TOKYO (AP) — What’s the deal with koi? The deteriorating relations between Asian rivals Japan and China now appear to have been caught up in tranquilizing beauty in spas, museums and gardens. The slippery row between Asia’s two biggest economies adds to their dispute over Japan’s release into the sea of treated but radioactive water from the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant. And it has raised more questions than answers.
Here’s what you need to know about fish and their role in the controversy:
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WHAT IS KOI?
Koi are beautifully colored and expensive carp that are officially called nishikigoi in Japan. Fish, valued as “swimming jewels”, represent good luck in life and business. They are often garden pond fixtures for rich and powerful families in Japan. In recent years, koi have become extremely popular in Asia, with Japan’s koi exports doubling over the past decade to 6.3 billion yen ($43 million) — a fifth of which is sent to China, Japan’s top koi importer , followed by the United States and Indonesia.
WHAT HAPPENED TO KOI EXPORTS TO CHINA?
After the outbreak of koi herpes virus in Japan in the 2000s, the country conducts a mandatory 7-10 day quarantine for all exports, including from China, to ensure that the koi are disease-free.
Initially, China had export agreements with a total of 15 growers that also provided quarantine, allowing them to skip a separate quarantine process at another facility. But Beijing has let many of the contracts expire over the years. Now, China also has not renewed the last remaining pre-export quarantine agreement that expired on Oct. 30, Japanese officials said.
The non-renewal of the contract effectively ends China’s importation of koi fish from Japan. Fisheries Agency official Satoru Abe, in charge of the koi quarantine, said China has not provided any explanation as to why it has not taken the necessary steps to resume koi shipments.
IS THIS RELATED TO THE RELEASE OF TREATED WASTEWATER FROM FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI?
Despite safety assurances from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Japanese government and the operator of the nuclear power plant, China banned Japanese seafood soon after the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began dumping treated and diluted radioactive waste . There have been concerns internationally about seafood caught from parts of the Pacific where treated sewage is released, but koi are freshwater fish that are ornamental and not commonly eaten.
Abe, the koi quarantine official, said the Fukushima wastewater release was unlikely to be the cause of the halt in koi exports, noting that China allowed Japanese koi to enter for two months after the water discharge began.
WHAT DO JAPANESE OFFICIALS SAY?
Top Japanese officials say Tokyo submitted the necessary documents to facilitate renewals of koi exports well before the deadline and will continue diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Ichiro Miyashita told reporters: “Nishikigoi is a culture and fundamentally different from seafood, and I believe it is not related” to the discharge of treated water at Fukushima Daiichi. “But China has taken scientifically unfounded measures and we need to speak out and demand the withdrawal of irrational and trade-distorting practices.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan would continue to approach Chinese authorities about taking the necessary steps to restart the koi trade.
WHAT ELSE IS CAUSING TENSION BETWEEN JAPAN AND CHINA?
The two countries have a decades-long dispute over a cluster of East China Sea islands that Japan controls and calls the Senkaku, which Beijing also claims and calls the Diaoyu. Beijing rotates a fleet of four coast guard vessels that regularly violate Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, adding to tensions with Japanese coast guard patrol vessels and fishing vessels.
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Tokyo views China as a major security threat in the region and is expanding its defense partnerships with other Indo-Pacific nations besides its sole ally, the United States. Tokyo is also pushing for a military build-up under its new national security strategy that calls for a long-range missile strike capability in a break from Japan’s postwar principle of self-defense only.