by Wendy Wasserman & Hiroko Sasaki
ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON at Naniwaya Market in Azabu-Juban, shoppers surveyed the produce section, picking through the lettuce, carrots, broccoli and other greens. Featured within the produce section was a specially marked cluster of vegetables, all sporting the distinctive wheat stalk organic seal of the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS). The seal, plus the surrounding signage, made it clear that the items in this section of the produce department were yuki saibai, or certified organic products.
If you’ve seen this before — a dedicated display of organic fruits, vegetables or even some grocery products — in your favorite supermarket or department store food hall, you are not imagining things. Japan’s appetite for organic foods is enormous. According to both the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Service and the US Department of Agriculture, annual sales for organic and all-natural foods in Japan easily top ¥300 billion.
To meet this demand in Tokyo, shops specializing in organic and all-natural foods are becoming easier to find all around town. Chains like Crayon House, Natural House, Anew, F&F and Mather’s are popular in many neighborhoods. In addition, smaller shops like Chiyujin-Club (in Azabu-Juban) or Natural Mart (in Hiroo) are indicative of the many smaller dedicated organic and all natural shops in the city. The bigger conventional supermarkets, including Kinokuni-ya, Meijiya, Queens Isetan and Poro Roca, often have organic and all natural displays. Likewise, mail order businesses for home delivery of organics and all natural products, like Radish Boya and Tengu Natural Foods are also quite popular, and the Foreign Buyers Club also offers organic selections.
But what exactly do the terms “organic” and “all-natural” mean, and why do consumers in Japan care?
Recent coverage of food safety scares, the benefits of functional foods as well as concerns about environmental sustainability have certainly contributed to the consumer interest in organics and all natural foods both here in Japan, and around the globe, as shoppers equate organic and all natural products as healthier choices both for them and the environment. In addition, shoppers in Japan, like our international counterparts, also believe that the quality and taste of organic and all natural foods is simply better.
Yet, for even the savviest shopper with the best of intentions, the labels “organic” and “all-natural” can be as hard to understand as alphabet soup. “All- natural” products presumably contain no artificial ingredients, flavors, stabilizers or preservatives. Yet, as there is no official or generally accepted and enforced definition of “all-natural”, consumers must simply trust the food producers and marketers at their word when products are labeled as shizen syokuhin (all-natural), or claim to made with gennouyaku saibai (less agricultural chemicals) or monouyaku saibai (no agricultural chemicals), mukagakuhiryou saibai (no chemical fertilizers) or mutenka (additive free).
The labeling process for organic foods, however, is closely regulated by the Japanese Organic & Natural Foods Association (JONA), a subdivision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishieries (MAFF). The JONA office was approved to be the Japanese government’s official organic certifying agency in 2000, and was tasked with upholding the national standards for organic foods that had been adopted earlier that same year.
The national standards for organics specify that products carrying the Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS) seal for organics must be free from all synthetic ingredients, flavors, stabilizers and other preservatives, as certified by JONA. In addition, these products must also be grown in fields where the soil itself is free from artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals for at least three years. Farmers must have their facilities successfully inspected and certified by JONA that they meet these standards before they can call their products yuuki (organic) or yuuki nousan butsu kako shokuhin (processed from organic agricultural products).
While standardized labeling requirements may be reassuring to some shoppers, there are consequences in the marketplace. To get a JAS organic stamp is very expensive and time consuming, prohibitively so for some farmers. This means that some farmers who might be able to pass all certification requirements and produce foods that meet all the organic qualifications may choose not to pursue the process due to the time and money the process demands. In addition, the organic standards only apply to fruits, vegetables and products processed from the same. This means that no matter how hard you try, the chances of finding certified organic eggs, meat, fish or baked items in Tokyo made by a Japanese producer is quite small.
