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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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.