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Why are fruit and vegetables in Japan so expensive?

30 Comments
By George Lloyd, grape Japan

The price of fresh fruit and vegetables in Japan is a real shocker. In the case of fruit, it's commonplace to hear people say that this is because so much care goes into the cultivation of each individual fruit. Heart-warming stories of cherry farmers hand-polishing their bright red orbs, and consumers appreciatively tucking into their creamy white flesh are regularly trotted out to justify the exorbitant price of domestically produced fruit.

But what of humble, day to day produce like potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes? At my local supermarket a small bag of potatoes, grown in Nagasaki, sets me back 297 yen, excluding tax. Two carrots, grown in Chiba, cost 197 yen, and tomatoes, also from Chiba, are 117 yen each.

I don’t know about the price of vegetables in neighboring countries like China or South Korea, but in the UK, another small, island nation with not many farmers and an overwhelmingly urban population, prices are less than half those in Japan.

Scanning supermarket giant Tesco’s website, I see that a small bag of potatoes, grown in Kent, can be mine for the equivalent of 140 yen, a whole kilo of Devon carrots costs just 70 yen and five tomatoes, grown on the vine in the Netherlands, are 130 yen (and all of these prices include tax).

In 2016, the value of Japan’s domestically produced vegetables was estimated at U.S.$22.9 billion. Compare that to the value of domestically produced vegetables in the UK - U.S.$1.89 in 2017 – and you can see that, even allowing for the fact that Japan’s population is about twice that of the UK, Japanese farmers are on to a winner.

Why the discrepancy in prices? To some extent, the blame lies with fussy shoppers. When Japanese farmers are preparing their crops for sale, they know that only the most beautiful items will pass muster with the supermarkets. A misshapen spud or slightly discolored tomato will either be eaten by the farmer’s family or thrown away. Aside from being wasteful, this makes vegetables more valuable than they should be, and thereby more expensive.

Another factor to bear in mind is that Japan doesn’t have much farmland. Only 12% of the land is used for growing crops, and most of that is used for rice production. The most important factor, however, is that Japanese farms are much smaller than those in other OECD countries. According to government statistics, the average size of a Japanese farm is just 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres), compared with 198 hectares (490 acres) in the United States. Small farms are less efficient than big farms, and small farmers have less ready cash to invest in the machinery needed to bring costs down.

 Ironically, the predominance of small farms is down to the Americans. After World War II, the U.S. government occupied Japan for seven years. During that time it took several radical steps to dismantle what they saw as the structural impediments to the creation of a democratic society. One of them was a land reform program that saw the big, old feudal estates broken up and distributed to millions of small-time farmers. To this day, Japanese law stipulates that all farmland must be worked directly by whoever owns it. This might make Japan a more equitable society, but it also makes its agriculture much less efficient and its farm goods more expensive.

Nonetheless, both the farmers and the ruling LDP like things that way. Although farming makes up little more than one percent of Japan’s GDP, and farmers make up just 3.4% of the population, outdated election maps and effective organization by farmers give Japan's rural communities disproportionate political power. Small farmers have been stalwart supporters of the LDP since the ruling party was created in 1955 and the farmers’ lobby is one of the most powerful in Japan.

More surprisingly, shoppers like the status quo too. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted in 2011, 80% of voters think that the government should subsidize people engaging in farming for the first time. Shoppers support subsidized agriculture because they are encouraged to believe that Japan’s farm goods are the best in the world and that such quality comes at a price.

Preference for locally produced vegetables over imported vegetables is strong among Japanese consumers. The same Yomiuri survey found that while 46% of shoppers believe that foreign farm produce is less expensive than Japanese produce, a whopping 76% also believe that it is unsafe.

This disdain for foreign farm products ensures that a nation of savvy urban consumers is regularly shafted in the supermarket. Or, seen another way, that the rural way of life at the heart of traditional Japanese culture is propped up by urbanites happy to pay over the odds for their potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.

Be that as it may, Japanese farming is an unsustainable proposition. As with so many things in Japan, demography is to blame. The average age of a Japanese farmer is 65 and rising. With no one willing to take over their farms when they die, Japanese farming will soon reach a tipping point. In 1961, the country produced 78% of all the food it consumed. By 2006, that figure had dropped to 39%. It will drop a lot further in the future, and as it does, Japan’s shoppers will start to pay a lot less for their groceries - whether they like it or not.

