The Mother of all shopping experiences.
The universal marketer's adage "Stack it high
and watch it fly" works well in compact, product-filled
"Mother's" Organic Foods in Tokyo.
June 17, 2003: When traveling, most
people head for the museums and major tourist attractions.
Not me. I head straight for the food markets. Nothing compares
with food as a way to get to know another culture. And nothing
beats visiting farms, walking around food stalls and grocery
stores, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells, and learning
how the local people eat.
On a recent visit to Japan I took my food tour one step further.
I wanted to learn more about organic food there, so I did
a survey of what was being sold at a few retail markets. I
visited grocery stores, produce markets, and convenience stores
in Tokyo and Kamakura. I also roamed the lavish food halls
of Tokyo’s major department stores that are filled with
a dazzling array of prepared and fresh foods. And since I
wanted to see Japan’s organic food from the consumer’s
point of view, I invited a Japanese woman friend to come along.
She made the job much more fun, giving me a chance to talk
with vendors and customers, graciously acted as a translator,
and added in her own perspective, as a fairly typical Japanese
||"Food buying in Japan and the
expectations of Japanese consumers can be very different
from western industrial countries.."
At first glance, the retail food scene in Japan looks pretty
much like that of any industrialized nation. The displays
are abundant; the packaging is attractive. Food is well labeled
and there are multiple brands to choose from. In Japan, the
stores are immaculate and they employ all the latest retailing
gimmicks. I saw plenty of expensive, imported, and specialty
items along with all the basics – although I noticed
that portion sizes and packages were much smaller than in
Most of the customers appeared affluent enough to be able
to pay a premium for certified organic food. But I did not
see the tremendous array of organic food and products, particularly
fresh produce, which has come to be the norm in most “natural
food” stores in the U.S. and Europe. Eventually, I learned
that food buying in Japan and the expectations of Japanese
consumers can be very different from western industrial countries.
New organic rule winnows producers
Potentially, Japan can be an enormous organic food market.
Currently, consumer demand exceeds supply. The explanation
most commonly given for this discrepancy is that when Japan’s
new organic standards law went into effect in April 2001,
it required strict adherence to new national standards. The
word “organic” could only be used for foods certified
and marked under the Japan Agriculture Standard or “JAS”
organic seal. Many Japanese farmers had been using methods
that reduced or eliminated synthetic chemicals and they were
selling their food as “organic.” But those who
could not become certified dropped out, drastically reducing
the number of organic producers in Japan, at least by the
your meat: In Japan consumers expect stores
to be a accountable for their product. Here an "Anew"
clerk shows how their meat carries a picture of
the farmer who raised it.
Japan has a long tradition of honoring natural farming and
supporting small farmers. These small producers tend vegetable
farms of less than 1.5 hectares or rice farms of 4 to 5 hectares.
They do not make much money and, like farmers everywhere,
they face stiff competition from cheap imports, rising land
and labor costs. They are an aging population.
Kenji Matsumoto, the Executive Director of the Japan Organic
and Natural Foods Association (JONA) put it this way: “Many
Japanese small farmers are too old to learn about complicated
regulations and application for certification, even though
they have already been in natural and organic farming.”
He said, however, that some of them are forming groups to
grow and market their organic crops under group certification.
The area of land devoted to organic farming in Japan is tiny,
just over 12,500 acres. But that small land area does not
tell the whole organic food story. After all, Japan is the
world’s largest food importer, relying on other countries
for over 60 percent of its food. For Japan, then, the number
of certified organic farmers in the country may not be the
best indicator of the potential retail market.
The demand for organic food is growing rapidly in Japan.
The Japanese are some of the most demanding consumers in the
world. They expect quality, safety and have a high level of
environmental literacy. All of which translates into an appreciation
for “Yuuki Shokuhin,” or organic food. Even with
their evident enthusiasm for any food grown according to environmentally
sound standards, none of the customers I interviewed -- in
what was an admittedly unscientific sample -- knew to look
for the new official “JAS” label.
Matsumoto explained that “a lot of people are still
not aware of the superiority of certified organic, as opposed
to the old idea of natural, and they just do not know to look
for the [new] label.” In 2000, the Japanese government
estimated the market for organic food was about US $250 million.
For 2003, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture
Movement (IFOAM) puts it at more like $350-450 million.
Those numbers still need to be put into perspective, however.
The retail market in Japan is $2 trillion a year. That’s
trillion with a “t” - about half of that in food
sales. That leaves plenty of room for products like organic
cotton and cosmetics. But the significant growth would be
in fresh food and produce.
