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.