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© grape Japan

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30 Comments
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unsustainable...

yeah, I know, but just like the majority of people in the survey, I like paying for local fruit and vegetables. In the summer, I go to the local pear farms and buy big boxes directly from them. When I drive anywhere, I always stop at the Michi no Eki.

Call me crazy.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Should also mention that in TOKYO we pay a premium here to the rest of Japan.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

30 years ago food security was 60%. Now it's only 40%. The auctions and middle men drive up the prices. When we go to farmer markets prices are better.

There's a massive waste of produce because stores require certain sizes and shapes.

Yesterday apples were ¥300 each.

We live in a farming community and the locals give us quite a lot of vegetables.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

The auctions and middle men drive up the prices

Consumers should be seen and not heard. Exit through the gift shop only.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Nonetheless, both the farmers and the ruling LDP like things that way. Although farming makes up little more than one percent of Japan’s GDP, and farmers make up just 3.4% of the population, outdated election maps and effective organization by farmers give Japan's rural communities disproportionate political power. Small farmers have been stalwart supporters of the LDP since the ruling party was created in 1955 and the farmers’ lobby is one of the most powerful in Japan.

This in a nutshell is why change is so difficult to come by in Japan.

As with so many things in Japan, demography is to blame. The average age of a Japanese farmer is 65 and rising. With no one willing to take over their farms when they die, Japanese farming will soon reach a tipping point.

So what is the gov doing about it? nothing. nada. zilch.

We live in a farming community and the locals give us quite a lot of vegetables.

same. most of our vegetables come from the chokubaijo (unmanned vegetable stands)

6 ( +6 / -0 )

In conversations with family and friends, I have often remarked how we here in the States are blessed with a bounty of food, but we seem to have a dearth of good cooking. While traveling outside the States, I am amazed at how much more quality is valued in other countries.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

fwiw, its often 150-200 yen for two carrots in inaka too. Its 300 yen for 10 Australian ones in Costco. I don't see wives telling their husbands to put them back because they are "unsafe".

Japanese law stipulates that all farmland must be worked directly by whoever owns it

In Japan some farmland is leased (itaku) to farming companies, so that is untrue. While there are problems with distribution and cosmetic needs, I think the main reason is that farms use industrial methods with costly inputs like machinery and ag chemicals but on an inefficient non-industrial scale. One guy with two fields and a four million yen mini combined harvester used for about 12 hours a year is never going to produce cheap food.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Just a bit out into the countryside, you can find locally-grown produce in bins in front of people’s houses. It’s tasty and reasonably priced.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Japanese consumers are getting screwed. Mind you, some of them have the mindset that if something's too cheap, then something's got to be wrong.

I just look out for discounts. And there is sometimes a small corner where local produce is sold and they're usually much cheaper. Recently I've been buying a whole big bag of shiso for 100 yen. A small pack consisting of 5 leaves at the same price is a total rip-off.

I just don't understand how farmer are getting so much financial help and yet the food is still so expensive. When Japanese go to the UK, they actually think Waitrose supermarket is dirt cheap.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Can you buy foreign carrots in a Japanese Costco?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Or, seen another way, that the rural way of life at the heart of traditional Japanese culture is propped up by urbanites happy to pay over the odds for their potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.

Happy!? Even after 15 years here, each time I go to the supermarket and see the prices i'm fuming at the total rip off it obviously is! It's blatant price fixing.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Can you buy foreign carrots in a Japanese Costco?

We get them in the Toyama one. Here's a Japanese blogger.

https://ameblo.jp/honeyhoneydip/entry-12577893971.html

In Japan, there is a big difference in veggie consumption between the young and old. It's normally passed off as old people eating a more traditional diet, but I think a falling standard of living is also affecting it. Old people won't be paying off houses or have kids' expenses any more, and are more likely to have been employed in the good old days as seishain.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

How much does it cost the environment to import Australian carrots?

We live in a carrot growing area. Just before the rice planting piles of unsold carrots appear in the fields. Daikon too.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@kohakuebisu

that's great, I recently found sourdough bread at the Costco I go to in Chiba.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Recently I've been buying a whole big bag of shiso for 100 yen. A small pack consisting of 5 leaves at the same price is a total rip-off.

