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Fukushima Water Release: How Japan-China relations have deteriorated

Written by Anoushka Patel

Edited by Annika Lilja

Image Credit: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

On the 24th of August, Japan began its controversial discharge of treated wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. The decision to discharge over a million tonnes of treated water into the ocean has caused significant friction with China, damaging the chances of a much-awaited detente.

As the two countries celebrate the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Japan is now facing a new period of rising tensions with its neighbor. In the direct aftermath of the start of the discharge, China immediately enforced a total ban on all Japanese fish imports, while reports of phone calls harassing businesses, schools and government departments have angered the Japanese public.

In response to the aggression, Japan’s vice foreign minister, Masataka Okano, summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wu Jianghao on Monday and urged the Chinese government to stop spreading misinformation, underlining the scientific evidence from the UN’s atomic regulator, which proved that the discharge has “negligible” impact on the environment.

The release of the treated water has snuffed out the glimmers of hope in the past few months, when signs of a steady improvement in bilateral ties had begun to surface. In April, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi flew to Beijing to meet China’s former Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, marking the first visit to China by a Japanese foreign minister in over three years. Three months later, Hayashi and Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi held bilateral talks on the sidelines of an ASEAN-related meeting in Indonesia.

To open talks, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida asked Komeito’s leader Natsuo Yamaguchi to deliver Xi a personal letter during his scheduled visit to China. However, two days before his departure, Yamaguchi was forced to postpone his trip due to the Chinese reaction to the water release. Despite the UN watchdog approving the plan, China still calls the water "contaminated," and Chinese government officials have called on Japan to stop treating the ocean "as its own sewer."

Despite having a strong trading relationship, China and Japan have not always seen eye to eye – especially in recent years. Under Xi’s leadership, China has stepped up its military presence in the region, frequently dispatching its vessels in the South China Sea and intensifying its claims over Taiwan.

Amid escalating competition between China and the United States, Tokyo has remained a firm ally of the West, firmly condemning Beijing’s assertiveness and bolstering its engagements in global politics. In addition, Tokyo’s plans to drastically reinforce its defense capabilities through a $53 billion increase of the military budget have angered Beijing.

With the increasing security concerns in the region, the Western bloc has been increasingly siding against China, and conflict over Taiwan could easily involve Japan too. Meanwhile, opinion polls show that the Japanese public view China as hostile and aggressive. A survey conducted by the government’s Public Relations Office last fall found that 81.8% of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of China, while only 17.8% expressed a positive view.

Since its inauguration in October 2021, the Kishida administration has hardened its rhetoric toward China, while leaving the door open for dialogue with Beijing. However, many right-wing Japanese outlets, such as the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, accused Kishida of having a “lukewarm” response to the Chinese ban.

Multilateral talks between Japanese and Chinese officials could help break the deadlock and persuade China to end its ban on Japanese fish imports. However, given the current state of public opinion on China, Kishida has less leeway to approach Beijing than Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe did. As Kishida hails from a faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that has traditionally been considered pro-China, he could face tough criticism over such a move.



Ng, Kelly. “Fukushima nuclear disaster: Japan to release treated water in 48 hours.” BBC News, 22nd August 2023,

Hawkins, Amy and McCurry, Justin. “Fukushima: China accused of hypocrisy over its own release of wastewater from nuclear plants.” The Guardian, 25th August 2023,

The Japan Times. “Japan fishing industry reels after China’s seafood embargo.” The Japan Times, 25th of August 2023,

Khadka Singh, Navin. “The science behind the Fukushima waste water release.” BBC News, 26th August 2023,

Murakami, Sakura. “Japan makes record defence spending request amid tension with China.” Reuters, 31st August 2023,

IAEA. “IAEA Finds Japan’s Plans to Release Treated Water into the Sea at Fukushima Consistent with International Safety Standards.” International Atomic Energy Agency, 4th of July 2023,


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