executive impact

Anytime is fruit time

By Chris Betros

One of the biggest importers of fresh fruit and vegetables in Japan is Tokyo Seika Trading Co Ltd, the trading arm of Tokyo Seika Co Ltd, the largest central market wholesaler in Japan, headquartered in the bustling confines of the Ota market in Tokyo.

Tokyo Seika utilizes state of the art information technology to keep abreast of market conditions. They have established direct communication links with suppliers and retailers, including the large supermarkets, in order to better understand what the retailers and consumers want, and a way to maintain a competitive edge over competitors. In addition, Tokyo Seika has worked to develop strategic alliances with its suppliers in order to establish the most cost effective distribution system between the production side and market side. Its investment is Seeka Kiwifruit Industries Ltd is one example of this.

Among the many issues that fresh fruit importers face are food safety and a downward trend in the overall consumption of fresh fruit in Japan, says Junichi Moriya, president of Tokyo Seika Trading Co. A graduate of Waseda University, Moriya worked for Mitsubishi Corp’s fresh produce division from 1974 until 1998, including five years in Peru where he learned Spanish. He joined Tokyo Seika Trading in 1999 as president & representative director.

In addition to his duties at Tokyo Seika Trading Co, Moriya is chairman of Nisseikyo (Japan Fresh Produce Import & Safety Association), vice president of the Japan Banana Importers Association and a director of Seeka Kiwifruit Industries Ltd, which is located in New Zealand.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Moriya at his office at the Ota markets to hear more.

What are the main issues facing the industry?

The main problem is that overall fruit consumption in Japan has significantly declined over the last 10 years, especially among the young generation. One reason is that many people find it troublesome to peel or cut fruits. They prefer supplements or the convenience of fruit-based beverages.

Three exceptions are bananas, kiwifruit and pineapples. What we are seeing is that new hybrid varieties with high sugar content are popular, especially gold kiwifruit and golden pineapples. Varieties that are easy to peel are being developed.

Is it a fad-driven market?

It can be for some fruit. In September of 2008, there was a banana diet boom after model Kimiko Mori said on TV that she lost weight because of bananas. That went on for about a year and demand for bananas soared nearly 20% during that period.

From where does Tokyo Seika Trading import most of its fruit?

Our biggest supply source -- 85% -- is the Philippines, where we get bananas and pineapples. New Zealand is the next biggest supplier, with kiwifruit. We get some mangoes and oranges from Australia, and from July, we will start to import grapefruit from there as well.

What is the best-selling fruit in Japan?

Bananas. Of total imported fruit, bananas account for 60%, followed by grapefruit, oranges and kiwifruit.

Which brands does Tokyo Seika Trading import?

We are the assigned importer for the Del Monte brand of bananas and pineapples. In addition, other main suppliers for us are Sunkist Growers Inc, Well-Pict and Zespri International.

How do you distribute products?

Basically, for imported fruits, we do not utilize the wholesale market system. Instead, we deliver directly from port warehouses to customers such as supermarkets nationwide. This is different from before. In Japan, there are 70 central wholesale markets. Normally, growers’ cooperatives would consign products to licensed wholesalers which would sell them at auctions. But recently, supermarkets have changed their procurement policies and don’t want to buy at auctions. They want to buy directly from importers such as Tokyo Seika Trading Co.

Do customs procedures still need to be simplified?

Recently, customs procedures have improved, although import duties are still very high. As I mentioned before, from July, we will be able to import grapefruit from Australia. The import ban was lifted to comply with Japan plant quarantine laws as Australian plant quarantine authorities put in place an improved cold treatment protocol approved by Japanese authorities to deal with fruit flies which were the reason for the ban in the first place.

What about food safety?

Food safety is a critical issue with the Japanese consumers. Our suppliers such as Fresh Del Monte Produce have established protocols to address quality control and safety issues. In addition, Tokyo Seika plays a proactive role in food safety by testing fresh produce we handle for chemical residues. Nisseikyo (Japan Fresh Produce Import & Safety Association) oversees safety issues for the imported fresh produce industry here, including testing for chemical residues.

Which fruits are still hard to import?

Apples are a difficult fruit to import successfully. In 1994, the import ban for two varieties of American apples were lifted after plant quarantine issues were resolved between the two countries. But there was great opposition from Japanese domestic apple growers. However, the failure of apples from the U.S. to sell to the Japanese consumer was due to the quality. The inside of imported American apples were found to be of poor quality; mainly the color of the flesh turned brown. The quality was not competitive with domestic apples. Importers handling American apples suffered from heavy losses. As a result, Japan lost interest in imported apples.

How come kiwifruit has gotten so popular over the last few years?

The reason why New Zealand kiwifruit has been very popular in Japan in the last few years is due to the magnificent marketing campaigns implemented by Zespri, utilizing well-known celebrities like Ebi-chan (model Yuri Ebihara), and actor Kenji Sakaguchi. This year, Norika Fujiwara will be featured in Zespri’s marketing efforts and advertising. It should be noted that 96-97% of all kiwifruit imported in to Japan comes from New Zealand.