When we were first married, Mr cleo told me never to buy shiso because the leaves were treated with nasty chemicals to improve their shelf life. So I bought a packet of seeds and grew fresh organic shiso in a pot on the balcony. Now we have a garden and the shiso has self-propagated and has long had weed status; I never need to sow seeds, it just pops up every year and we have a plentiful supply all through the season.

And yes, the fresh untreated leaves wilt pretty quickly; I pick them just when I need to use them.

When you have an allotment, you soon learn that the pretty veggies in the shops are just the tip of the iceberg, and you learn to use all the mis-shapen stuff that you've taken the effort to grow. It all looks the same when it's chopped up, anyway.

At the moment we have a glut of aubergines, tomatoes and runner beans, next week we'll start to enjoy a steady supply of edamame. We also have several months' supply of potatoes (three varieties), onions and garlic.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

That was a bloody long story about taters n carrots....

Get a Costco membership!

Case solve'd

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Get a Costco membership!

Case solve'd

Only if you live near one which we don't

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The article is incorrect. In the U.K. there is no tax on food, unless it’s from a restaurant or takeaway.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I either go to Costco or grow my own. Japanese food as good as a lot of it is, lacks in heat so I grow 7 different peppers, Shallots, blue corn and I have Guava, Granny Smith Apple, Passion fruit and mango trees and more, so I’m set! Got a lot of land and I make sure I have everything I need concerning fruits and veggies.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

To this day, Japanese law stipulates that all farmland must be worked directly by whoever owns it. 

This is not true. The owner of agricultural land does not have to be the one who works it, farmland can be leased to others who will work it for example.

The article seems like one written by someone who has no background knowledge of the topic but has done some google searches and used intuition to try to put an answer together which misses the most important points.

Pretty much all farmers in japan are members of agricultural co-ops, which are organized nationally with the support of the Central government and dominate the distribution of agricultural products in Japan. The dominance of small farmers today (and higher prices) is the result of these cooperatives, not the American occupation 70 years ago.

The political influence of the cooperatives on the LDP also explains the high trade barriers that japan still has which prevent a lot of foreign imports (ever seen rice from Thailand for sale here?) that would introduce competition and force prices down. THAT explains the lack of foreign produce in supermarkets, not Japanese consumers' tastes.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I still chuckle when I see a netted small bag of only 6 LadyFingers nicely wrapped and tagged 280 JPY. In tropical countries people go home with at least 2 to 4 kilos of LadyFingers by paying one third of the price above. Same goes for several other vegetables. Indeed the vegetable quality is good in Japan, but the premium paid by the consumer is just too ridiculously high.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

We need more skyscraper farms growing produce 24/7. Automatic and less labor.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I still chuckle when I see a netted small bag of only 6 LadyFingers nicely wrapped and tagged 280 JPY.

What type of veggie are "lady fingers"? In the parts of the US where I have grown up or lived, Lady Fingers is a type of cookie. (or "biscuit" in the UK)

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Lady’s Fingers = Okra

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Too much middlemen profit margins.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Because the fruits are not grown and picked by exploited third-world country children.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Some of the fields in this town just got harvested. It makes me sad to see all the daikon, carrots, etc that "didn't make the cut" and are just discarded in the field. I've always been half-tempted to gather it all up and do something with it. There are people in this country who go to bed hungry.

As for annoying prices, it always seems to just be fruit up here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Lady’s Fingers = Okra

Thanks. I never heard them called that before. (Weird I got downvotes for asking a simple question.)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Thanks. I never heard them called that before. (Weird I got downvotes for asking a simple question.)

Dont worry, it’s no big deal. I don’t even pay attention, you get used to it. You didn’t know, not your fault. When my father moved to Europe in the early 70’s he didn’t know what an Aubergine was either or what we call “Eggplant” I enjoy eating fruit, but it is very expensive to buy, so for me the best solution was grow your own and that solved all of my problems. I just won’t and refuse to pay these outrageous prices, proud of it, makes sense and if I get down votes it’s ok.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Here is a link to an article on farming in Japan from a more informed source:

https://hackerfarm.jp/2019/04/the-food-chain-japanese-agriculture-from-farm-to-supermarket/

Points left unmentioned in this article that contribute to higher prices to consumers are the higher costs of food inputs and the layers of middlemen in Japan.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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