Consequently, the import market for organic foods here in Japan is quite large. JONA has a reciprocity agreement with many organic certifying agencies around the world. This means that most products certified as organic in their home countries can easily sport the JAS seal here. Indeed, Nobuyuki Mataga-san at Natural Mart, a small organic and all-natural shop in Hiroo, reports that over 50 percent of his inventory is imported. Natural Mart carries some of the West’s biggest organic brands, including sauces and cereals by Organic Valley (based in Wisconsin), non-diary beverages by Eden Foods (based in Michigan) and Weleda skin care products (based in Switzerland).
Despite the complex rules regarding organic certification in Japan, consumers in Tokyo at least seem not to be intimidated by the complex labeling requirements and the myriad of acronyms that accompany organic products. Like those shoppers at Naniwaya, we are simply trying to look for quality food we can trust. And we are in good company too, as the Imperial Family has been eating organic and all natural foods for over 100 years — all from a single source domestic farm that has never sought organic certification.
Wendy Wasserman and Hiroko Sasaki are both freelance writers in Tokyo, specializing in Japanese food and food culture
WHERE TO FIND ORGANICS AND ALL-NATURAL ITEMS IN TOKYO
Branches in Aoyama, Shimo-kitazawa and Seijo.
In Jiyugaoka, Gakugeidaigaku, Sakurashinmachi and Umegaoka.
1-5-29, Azabu-juban, Minato-ku, tel. 03-5771-6145.
Takadanobaba and Kyodo.
3-8-15, Kitaaoyama, Minato-ku, tel. 03-3406-6477.
2-18-11 3F, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku,
ORGANIC LIFE NATURAL HOUSE
Hiroo Flower Home 102, 5-19-5 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku,
TENGU NATURAL FOODS
Eat well while eating out
Good Honest Grub
Don’t be fooled by the down-home name, the prices here are a little steep. But well worth it! The best Vegetable Burger in Tokyo, with your choice of mouth watering spreads. Its hummus is a personal favorite. Used on other sandwiches, it makes the spartan-sounding A&T (avocado, tomato, sprouts and roasted pepper on Graham Bread) a satisfying meal in itself.
www.goodhonestgrub.com, Tel. 03-3710-0400 (Ebisu), 03-3406-6606 (Harajuku)
Chaya Macrobiotic Restaurant Shinjuku
A good place for purists. Though again, a little on the pricey end, with its Lunch Plate ¥2100. You get what you pay for however, with the portions sizable and the food, quite simply, delicious. They seem to enjoy putting as many different little dishes together as possible on your plate. Don’t leave without trying the organic coffee. Tel. 03-3357-0012. Chayam also runs an organic food delivery service, which can be found at www.chayam.jp.
Sometimes you just want a thick juicy steak. Sometimes your friends do anyway. Specializing in California cuisine, Eros.Bros serves up organic macrobiotic and vegetarian options alongside the biggest Rib eye Steak I’ve ever seen in Japan (bigger than my hand!). A great place to come in mixed company; that is people with varied culinary needs (that means your carnivorous boyfriend can come along too). Open late and located near Nishi
Azabu crossing. Tel. 03-5413-6811.
If you can believe it, Japan was actually a vegetarian country for a few centuries. Meat was deemed un-Buddhist and made illegal. The cuisine that developed can still be enjoyed at various temples. For those who can’t make the trek, Daigo, inside the Atago Green Hills shopping complex serves it up for anyone interested. It’s vegetarian food, Japanese-style. Small pretty dishes are presented immaculately through a series of courses. Almost a religious experience. Inside the Forest Tower 2F.
Organic Café, Naka-Meguro
Again, an organic food restaurant Japanese-style but not for any religious reasons. The type of place with “Ethnic Grilled Beef and Japanese style chicken wings” on its menu. Although items such as “white liver paste and bread” don’t sound orthodox, the menu is safe if you stick to items with the word “organic” in them. If you’re the type of vegetarian that thinks ham is a garnish, you can order almost everything on the menu. Great atmosphere though. A hangout for artsy locals. Tel. 03-3791-5151
LAURA FUMIKO KEEHN