Japan store bars wine from Golan Heights after protests

This Thursday, May 31, 2018, photo, shows a webpage of Naturael on a computer screen in Tokyo. Daimaru department store said it withdrew its offer for Naturael, a Tokyo-based importer specializing in wine from Golan Heights in the occupied territory - highly valued among wine connoisseurs - to participate at a food fair held at its Tokyo store in May, following protests from citizens’ groups amid escalating violence there. Japanese characters on the webpage read: "Produce of Israel. Wine, olive oil specialized shop." (AP Photo/Mari Yamaguchi)
In this Thursday, May 31, 2018, photo, customers come out of a Daimaru department store in Tokyo. The major Japanese department store quietly removed a vendor specializing in wine from Israel’s occupied territory at a recent food fair following protests from citizens’ groups amid escalating violence there. (AP Photo/Mari Yamaguchi)

TOKYO — A major Japanese department store has quietly removed a vendor specializing in wine from Israel's occupied Golan Heights after protests from citizens' groups boycotting products from the region amid escalating violence there.

Daimaru store said it withdrew its offer for Naturael, a Tokyo-based importer specializing in wine from the Golan — highly valued among connoisseurs — to participate in a fair in May.

Naturael said the wine is produced and imported legally and that Daimaru's decision could lead to anti-Israel sentiment.

Daimaru said the decision did not reflect any political stance and was only for the May 9-15 "Mediterranean gourmet and wine fair" at its Tokyo store. It said wine from elsewhere in Israel was sold at the fair and that Daimaru has no policy against Israeli products in general.

But a spokesman acknowledged that Daimaru took into consideration activists' concerns about the wine's origin.

"Today we cannot ignore geopolitical issues," said Satoshi Nishio, a spokesman for Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores Co. "We have to start paying more attention to where products are coming from."

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in 1981. The U.S. and others consider it to be disputed territory.

Naturael CEO Yoshiyuki Hongo said he respects Daimaru's business decision, but that he regretted the store being targeted by a boycott campaign and sending the wrong message to other retailers.

Hongo said wineries he has contracts with in occupied territory are there legally under Israeli law, are only devoted to making good wine, and their products are legally imported into Japan.

"The wine we carry is all authorized by the Japanese government, so I don't see why it has to be discriminated against," said Hongo, who last year started his online store, which also sells olive oil, date syrup and other items from Israel.

Hongo said a boycott of one item could lead to more self-restraint in business.

"Once you take a political stance in business, it could spread to other areas — not just food but to information and technology systems and many other commercial products. In the end you won't be able to sell anything," he said.

Another Japanese department store chain, Mitsukoshi, took a similar step at a Tokyo event last year.

The decision by Daimaru was welcomed by activists, but was largely unnoticed by ordinary consumers. Hongo says his internet wine sales haven't been affected.

Yoshihiro Yakushige, a member of a pro-Palestinian group, said he and fellow activists are not trying to cause stores to go out of business. "We just want Japanese consumers to think more carefully about where products are coming from," he said.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Find her work at https://www.apnews.com/search/mari%20yamaguchi

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