What is a typical day for you?

My typical day at the office starts at 7 a.m. I like to delegate as much responsibility as possible to our four business units i.e. Business Unit 1 (Banana & Pineapple Division), Business Unit 2 (High Value Fruit Division), Business Unit 3 (Citrus Division), and Business Unit 4 (Vegetable Division).

Meetings are held to discuss market and supply conditions, outlook and trends, and any issues that require special attention. I often walk around the Ota produce market because the activity and atmosphere there are very exciting and exhilarating, and gives me an opportunity to discuss business matters of mutual interest with jobbers and wholesalers. I spend time at the market on Saturdays as well.

Do you travel much?

I travel to New Zealand every other month to attend board of directors meetings for Seeka Kiwifruit Industries Ltd. I probably spend about 2 1/2 months per year traveling abroad to the United States, China, Philippines and other foreign countries as business dictates.

© Japan Today

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Watch Japanese TV - there's fruit on there all day, every day.

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Fruits and veggies here are the best in the world. The buyers really know what they are doing.

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Thanks for those golden pineapples from the Philippines. Keep them coming, I am their biggest fan. I wished coconuts were more available too and green apples and grapes from South Africa...they are the best.

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theres always room for fruit

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It is a cool article. Informative. I have some comments that might spur some discussion.

"The main problem is that overall fruit consumption in Japan has significantly declined over the last 10 years, especially among the young generation. One reason is that many people find it troublesome to peel or cut fruits."

This shocks me. How lazy does a person have to be not to be able to peel a banana or cut an apple? The golden kiwis can be eaten almost whole, but really... who does not eat kiwi because they are such a hassle? Anybody? Sheesh. People cannot get the ambition to boil an egg nowadays.

Goddog is right that the fruit for sale at stands are top notch, but second tier products should get more attention. Japan produces a lot of good fruit. I really like to buy fruit that is just a tiny bit overripe, and then dry it. Consumption of Japanese fruits should be a lot higher. It could be too.

Finally, what exactly are people eating? They are eating less of vegetables and fruits. Grains? Probably less. Does this mean that Japanese people are filling up on sugar, fat, and meat? That is pretty creepy. They must be eating something, but I am betting that a lot of people stick to maybe two or three food groups, tops.

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@ goddog: I absolutely agree with you. There can't be a comparison with European fruit and vegetables, which look like they are intended for animal fodder: piled up, torn in pieces, mauled, tasteless.

Domestic growers here seem to be growing... air! In Amsterdam we currently get fresh mint leaves from Columbia, bell peppers from Morocco & Israel, green beans from Kenya and Egypt, and the list goes on and on, the most unbelievable locations. All produce is labeled "First class", but you have to be really gullible to trust this.

Plus, price-wise, a lot of fruits and veggies are more expensive here than in Tokyo (at least when out of season: around 8-9 months of the year), which is extremely weird seeing that the Netherlands is a major producer.

In Japan at least you know you're paying for the best, and of course, you get deals on "ugly" or overripe produce - a phenomenon unheard of here.

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Stop wasting oil and polluting. Eat local. If you can't, then you're in big trouble.

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Eat local bananas?

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And yes, it is medoukusai to eat fruit (minus bananas, tangerines and apples). I dont bother with fruit for that reason. But, here and there, I gotta have my watermelon, especially in the summer! Best watermelons eva tasted!

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Then just overpay for cut fruit. That's what I do when I don't want to eat a whole pineapple or nashi.

I think one of the main problems is this weird idea that you shouldn't eat the skin. While I agree that it's probably a bad idea to eat pineapple or orange skin, Japanese people are under the impression that grapes and apples must always be peeled. If you could convince young people that apples didn't have to be cut and peeled, they might start eating more apples.

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I agree that generally fruit(&vegetables) are of high quality here, but too much emphasis is placed on perfect shape & size. There is incredible wasteage in the industry because of that. Friends who are fruit/ veg farmers often have to sell imperfect produce for rock bottom prices or give them away. I am told other farmers sell such as livestock feed or even throw it away.

Also the variety of produce is not not really so great. There are the tried and tested staples, but not a lot of innovation in the wider market. Some excellent niche producers, but they are few in number.

And also many of the fruits are too big. There is the perception here that large is good, but often flavour/sweetness is sacrificed for size. Many large fruit varieties have much higher water content and a diluted taste.

And sourcing "authenticated" organic fruit/veg is a trick and a half. Had a discussion with a nice guy farmer a couple of years back who assured me his oranges (and rice) were "almost" organic because he didn't use such and such a chemical. He thought I was a little strange when I also suggested that because his farm borders a busy 4 lane road and his neighbours use chemicals then his crop couldn't be organic.

But yes we are lucky to have pretty good fruit here, but a lot more work needs to be done.

The company in question - Seika Trading are probably moving in the right direction re imports.

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The quality is high, but the prices are ridiculous. You woyldn`t see those prices in Europe. No way would people pay those high prices and nobody will convince me Japanese fruit and veg is good value.

