October 24, 2013

Food quality made in Japan

Food advertising for German products (photo: Sabine Hedewig-Mohr)
Japanese retail culture: Authentic food, aesthetic presentation, charming service (photo: Sabine Hedewig-Mohr)
By European and US standards food prices in Japan are astronomic. This is primarily due to high import duties aimed at protecting local producers with only limited available land.

But near starvation during WW2 has also bitten deeply into the collective consciousness of the Japanese. Successive governments have therefore strived for national food self-sufficiency and many politicians are alarmed that this has already fallen to below 50 per cent.

Thus international free trade agreements are often viewed with scepticism.

Whatever the economic reasons for often quite staggering prices, food is highly valued in this fascinating country. In fact, the Japanese look aghast at the way it is treated as a mere commodity in western retailing. Can they teach us something about value-added?

On holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun, Sabine Hedewig-Mohr, senior online editor of our sister agrifood publication, agrarzeitung.de, went shopping with her camera. 

Many experts complain that high-quality food is sold at such low prices here in Germany. Others maintain that the neglect of value-added in German retailing actually provokes food scandals.

It is therefore revealing to see how food is presented in foreign countries and the prices that are charged there. This, in turn, also says something about the status food has in different national cultures.

The religion of food

In Japan food has a traditionally high value. The country’s indigenous religion Shinto elevates purity to the status of an essential principle. Thus, food of exquisite quality is presented in a scrupulously clean way.

The food sections of department stores and supermarkets in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are filled with customers. They are even crowded in the early afternoon, unlike in Germany.

There are numerous delicacies. Beef from Kobe, for instance, is world-renowned. Animals are allowed to live three times longer than in Germany before they are slaughtered.

Although it is a myth that meat producers lovingly massage their herds with sake, the lightly marbled structures of the meat and the optimal composition of its fatty acids are as real as its price of €800 per kilo.

Packed like porcelain

But even standard beef on the food floors of big department stores in Tokyo is priced at €100 per kilo. The generous amount of counter space accorded to such meat would not force the observer to conclude that such high prices are scaring the consumers away.

Impressive prices are also charged for fruit. Harvest workers in Australia and New Zealand know that they must pick only the very best, largest and juiciest produce with the utmost attention for Japanese customers.

It is then packed as though it was delicate porcelain. On arrival, goods are presented in padded packaging and tied with a bow as though they were at the jeweller’s.

A single melon changes hands for €80. Each one has to be unique because growers are expected to collect all the strength, sweetness and aroma of the whole plant in the one fruit. Unlike anything known in Germany, single pieces of fruit are often decorated and given as a present.

Grapes as large as mirabelle plums and peaches as large as grapefruits also fetch mind-boggling prices and are presented as if they were the crown jewels.

When one says to the charming and attentive service staff “Your fruit looks like it has beenn painted”, they confess that the individual pieces on display are really plastic dummies. This is to avoid the produce being handled by customers. The expensive originals are stored in heavy protective wrapping in the refrigerator.

Equal love and care is taken with Japanese confectionary, and cake makers give their famous specialities imaginative names such as “blooming chrysanthemums”. Here too ranges are broad and deep with a tremendous variety.

Meanwhile customers crowd around to buy and watch their purchases being packed both beautifully and lovingly.

Home from home

On my travels I stumbled upon one well-known name in a department store in Osaka: a bakery section called “Mönchengladbach”, a German city near the River Rhine, with cakes and patisserie made according to German recipes.

Here a whole floor is dedicated to presentations which include goods with chocolate pralines, sweet chestnuts and soft strawberry marshmallows.

At all times staff are extremely polite and obliging; I enjoyed the same professional service at market stalls and in convenience stores or supermarkets. In Japan the customer really is king.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given the fact that he or she is prepared to pay princely sums and the quality of the food is extremely high. Is it, however, significant that the one thing I didn’t see on my travels in Japan was a discount store?


Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: 'Qualität Made in Japan'
by Sabine Hedewig-Mohr, managing editor of our sister publication agrarzeitung.de, 19.09.2013


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  1. Tim Harrap
    Created 24 October, 2013 19:52 | Permanent link

    A timely piece given EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos's visit to Japan and Korea next month promoting PDO, PGI and organic (bio) products:


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