Japanese consumers hungry for more organic food
Strict certification rules stifle domestic production in Japan, and demand for organic exceeds supply. Food and farming expert Claire Cummings teams up with a Japanese housewife to take us on a tour of the organic products retail stores are offering.

By Claire Hope Cummings

ABOVE: 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 housewife.

"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 the U.S.

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 official definition.

Know 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” organic label.

Japanese still buy locally

Local first: Seasonally tailored menus, thriving small food outlets and prime placing for local growers (above) expose a love affair with fine craftsmanship and tradition.
Note: Mayumi Sakaoka of Kutztown, PA, assisted in translation for photo captions.
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.

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 Circle Ks.

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.

"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."
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 certification meant.

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 and farming.

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 issues.