Japan is not a country known for its fruit exports, but a weaker domestic demand is now forcing its apple industry out onto the world stage.
Shohei Naito, CEO of Tokyo-based fruit export company Nihon Agri, told Fresh Fruit Portal that with an ageing society coupled with a shrinking population has squeezed local demand.
He said that unlikely many other countries, “Japanese agriculture has been largely focused on the domestic market, where demand has been decreasing due to the aging society and shrinking of the Japanese population.”
These conditions drove Naito to set up a business in 2016 focused on fruit export. After just a couple of years, the company is now shipping to various Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
However, when it comes to export, Japan – which last year produced around 850,000 metric tons (MT) of apples – faces its own set of challenges.
“The cost of freight is high, especially for 40-foot containers. More than 30 tons of Chinese apples can be loaded in one container, but only 10 tons of Japanese apples can be loaded,” said Naito, adding that the company had to make changes to box and pallet sizes so as to fully utilize loading capacities.
“In Thailand or Indonesia, importers, distributors and retailers who import U.S. or Chinese apples have really hard and strong fruit because those apples are harvested in very early stages … Japanese apples are harvested maturely so that makes apples sweeter, but on the other hand as a tradeoff, they are really sensitive.”
The high prices of Japanese fruits also complicate the task of grabbing hold of a significant global market share.
For Nihon Agri, the bigger focus lies in new markets in Southeast Asia – where Japanese fruit is almost unheard of and where the company reduces prices of apples by exporting smaller sizes.
“Japanese apples, for example, can cost US$5 per piece, while Chinese apples are US$0.50 per piece and U.S. or New Zealand apples are US$1 to $2 per piece,” said Naito.
“Typically the size of Japanese apples is big, but we focus on the smaller-sized ones so the price per piece will be decreased, allowing us to tap into more mass segments.”
According to Naito, the retail price of his company’s apples is around US$1.40 per piece across all their export markets, and varieties exported include Orin, Fuji and Shinano Gold.
Around 80% of volumes come from the country’s Aomori Prefecture in the north, and the remaining 20% from Nagano Prefecture.
Many think of Japan as a technologically advanced country, but, as the case tends to be elsewhere around the world, the agricultural industry is lagging behind.
“Sorting process is automated in Aomori, but in Nagano it is not,” said Naito. “When it comes to production there is no fancy technology, but we use sprayers for fertilizers and pesticides. I think it is similar to ordinary farmers in China.”
A shrinking labor pool is another factor that has driven up fruit prices.
“In Japan, quality is everything in the domestic market, so all the farmers really look at how to enhance the quality (of the products). For example… Japanese farmers do pruning three times for each tree, so it takes a lot of time,” said Naito.
“We thin usually three to four times to control the condition of the fruit. And because Japanese apples are very matured, they are handpicked and we carefully pack them in the orchards.”
However, Naito firmly believes that there are more chances for automation in the Japanese apple industry.
“If we see the components of technology, I think there are a lot of high-tech companies in Japan for example DOCOMO or even Toyota, who is now very interested in the agritechnology area,” he said, noting his company has received offers for partnership from some technology companies.
Naito also sees an opportunity to expand Japanese fruit exports beyond Asia – but not with apples.
“When it comes to only apples, I think it is a tough market outside Asia because U.S. and Europe are also big producing countries,” said Naito.
“But if we think about specific types of grapes which are only harvested in Japan, there should be opportunities all over the world,” he added.
The company has started branching out to other fruits this year such as grapes and peaches and will look to expand to even more products in the future.
Other than being a producer and exporter of Japanese fruit themselves, Nihon Agri also partners with foreign players such as Freshco in New Zealand to export their apples to Southeast Asian markets during summer – bearing the Nihon Agri brand name.