Hong Kong's catering and seafood sector is bracing for a financial hit amid mounting local concerns over food safety sparked by Japan's plan to release treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea starting Thursday.
The Hong Kong government said Tuesday it will restrict Japanese seafood imports from 10 prefectures -- Tokyo, Fukushima, Chiba, Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Miyagi, Niigata, Nagano and Saitama -- beginning Thursday after the government announced the starting date of the water discharge.
Hong Kong is Japan's second-largest market for fisheries exports, with mainland China being the largest.
In 2022, the semiautonomous region imported Japanese seafood products worth about 75.5 billion yen ($536 million), accounting for some 20 percent of Tokyo's total marine product exports, according to Japanese government statistics.
Even before the start of the Fukushima water discharge, the city tightened controls on Japanese seafood imports in June, significantly delaying customs clearance. The measure has affected an express seafood distribution service known as "Day Zero," which provides fresh fish from Japan to Hong Kong within a day.
The service guarantees that seafood procured from Tokyo's Toyosu fish market in the morning will arrive at Hong Kong restaurants by the evening of the same day to maintain its quality and freshness.
However, Hong Kong customs began conducting blanket radiation testing of seafood imports from Japan at least once a week in mid-July, making it impossible for them to be sent to local restaurants in time for dinner preparations.
"Day Zero operations have continued for nearly 20 years but are no longer able to meet the demands of some customers," said Toshio Himuro, chairman of fresh fish importer and distributor Zen Foods Co. Sales have fallen by about 25 percent due to the tightened import controls, he added.
Hong Kong has already seen a decline in the consumption of Japanese food products amid increased media reports on the planned Fukushima water release.
Ko Chun-kit, chairman of major Japanese seafood importer NS Mall, said orders have already dropped by over 20 percent, and they are expected to fall more than 50 percent after the water release, adding the negative impact on importers and Japanese restaurants will possibly last for over six months.
Meanwhile, a Hong Kong bank executive expressed fears that financial difficulties faced by Japanese restaurants and marine product importers, as well as a drop in local seafood consumption, could be a further drag on Hong Kong's economy, which is still recovering from the severe blow dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chef Satoru Mukogawa of Sushi Kuu, one of Hong Kong's most renowned sushi restaurants, said that releasing the treated water could lead to the closure of many Japanese restaurants in the city.
"Hong Kong people love Japan, but they are also quick to change their minds," Mukogawa said, pointing to the significant decline in restaurant-goers following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
In an effort to navigate challenges brought on by tightened import controls, Zen Foods is aiming to open export bases in Osaka and Fukuoka, which will remain unaffected by Hong Kong's upcoming import restrictions.
The company has also partnered with a trading company in Hokkaido in northern Japan and is considering different avenues of procuring fresh fish from countries outside Japan, such as Russia and South Korea.
"Doing business in Hong Kong requires the tenacity to survive no matter what," Himuro said.