When it comes to a search for high-quality food, Japanese consumers have an unrivalled reputation for discernment. Yet when organic produce enters the picture, they lag far behind their counterparts in Europe and the U.S.
Granted, the past few years have seen the appearance in Tokyo and other cities of cafés, restaurants and shops selling food free of pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals. However, organics still represent a tiny dot on the wider food landscape.
The data certainly bears that out. As of last year, organics accounted for a mere 0.4% of the total domestic food market — worth a staggering $820 billion — compared to the global average of 2%.
Japan barely registers on the global organics rankings. Those are dominated by Europe and the US, with each accounting for 45% of the international market. Japan lags way behind at a mere 2%.
In some respects, the conditions should be ripe for organic food to make a bigger impact in Japan’s huge retail sector. The March 2011 accident at Fukushima gave rise to fears about food safety, as have a slew of food safety scares involving mainly imported products.
And while Japanese shoppers possess an unshakeable faith in value for money, they have demonstrated a willingness to go the extra mile, financially, for superior produce. Still, public discussion of the importance of provenance and quality control has not been matched by serious consideration of how produce is grown or reared before it ends up on millions of Japanese dinner tables.
Despite its slow start, though, the organics revolution may finally be creating ripples in Japan, thanks to a sustained campaign by European firms to educate consumers and to work in partnership with domestic retailers.
One of the torchbearers is the MIE Project, whose range of organic produce ranges from chocolate and energy bars to tea, coffee and soya milk. “My guess is that the total organic food market in Japan is worth about €1 billion, which is fairly insignificant; and when you compare Japan to countries like Denmark, where 8% of the food market is certified as organic, you can see the difference in penetration,” says Duco Delgorge, president and chief executive of Project MIE.
But Delgorge says he has witnessed a shift in attitudes among Japanese retailers and, by extension, their customers, in the decade since he launched the firm in Japan.
“The situation is evolving, and we’re making steady progress,” he says. “We’re starting to see more premium supermarkets and health food stores selling organic food, and bigger and better ranges of imported organic produce.”
Organic food is also being taken more seriously by online retailers, such as Rakuten and Amazon, and by delivery firms including Radish Boya and Daiichi Mamorukai.
Despite the growth of chains such as Natural House and Lawson Natural, there is nothing in Japan that compares to the organic brands that have made such impressive inroads into the European market, or to say, Whole Foods in the US.
If the global market has been helped by greater awareness of the health and environmental benefits of organic food, in Japan, more is made of the consistently high quality of imported organic produce, says Thierry Cohen, president of Japan Europe Trading, whose suppliers include the firm’s own range of Italian organic products sold under the brand name Solleone Bio.
“When I first mentioned ‘organic’ to our sales people here, I was greeted by blank looks; but their attitude changed when I said it was all about high-end, quality products,” says Cohen.
He concedes that Japanese retailers still need convincing that consumers will pay more for products, particularly as they have yet to grasp that organic food is of a higher quality.
Even so, about 100 restaurants in Japan now use his firm’s organic pasta. “We told them that it’s not just about something being organic, but that it’s more nutritious than ordinary pasta, easier to digest and so on,” he says. “The reception was good because the products are of a high quality, not necessarily because they’re organic.”
He shares the widely held view among European importers that the real impetus for a shift to organics must come from Japan’s own agricultural sector.
The signs are not encouraging. In a country where the food self-sufficiency rate is already a lowly 40% on a calorie-basis — and where downward pressure on agricultural employment is firmly entrenched — there is precious little room for organics.
In its 2014 report on the Japanese business environment, the European Business Council (EBC) repeated calls to abolish both tariffs on organic food and the requirement to secure individual certificates from the Japanese authorities for every shipment of food certified as organic in Japan and awarded a Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) certificate confirming its organic status. Instead, the EBC says, JAS marks should be issued on an annual basis.
The council, however, applauded the Japanese government’s 2013 decision to abolish a supplementary certificate — issued for every shipment by the embassy of the product’s country of origin — that added to costs and caused supply delays.
“The government could do more to encourage Japanese producers to grow more organic food, and that would have a knock-on effect,” adds Cohen, who suggests looking at European-style subsidies for organic producers.
Inevitably, the mixed fortunes of organic products in Japan are tied to their comparatively high price at a time of continuing economic uncertainty. The high import duties imposed on items such as chocolate and condiments put items that are already on the pricey side in their countries of origin beyond the reach of many Japanese consumers.
That won’t deter importers from continuing their quest for a breakthrough, says Guillaume Calloud, managing director Nichifutsu Boeki, whose organic food inventory includes Alce Nero pasta from Italy. “Organic food is creating a small wave here — there is a slightly greater perception of the organic movement,” he says, adding that the supermarket giant Aeon had recently launched its own range of about 80 organic products.
“And to be honest, it’s easier to do business here in the organic market than it is in South Korea and China,” Calloud adds. “It’s all relative.”
Delgorge, too, is optimistic about the future of organics in Japan, but accepts that a revolutionary change is unlikely. “There will be change as long as there is evolution here on the retail side and organic food is being talked about more in the media,” he says.
Roy Larke, senior lecturer at Waikato University in New Zealand, adds that while Japanese and EU officials discuss lower tariffs on food — including organics — at on-going FTA talks, foreign suppliers and their Japanese partners could do more to advance their cause by rethinking such basics as packaging.
“It’s still common for overseas firms to believe their presentation is good enough elsewhere, so naturally good enough for Japan,” says Larke, an expert on Japanese retailing and consumer behaviour. “Sometimes it is; but when a Japanese partner says it isn’t, it’s worth listening and upgrading, even if it means the sale price also has to rise.”
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