Japan's brand threatened by food scandals

Japan's luxury Okura hotel chain executives bowing their heads at a press conference in Tokyo to apologise after the hotel served meals made with ingredients falsely labelled as being of top-end quality, such as Pacific white shrimp advertised as the
Japan's luxury Okura hotel chain executives bowing their heads at a press conference in Tokyo to apologise after the hotel served meals made with ingredients falsely labelled as being of top-end quality, such as Pacific white shrimp advertised as the much pricier Shiba variety on November 7, 2013. A Japanese food labelling scandal widened after the luxury Okura hotel chain, which has hosted foreign VIPs including US President Barack Obama, admitted it had lied about food quality at its swanky restaurants. -- PHOTO: AFP 

For several decades now, thanks to manufacturing industries obsessed with perfection and a work ethic often considered to be without parallel, Japan has become a symbol of quality and reliability.

That reputation has arguably extended well beyond manufacturing to even its service sectors.

Nevertheless, I have always some doubts. This happened each time the owner of an eatery that boasts "shukketsu sabisu" (literally, "hemorrhaging service") tells a television reporter that, even though he was barely making even, he was happy “as long as it made his customers happy”.

How could that be, I would ask myself. Surely the poor man needs to make enough to pay for his rent and his three meals a day.

Few people can afford to operate a restaurant as a charity.

But now we know that meals sold at give-away prices at "shukketsu sabisu" establishments do not necessarily mean zero profit.

A hint as to how such eateries manage to survive came in the recent humiliating scandal that saw a host of hotels and restaurants - beginning with a hotel chain in Osaka - lining up to admit to the long-time use of ingredients cheaper than what their menus advertised in order to improve their bottom lines.

Cooks, under constant pressure to cut costs, resorted to using the cheapest supplies possible without giving the game away.

One Chinese restaurant turned out sharks fin soup made with artificial fins moulded with gelatin and other materials. The same dish made with real sharks fin would have easily cost 10 times more.

Restaurants in one seaside town that touted the freshness of seafood they labelled as local but which it turned out they were buying from other parts of the country when the local catch was poor.

When they did so, they didn't think it was necessary to say so on their menus.

Such culinary sleight of hand was no doubt pretty widespread: if major hotels and restaurants had no qualms about getting their cooks to use cheap substitutes, what more the small and nameless operators in one's neighbourhood.

We are told that all these problems have since been remedied, at least by those restaurants that have confessed their sins. For example, canned juice is no longer passed off as freshly squeezed.

But can we be really sure?

The scandal seems to be far from over yet. Restaurants and hotels continue to queue up to confess to hoodwinking their customers.

The only difference is that, since most of these new cases involve businesses in smaller cities, such reports are carried in the back pages of local newspapers, not the national editions. But the damage done to Japan's name is untold.

The erosion of the country's hard-earned reputation is happening not only in the food and beverage industries but others as well.

The bad news came quickly.

A series of breakdowns over a matter of weeks led to the revelation that the company that manages the train services in the northern island of Hokkaido has apparently lost its rudder.

Maintenance was found to be erratic. Problem spots in many lines have been forgotten and not resolved. One driver regularly drove his train way over the speed limit until he was caught.

Even Japan's highly vaunted delivery service companies have been found wanting.

Sure, they deliver parcels on time and at highly competitive rates. But a scoop by the influential Asahi Shimbun daily woke consumers up to the fact that refrigerated parcels - at least one company - were frequently sorted in non-airconditioned rooms, thus ruining their contents.

Meanwhile part-time workers at a few convenience stores gave their fraternity a bad name.

They earned the ire of their employers after they not only chose to frolic among the foodstuffs they were supposed to sell, but also got their friends to photograph them in action and upload the pictures to social media sites for all the world to see.

The strange thing is not everyone who is guilty gets flak in Japan.

The Osaka-based Hankyu Hashin Hotels whose CEO decided to quit, was not the first to admit to fraudulent menu descriptions.

The first culprit to come to light were, in fact, one restaurant in Tokyo Disneyland, which is located just outside the capital, and three hotels managed by Tokyo Disney Resort.

Yet the news merited only a tiny column in a not so-well-read daily in May.

Disney officials did not hold any press conference nor offered any public apologies. Key television stations in particular shied away from touching the Disney story. Critics suspect that the media avoided talking about scandals concerning Disney because of the company's advertising clout.

Not only is Disney a major advertiser, Disney-related programmes, which are consistently popular with viewers, require Disney's cooperation for their production. Do not forget, Disney is the largest entertainment powerhouse in Japan.

Tokyo Disneyland, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has logged over 500 million visitors, recession or no recession.

With the increasing popularity of Japan’s food and pop culture around the world, more and more Japanese companies can be expected to try and gain a footing in overseas markets.

This latest series of scandals do not help their bid to win customers in other countries. The influential Nikkei daily put it rather starkly in an editorial: “If Japanese companies lose the trust of consumers at home, they will not only be in a fix. Their managements must realize that Japan as a brand will also be damaged.”

However, your Japanese hybrid car and video game machine have not lost their sheen. There are still many things that the Japanese do very well and I hope they continue that way.

wengkin@sph.com.sg