people eating fish. We go deeper to explore a restaurant serving conveyor-belt sushi. Once we’re seated at our table, we punch our order into a beeping device, and almost at once, salmon, tuna, sea urchin, and squid come around on the belt. I think about the young man who, not long ago, took a piece of sushi off a conveyor belt, licked it, and put it back on the dish, all the while being filmed by a buddy. He posted the video, and it went viral. Within days, both young men were prostrate on the floor of a television studio, begging the Japanese public for forgiveness. (Here, people take proper behavior seriously. Most Tokyo residents walk on the left side of the pavement so as not to collide with those headed in the other direction, a sensible practice when 14 million people inhabit your city. Few people throw trash on the street, and even in so crowded a city, you rarely hear car horns or raised voices.)

The 2011 earthquake, which triggered the Fukushima meltdown, also damaged thousands of fishing boats and hundreds of ports. Thanks to assistance from the Japanese government, the industry has largely recovered. The government also spent money to help with the shortfall in seafood sales, which plummeted nationally when China and Hong Kong halted all imports of Japanese fish. We are constantly reminded of the crisis: printed on some restaurant menus is a notice that the fish being served comes from “far to the south.”

You might think that this history would result in extreme caution when it comes to eating fish that once swam in contaminated water. But perhaps this very history has inured Japanese fish consumers—especially older diners—to any possible risks.

These days, older Japanese people tend to be the main consumers of fish; younger diners show a preference for meat. I ask one young Japanese restaurant patron whether the possibility of eating irradiated fish has altered his habits. He tells me that he has been eating fish only once a week for other reasons. “Shellfish absorbs plastics, so it’s unhealthy,” he says. “I don’t eat octopus because they’re intelligent, and it would be like eating a cat. Wild-caught salmon’s hard to get and too expensive. So is wild-caught shrimp.”

The bluefin tuna catch, meanwhile, has declined by more than 90 percent since the 1960s. Buyers still barter furiously at the Tsukiji Market, where whole frozen tunas are lined up on the floor of what looks like a morgue. Elsewhere at this historic marketplace, established in the 1600s, you can find a shoehorn-tight bazaar of 400-odd stalls selling vegetables, fruit, spices, condiments, and every sort of cookware. Seafood is grilled over charcoal and served to standing gourmands. When we visit, we enjoy abalone, crab (hairy and thorny), eel, more tuna, all finished off with a sweet and savory pickled cucumber on a stick. In makeshift mini-restaurants, turnover is quick and operators jealously guard their spaces. But as I finish my bottle of Kirin, with Penny off buying a bamboo cooking spoon, I find myself thinking not only about the meal we’ve just had but also of the Second World War, and the atomic bombs that killed a quarter of a million people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They left in their hideous wake radioactivity, leukemia, and other horrors. It occurs to me that this is a country with a historical uneasiness about radiation. You might think that this history would result in extreme caution when it comes to eating fish that once swam in contaminated Fukushima water. But perhaps this very history has inured Japanese fish consumers—especially older diners—to any possible risks.

We decide to try a famous place in Nakano City, one of a seemingly endless chain of interlocking neighborhoods. This one’s called Maguro Mart, and it’s jammed into a maze of crowded streets. Steps lead up to an open second floor with low tables and benches, where diners can seriously get down with tuna. We’re provided with a card showing a dozen cuts and a diagram of the fish itself.

Cuts from the head down to the belly arrive on a slab of wood accompanied by a pile of salt and freshly grated wasabi. While studying the diagram, we eat various kinds of sashimi, including fatty tuna and a cut from the base of the tail that contains slivers of soft, edible bone. We’re served almost every part of the tuna (the eyeballs, for some reason, never come), and our soy sauce dishes are soon brimming with pale pink, translucent flesh. At the end of the meal, what’s left of the fish arrives with little hand-carved, sharp-edged wood disks that allow us to scrape out the last holdouts between the ribs. Though we’re up to our gills in tuna, we aren’t willing to stop until every scrap is gone, minute traces of tritium be damned.

It’s an incredible indulgence, we know. Eating a threatened species is hardly exemplary. The tuna is arguably doomed, but then so are we. According to scientists, mammals are at the midpoint of their long, fortunate existence. We’re all downstream of Fukushima now, a bleak realization that occurs to us amid so much pleasure, our bellies full and heads light from all that pure protein, as we step out into the forever amazing Tokyo night.

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James Conaway is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Napa: The Story of an American Eden. He is at work on a memoir about his many years as a freelance journalist.


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