Some top hotels and high-end department stores admitted serving cheaper alternatives instead of the pricey items ordered from menus.
- Some restaurants admit mislabeling menu items
- Prized Shiba prawns from Tokyo Bay were just shrimp from India
- Some companies have received the ultimate penalty in Japan: public shaming
TOKYO — This is a city where people spend hours in line for the trendiest bowl of ramen, drop $100 on a gift box of fruit or entertain clients several nights a week at chic restaurants.
So the news that prestigious restaurants have been swapping cheap substitutes for pricey menu items has created a major scandal that threatens to taint Japan's coveted worldwide reputation for exquisite cuisine.
"This is a foodie nation," says Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University's campus in Tokyo.
"People are proud of all the Michelin stars, and they generally eat very well, so the scandal has provoked outrage," he says. "People believe that this is simply a scam to improve the bottom line by selling cheap food as expensive cuisine."
Some of Japan's top hotels and high-end department stores in Tokyo, Sapporo and elsewhere admitted to a shocking transgression of ethics. The bait-and-switch was accidental, malefactors say, but at some spots it's alleged to have gone on for years.
People who ordered prized Shiba prawns, a rare and expensive delicacy from Tokyo Bay, were sometimes served bulk shrimp caught off India.
Wagyu beef refers to a special breed of cattle in Japan that is sometimes massaged by hand and fed beer to give its meat a highly marbled look and fattier content.
Some who ordered it got Australian beef. Organic vegetables from small Japanese specialty farms were actually shipped in from China.
The scandal has riled Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency, which says it will prosecute any business that intentionally misled diners. The agency said it will head off damage to Japan's reputation by proposing tougher penalties for food labeling violations, perhaps even jail time.
Japan's luxury Okura hotel chain executives bow their heads at a news conference Nov. 7 in Tokyo to apologize after the hotel served meals made with ingredients falsely labeled as being of top-end quality, such as Pacific white shrimp advertised as the much pricier Shiba variety.(Photo: Getty Images)
Some have received the ultimate penalty in Japan: public shaming.