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Chateau Fukushima? Japanese winery tries to shake off negative image

Ten years after the nuclear disaster, local agri-businesses are looking to the future.

Fukushima (12/09 – 50.00) Ōse Winery sits in pristine forest carved into a hillside, surrounded by fields brimming with ready-to-pick fruit and veg. On a recent afternoon, a gentle breeze took the sting out of the late summer heat, and the vines were heavy with ripening grapes. As Japanese terroir goes, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic location.

The winery’s products have won awards in Japan and overseas, and – as the Observer can confirm – its chilled chardonnay hits the spot on a humid evening. Yet it faces an unenviable marketing challenge: every grape, apple, Asian pear and peach that goes into its wine, cider, calvados and liqueurs is grown locally, in Fukushima.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi – the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl a quarter of a century earlier – more than 50 countries and regions stopped importing produce from the region. Fishing near the stricken nuclear plant was banned, and farmers were told not to grow rice and to euthanise their cattle. For a while, it seemed that Brand Fukushima had been destroyed along with the lives and homes swept away by the tsunami that caused the nuclear crisis.

Just over a decade after the triple disaster along Japan’s north-east coast, the winery is proof that the region is making a comeback. “We were determined to counter the harmful rumours about Fukushima produce and get back on our feet,” said Hisanao Okawara, the sales manager at Ōse. “Everything is 100% Fukushima … we like to think of it as our ‘homemade’ wine.”

While it lacks the name recognition of established Japanese wine producers in Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, the winery – located near the city of Koriyama, about 40 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – has gained a small, but loyal, customer base since it opened in 2015 with funding from the Mitsubishi corporation and municipal government.

White and rose wines produced at Ōse Winery in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture.
White and rose wines produced at Ōse Winery in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Observer

It now provides an income for 15 fruit farmers who supply the grapes – including the cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot varieties – and other fruit for which Fukushima was celebrated before the nuclear meltdown. Last year it sold 25,000 bottles of wine and 10,000 bottles of its dry and sweet ciders, mainly to other parts of Fukushima prefecture, but also to customers in Tokyo and Osaka. Sales totalled 40m yen (£240,000) in 2021 and are expected to reach nearly 50m yen (£300,000) this year, and an estimated 63m yen (£380,000) next year.

When Britain recently lifted its remaining restrictions on food imports from Fukushima, social media users joked about the potential perils of eating food that “glows in the dark”. In fact, Fukushima has some of the most rigorous food safety regimes in the world, with the government-set upper limit for radioactive caesium in ordinary foodstuffs, such as meat and vegetables, at 100 becquerels per kilogram, compared with 1,250Bq/kg in the EU and 1,200Bq/kg in the US.

Now, just 12 countries, including neighbouring China and South Korea, ban or restrict Fukushima produce, according to the Japanese foreign ministry, with Indonesia becoming the latest country to accept imports from the region.

Radiation levels in neighbourhoods closest to the plant have fallen significantly during the 11 years since the disaster, but some foods, such as matsutake mushrooms and seasonable mountain vegetables, are still off-limits. Local people who eat wild vegetables they pick themselves have shown elevated radiation levels in examinations using whole-body counters, said Kaori Suzuki, director of the Mothers’ Radiation Lab Fukushima, a group of volunteers who test produce to reassure local consumers. “Some people think that because more than a decade has passed they will be OK,” said Suzuki, adding that farmed produce tested at the lab consistently passed safety standards.

“We don’t just say they meet the official safety standards, we let people know exactly what the readings are and let them decide for themselves. It’s not enough to keep saying Fukushima food is safe – you have to present consumers with the evidence. It’s only by being totally open that you can challenge the harmful rumours.”

Tomoko Kobayashi has no qualms about serving local meat, fish and vegetables at her ryokan inn in the Odaka district of Minamisoma, a city about 12 miles north of the nuclear plant. “We only serve food that has been tested, so we have no concerns,” she said. “We wouldn’t give our guests anything that we weren’t happy to eat ourselves.”

Her neighbour, Karin Taira, said she had “total confidence” in the testing regime. “Local agricultural products are very safe because the fields have been decontaminated and radiation levels are tested constantly by the authorities,” Taira said.

“All of the famers here are really careful about following strict guidelines set by the government. And they take a lot of pride in growing food that’s safe to eat.”

According to Okawara, “not a single item” of fruit at the winery had failed safety standards, but he conceded that the region had yet to overcome its image problem. “When people hear the word ‘Fukushima’, all they think about is radiation,” he said. That means our wine has to be exceptionally good to convince people to buy it. After all, this is our livelihood.”