By Norimasa Tahara / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent
Around the end of February, a false rumor spread in Thailand that if people ate Japanese sashimi, they would be infected with the new coronavirus.
The rumor was prompted by a Facebook post put up by the Thai Embassy in Tokyo, as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus, urging people to avoid eating Japanese sashimi. There are about 3,000 Japanese restaurants in Thailand, and some began to see lower sales.
There are said to be no reports of infection via food. Japan and others pointed this out, and the Thai health ministry stated that there was no risk of contracting the new coronavirus from sashimi at a press conference on Feb. 28.
Once spread, however, a false report doesn’t easily disappear.
Some even claimed it was a reasonable call to caution. I asked some Thai people their opinion about this situation.
“There’s unease about animals used for food,” a university professor said, pointing to the existence of a theory that the new coronavirus originated in bats sold at a Chinese market.
A journalist at a local newspaper said the news about a Thai couple who were criticized for hiding the fact they went to Hokkaido and were then found to have contracted the virus got conflated with Thai people’s image that “Hokkaido means salmon sashimi.”
“The public readily accepted [the rumor],” the journalist said.
Neither explains the purported connection between sashimi and catching the new coronavirus, but as the spread of the virus accelerates around the world and the origin of the infections is often unknown, I sensed that people want to exercise an abundance of caution.
When I raised this issue with a person connected to the Japanese government, they replied, “I feel as if Japan is being tested.”
The view overseas of Japan’s response to the new coronavirus has been harsh. The image apparently cannot be swept away that Japan has been lagging behind, including in its response to infections on a large cruise ship.
Distrust is growing in Thailand as well.
There are more than 70,000 Japanese nationals living in Thailand, the fourth-highest number of any foreign country, and more than 6,000 Japanese companies are operating there.
“People feel that the frequent comings and goings between our countries, as a result of our close relationship, are heightening the risk of infection,” the government-related source said. “Even if the sashimi talk was a false rumor, there’s a sense that Thailand is closely watching Japan’s actions.”
If Japan is angered by the false rumor and severely criticizes Thailand, cracks could appear in the bilateral relationship. After World War II, Japan built a relationship of trust with Southeast Asia through financial assistance and economic cooperation, and the entire region could come to view Japan through disappointed eyes.
We could look around and find that China, which has touted its containment of the coronavirus, is more actively providing medical assistance in Southeast Asia, where there are fears of the future spread of the virus.
China’s intention to expand its hegemony through assistance is clear.
What action should Japan take? Japanese Ambassador to Thailand Kazuya Nashida said in a submission to a Thai newspaper in mid-March, “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” stressing the importance of drawing on the friendship nurtured over 600 years of relations to overcome crises.
I want to believe that, if explosive growth in infections happens in Thailand, Japan will not find itself replaced by China if it acts as a true friend, not asking for recompense.