The Diplomat | October 16, 2013
Can $150 melons boost Japan’s post-TPP agriculture exports?
By J.T. Quigley
With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserting that Japan should take a leading role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, a trade overhaul could be coming to the island nation by the end of the year. While Japanese farmers fret that the TPP will cut import tariffs and flood the domestic market with cheap foreign produce, Abe sees the potential for an increase in luxury food exports – specifically pertaining to Japan’s world-class fruit, rice and beef.
“[Abe] is aiming to have agriculture exports, which currently account for just 16 percent of total output, double by 2020,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “While some items like high-quality beef and rice have found buyers in overseas markets, overall farm-product exports have been flat since 2006, and amount to just one-eighth of those of Italy, a major global exporter of high-end food products.”
For non-Japanese, a trip to one of Tokyo’s basement-level food courts – often found beneath major train stations and connected to sprawling department stores – can result in some serious sticker shock. Japan’s infamous square watermelons can cost upwards of $150 each. A pair of Yubari cantaloupes – which are pruned so as to produce only one piece of fruit per plant – sell for $265. These luxury fruits are often given as wedding gifts or upon completion of an important business transaction.
“Because there’s a market for fruit as a high-end gift, farmers go to extreme measures to heighten the fruit’s flavor and to ensure a blemish-less presentation: Orchards are hand-pollinated with tiny wands, fruits are given individual protective boxes to grow in, and apples are branded by stencil,” explains Buzzfeed.
Kobe beef, another one of Japan’s most prized culinary creations, is already popular overseas. But genuine Kobe beef – which is painstakingly raised in Hyogo prefecture and limited to 3,000 animals per year – is a rarity.
“Just as there is Champagne from Champagne, France, and ‘champagne’ from, say, California, there is ‘kobe’ beef from the United States,” says The Chicago Tribune. “You need to look at the fine print for phrasing like ‘American kobe’ or ‘kobe-style’ and decide accordingly.”
A push for Japanese luxury food exports could see more authentic Kobe beef on high-end restaurant menus around the globe.
Japan is also home to some of the world’s most highly regarded rice. Stickier than its Chinese or South Asian equivalents, Japanese rice allows sushi and onigiri (rice balls) to stay in one piece. Japanese rice is also used to make sake, thought of as Japan’s take on “wine.”
“Sake rice, like wine grapes, comes in a range of varietals, each of which imparts a different set of flavors and aromas,” explains The Atlantic. “Quality sake can be appreciated, and consumed, like a fine white wine.”
These luxury food items will be propped up by investment from Japan’s central government and the country’s major banking institutions. About $300 million has been pledged by the government, with banks expected to match that figure.
One Japanese trading company, Marubeni Corp., is already on board with high-end food exports – and it makes no qualms about its target audience.
“We are focusing on the rich. We have no interest in commodity markets,” says Komei Kondo, the deputy general manager of Marubeni’s agricultural wing.
If Abe has his way – and Japanese farmers learn to embrace the export market – shoppers in New York and London may have the option of buying a $150 Japanese melon in time for next summer.