Japan’s supermarkets are adding more space for organics.
The organic fresh produce sections I saw in the larger retail
stores, such as the Sotetsu Rosen grocery store in Kamakura,
were larger and better marked than the typical organic section
of major mainstream grocery stores in the U.S. However, not
all the items on display in Japanese natural foods supermarkets
were certified organic. All of the produce I saw was wrapped
in plastic packaging, and only some of it displayed the “JAS”
Japanese still buy locally
Perhaps the most interesting and distinctive feature of Japanese
food buying is, unlike other modern industrialized nations,
Japan still patronizes its small local retailers. A whopping
70 percent of the total retail food sales take place in the
more than 1 million small food stores in Japan.
first: Seasonally tailored menus, thriving
small food outlets and prime placing for local growers
(above) expose a love affair with fine craftsmanship
There are plenty of major grocery store chains, but their
sales have been slipping, particularly during the recent economic
slump. Adding organic food and specialty vendors is part of
their strategy to maintain their market share. But of the
1.4 million outlets for food in Japan, large retailers account
for less than 10 percent of sales. Home delivery services
are popular in Japan and almost all stores -- even small mom
and pop outfits -- deliver.
The most successful food retailers in Japan are the 40,000
small convenience stores that are found everywhere. A fairly
new chain of small stores featuring organic and natural foods
has established 500 stores nation wide, under the brand name
“Anew.” They also sell from a catalog and do home
delivery. The smart looking Anew stores can be found along
streets all over Japan, alongside similar looking 7-11s and
Inside the Anew store I visited, which was one of 50 in Tokyo,
there was an impressive line of products. Right up front was
a large display of nice looking bags of organic rice, both
brown and white. Most of the products on the shelves were
packaged goods, but they had a selection of produce and fresh
foods. The organic goods included a lot of soy products, green
teas, coffee, dried pasta from Italy, Newman’s Own snack
foods, even organic pet food. Non-organic products such as
dairy, fruit juices, meat and eggs, were offered with most
of them bearing some sustainable farming or natural features.
Fresh meat and prepared dinner meat package labels showed
the family farmers who raised the animals.
Some products featured claims like “90 percent less chemicals”
as well as the usual array of food supplements, natural and
macrobiotic foods. Some of it was “JAS” certified
organic. The sales clerk, who had worked in a natural food store
in the U.S., explained the company’s strict standards
and buying practices. I asked her what she thought the consumer
was looking for and she said most of them wanted something healthier
than what might be available at other stores. She conceded that
some of them were probably still confused about what organic
||"By law, the country of origin
of all products must be listed. Even an ordinary package
of domestic conventional rice comes labeled with very
specific information about what chemicals were used in
its production and where in Japan it was grown."
On another day I went across town -- if you can say that
about Tokyo -- to look over the organic food section of a
high-end department store in the fashionable Ginza area. “Mother’s”
Organic Market is located in the specialty grocery store in
the basement of the Isetan department store. It was small
but appealing, and crowded with shoppers. The organic products
were a mix of imported dry goods, boxes and bottles of fruit
juices, and Cascadian Farms frozen vegetables. Again, the
fresh produce was not all identified as certified organic.
I just had to buy one souvenir of my visit there: a bright
red bag of organic corn flakes, frosted with organic sugar.
Other than frosted corn flakes, the Japanese consumer clearly
cares about food. They want to know where their food comes
from. They put a premium on packaging that is not only beautiful
but also practical and informative. By law, the country of
origin of all products must be listed. Even an ordinary package
of domestic conventional rice comes labeled with very specific
information about what chemicals were used in its production
and where in Japan it was grown.
Organic food is easily integrated into Japan’s exquisite
aesthetic. For all its industrial qualities and technological
achievements, Japan is still enamored of ideas like living
in harmony with nature. Japan’s deep respect for the
ancient arts, for craftsmanship, for locality and regional
distinctions all fit with the values implicit in organic food
When I was in Japan, it was springtime. The cherry blossoms
were in full luscious bloom. But the blossoms were not just
something I’d see on the trees outside. Inside, blossoms
of all kinds and the color pink were being celebrated on every
imaginable food. Every meal would include some small elegant
reminder of the splendor outside.
I got the feeling that Japan’s legendary cuisine, with
its devotion to seasonality and beauty, had much to offer
the world of organic food.
© Claire Hope Cummings 2003
Claire Cummings of Marin County, CA, is an expert on
the environmental and federal regulatory issues involved in
agricultural genetic engineering. Her work on the rice trade,
agriculture in Vietnam and fast food has been widely published.
She produces and hosts a regular show on food and farming