It would be nice to see some Asian and Afican produce, as cooking ethnic food is very hard with whats on offer here.

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Funny that: Trouble of peeling fruit being No#1.

I recently discovered that apples are a cheap supply of fruit @ ¥398 / 5 (of OK quality). But I had to overcome a childhood indoctrination of wasting as little as possible when peeling before I could enjoy them on a regular basis.

Remember childhood competitions to make the longest continuous apple peel?? Nagging Grannys???

Fun then. But, a HUGE deal breaker when you are deciding between a bag o' chips and an apple today.

Now I just hack the skin off with the nearest kitchen knife and dig in.

OVERCOME your childhood indoctrination and BE FREE.

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Smug satisfaction about the size and attractive shape of fruit needs to give way to a little more critical analysis about the outrageous prices, abysmal lack of variety and Mafia-like import restrictions on fruit staples such as strawberries and grapes. Japanese bureaucracy is way behind the curve in not allowing the public much of a choice for fear of offending powerful vested interests.

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"I recently discovered that apples are a cheap supply of fruit @ ¥398 / 5 (of OK quality). But I had to overcome a childhood indoctrination of wasting as little as possible when peeling before I could enjoy them on a regular basis."

Peeling technology has improved greatly in the last decade or so. I have a peeler and corer... Little cheap hand tools that let me peel an apple or kiwi or mango or whatever in about 5 seconds. Another 2 seconds with the corer and it is done. I justify the little bit that is wasted against my saved labor time, which is worth so much more than a little bit of apple or potato or whatever.

Fujis are great. When you slice a lot of Japanese apples, you can see a star of sugars inside. Amazing. Most J stuff is quite good. The more rural your provider, the better the freshness and prices. People in Tokyo pretty well just have to take what they can get. Too bad.

Lazy people are lazy. Clever people find ways to save time... and thereby enjoy fruit that others pass up. I am surprised that so many posters here feel victimized by producer/consumer relationships that they voluntarily enter into. People should spend more time finding appropriate sources for their food.

I grow my own potatoes, so I eat the peels of those. I don't trust peels of J fruit. The better it looks, the more chemicals have been used, IMHO.

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"Fruits and veggies here are the best in the world"

Maybe compared to Europe,but compared to South East Asia,Australia or California it's ridiculously overpriced and the choice is very limited.

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Keep up the good work Mr. Moriya, I wish you will import more fruits from the Philippines, there are so many kinds out there. And most importantly fruits are good for our health.

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Apples that taste good (New Zealand, South Africa), seedless grapes, coconuts. and why is everything soooo expensive?

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"The main problem is that overall fruit consumption in Japan has significantly declined over the last 10 years, especially among the young generation."

Fruit consumption has declined in Japan over the years but its not because of "young people"- since when do the kids in the house determine the purchasing habits of mom ? Fact is, plain and simple, Japanese fruit and vegetable products remain ridiculously expensive. They have not adjusted to Japan's failing economy and declining purchasing power. An apple for 128 yen or $1.25 is ludicruis ! You can get 4 apples for that price anywhere else on the planet. The wife just hauled in 5 kilos of potatoes for 140 yen- 1.5 kilos of carrots for 100 yen- and beauties they are ! And taste ? Fruits and veggies in the US have flavor ! Japan uses way too many chemicals to re-nitrate their fields- most of which are completely exhausted of minerals. The Americans rotate their crops which provide for well nourished soil composts. I grew up knowing what a real tomoato should taste like- the wife didn't. She got the bright red round spherical balls of water labeled "tomatoes" but that was about the extent of it. You should see her eyes light up when she stuffs a sun ripened fresh off the vine mater into her mouth. And it doesn't stop there. We are at the start of the melon season here- whole canteloupes that go for 200 yen ! On average these things take us three breakfasts to get through- and are they sweet ! remember that the next time you walk in to Itoh Yokado and see "5" pieces of melon for 200 yen- Shocking !

The only thing I've found consistently affordable in Japan was the bananas- and to be honest- I got sick of them ! We now gorge ourselves with seedless watermelons, huge oranges, sun ripened canteloups, strawberries the size of golf balls, and vegetables from all parts of the US and Mexico. Mmmm, avacado !

I think the main issue for Japan remains the lack of competition in this market. Seems that Mr. Moriya has limited competition to drive down prices and force an improvement in the distribution network. All this hoopla about food safety remains a red herring. Mr. Moriya probably wants us to believe that only he and his employees can guarantee compliance with Japan's overbearing regulations- that in itself has probably scared off many an entreprenuer. But again, this only hurts the consumer who, as noted here, remains hesitant to buy.

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While I agree prices are high, for a lot of produce you simply can't buy it in the US. In Europe, it wouldn't even be available - which to their credit is because they prefer to sell local quality goods. They aren't making a huge profit on produce at the stores - it's priced high because it costs them a lot too.

That said, you couldn't get top Japanese quality grapes in the US or Europe at any price. Not a hundred dollars would buy it, but twenty will get you a perfect batch in Japan.

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