The Japanese Market

In this Blog I wanted to discuss the Japanese agriculture I have visited throughout central Japan. Right off the bat it is clear that the fields are much smaller than the average crop production field in the U.S. however they are also tended to much better.  The fields are impeccably laid out, and the crops are managed more closely than I see in the U.S.
It is true that Japanese grown crops command a higher price than foreign imports in the retail markets, but in general the produce is of higher quality.  Whereas in the U.S. we grow more of a crop and we can grow it cheaper due to larger fields, more mechanization, but the quality of this mass produced agriculture is not as good.
In Japan, nearly every green onion, for example is perfect.  Nearly every apple from a small well tended orchard is near perfect. The result appears to be less loss due to poor quality, and a higher average price per weight of product.
You can see in the attached photographs:  The small rice field tended by the farmer using only a walk behind tiller/harvester. Each rice field is very well tended and the average quality of the rice will be high.  The open rice fields with the author standing shows larger rice fields, but still well laid out, and in manageable sized individual fields.  Open ditch irrigation allows for the fields to be flooded with high quality mountain spring water.
The last photo was taken at an agricultural university field station. Japan has a system of agricultural colleges constantly testing new varieties of produce as well as training the students to produce high quality crops.  In addition the students are training in post-harvest handling and retail sales of the crops, so they get a feel for all aspcts of growing, harvesting, handling and bringing those crops to a demanding retail market.
What does this mean for the American or foreign crop producer trying to gain greater access into the Japanese markets?  First is the reality that there will always be a greater premium placed on Japanese grown products by the Japanese consumer.  Second is the Japanese consumer seems to be much more attuned to eating crops as they come into season.  I heard frequently that “this is in season now…”  or “this only comes to market for a few weeks of the year..”.  The Japanese consumer then moves on to whatever is coming into season.  Unlike the U.S. where there are a limited number of produce options- however available year-round, the Japanese market is centered on a much wider selection of produces that rotate throughout the year as the seasons change. The American market will go to great lengths to have red apples year round, regardless of where they are from, where as in Japan after apple season, they move on to what is next.
The result is a much greater diversity in the crops available on a retail basis as well as a continuedfocus on regionally grown, fresh and tasty produce.  In the U.S. however, the focus is on year round availability, which by it’s very nature relies on long shipping routs over many days or weeks, necessitating crops that are picked early, hybridized not for taste but for transportability over long distances.  Hence a tomato grown in Chile is available in February in New York, however it is tasteless and hard.
So: for American imports into Japan, focus on getting produce into Japan during their season for that crop. Realize that the pricing will be lower than the Japanese grown produce however many Japanese consumers when faced with the higher pricing of Japanese strawberries (for example) will select good quality U.S. strawberries at the lower price if again, the general quality is good, the packaging looks attractive and they are placed near the Japanese grown produce at the retail level.
Continue to follow along as we next look at the retail layout of produce at numerous Japanese retail stores…  See you there! 
Chris Van Hook
Chris Van Hook is an agricultural attorney working primarily in the USDA NOP regulations worldwide. He is based out of Northern California, has been in agriculture his entire life, attending law school in his mid 40’s. Email Chris with any comments or questions at: [email protected]