Groupthink behind Japan food scandal

A POPULAR Japanese saying goes like this: If everyone is in it together, such as crossing the road against a red light, there is no need to be afraid.

Such groupthink is behind the roiling food scandal in Japan that in recent weeks has exposed brand-name hotels and department stores, all of which have confessed to hoodwinking customers for years.

Though not on the scale of the European horse-meat scandal, the one consuming Japan's food industry - euphemistically called "mistaken labelling" - is arguably the greatest shock of the year.

The culinary skulduggery was initially thought to have been limited to just one Osaka-based hotel chain.

But within two weeks or so, the scandal had spread nationwide - more hotel operators owned up, including the Imperial and Okura, both of which are often used by visiting foreign leaders.

The scandal has even tarred the country's top department stores, Takashimaya, Isetan and Daimaru. The first two have stores in Singapore while Daimaru closed its Singapore outlet in 2003.

Except for one solitary case, the errant hotel-run restaurants and tenant eateries in department stores all maintain that they never set out to cheat.

Their only fault, they say, was in not being sufficiently aware of the need for accuracy in menu descriptions.

One common trick was to inject fat into cheap cuts of beef and pass them off as more expensive wagyu. Some patissiers thought nothing of using Chinese or Korean chestnuts even though the menu said "grown in Europe".

Minister Masako Mori, whose portfolio includes consumer affairs, has asked the department store associations and other food industry groups to submit reports of their efforts to prevent a repeat of the scandal.

The Consumer Affairs Agency is likely to beef up Japan's Food Labelling Act to make misleading menu descriptions an offence. Menus might have also to list ingredients that could be toxic to some people or trigger allergies.

The Act now applies only to processed or fresh food, not to food served in restaurants.

The deception lasted as long as it did only because customers were oblivious to the fact that they were often paying big bucks for lower-quality food.

The propensity for groupthink in Japan seems to have been the Achilles heel.

Most restaurant operators would surely have been aware of how their rivals were able to offer quality steak or prawns at affordable prices, and felt compelled to follow suit to stay competitive.

The substitution of ingredients with cheaper alternatives to cut costs seems to have been an open secret within the industry.

"Everyone thought the secret would not leak outside. Everyone thought they had nothing to fear if they walked across together," wrote economic columnist Seiji Ogasawara in a recent article.

The same sort of groupthink has also embarrassed Japan's finance industry.

The Mizuho Financial Group came under fire recently for not cleaning up loans made to gangsters through an affiliated consumer credit firm even after the loans came to light.

Now, the entire industry, from ordinary commercial banks to insurance companies, is under suspicion of doing business with organised crime through affiliates.

Mizuho's executives had part of their pay docked as punishment, but so far, the bank scandal has not affected consumers.

The food scandal has far-reaching implications. For one, it has dented the reputation of Japan's food industry, which has long been regarded worldwide as the epitome of quality cuisine and service.

The big boys in the industry are not the only ones to have short-changed customers. Komeda Coffee, a popular Nagoya-based chain of coffee shops, has admitted to using non-dairy whipped cream in its Viennese coffee and hot chocolate, instead of fresh cream as advertised.

There are repercussions abroad as well.

The scandal comes just as Japan is aggressively trying to sell its farm products in foreign markets, especially in South-east Asia, to offset dwindling demand at home.

Fuelled by the global popularity of Japanese cuisine, restaurants are also stepping up their presence overseas.

In Singapore, where sushi is said to be eaten by more locals than expatriates these days, there are some 900 Japanese restaurants, up from just over 600 four years ago.

If mislabelling of menus can happen in Japan, there is no guarantee it is not being practised in other countries as well.

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