Companies adapt foods to Japanese culture to boost sales
By RICHARD SMITH
For the Capital Press
TOKYO -- Dundee, Ore.-based Dundee Fruit's products, particularly blueberries and dark cherries in light syrup, can be found on supermarket shelves in this country, but mostly under Japanese brands.
"The Japanese importers wanted to develop their own brands, and that's fine with us," company president Richard Sadler said.
Consumers do know the product comes from the U.S. and Oregon, because of the mention on the labels.
Business is booming in Japan for Dundee Fruit.
"We send more than 10 container loads a year, and we expect more this year," Sadler said.
Having established a niche in Japan with its blueberries, the company is trying to use that as an anchor to get other products in.
"And they will all be Oregon fruits and berries," Sadler said.
Dundee Fruit was among 26 U.S. companies exhibiting Feb. 1-3 at the Supermarket Trade Show in Tokyo. Not only was the U.S. participation the largest in the show's history, but it showcased for the first time under a USDA-sponsored pavilion.
"Being USDA-endorsed makes it easier to have a cohesive area," said U.S. embassy in Tokyo Agricultural Trade Office director Steve Shnitzler.
Dundee Fruit's Sadler said Japan's food culture is constantly changing, becoming more westernized and sophisticated, which opens new opportunities.
But, he said, "You don't just take an American product in Japan, you adapt what you do well to Japanese taste and culture."
That's why California cheese exporters ship here in bulk, as 1-pound or 2-pound blocks of cheese would be too big for Japanese families.
"It's a different market in terms of size, packaging and flavor," said California Milk Advisory Board International Business Development Consultant Ross Christieson.
For example, a California processor is developing the brand Razzle Dazzle, a semi-hard Monterey Jack blue cheese, only for the Japanese market, Christieson said.
Tokyo-based Jimbo Co. president Masaki Jimbo's advice: "Find something that's not available in Japan, or that Japanese companies cannot make." That's what Jimbo did.
For nearly eight years, Jimbo Co. has been importing beef, pork and turkey jerky from Tillamook Country Smoker in Bay City, Ore. Japanese people's image of jerky is hard and chewy, but Tillamook' Country Smoker's jerky is soft, Jimbo said.
"So it's not just a snack for adults but for children, too," he said.
And starting this winter, Jimbo Co. also imported chocolate from Washington state-based Seattle Chocolate for Valentine's Day, Jimbo said.
Extra-virgin olive oil from California Olive Ranch in Oroville, Calif., comes here through importer Persian Palace. Company president Masoud Sobhani said Japan imported 200,000 tons of olive oil last year, and volumes will certainly increase.
"For heart health, the Japanese government is encouraging people to put olive oil in their miso (soybean paste) soup," Sobhani said.
About 40 percent of U.S. potato exports come to Japan, although only frozen potatoes face no restrictions, U.S. Potato Board international marketing manager Susan Weller said.
"That's why we're here, we're targeting the retailers and convenience stores that would use our products, and the ready-to-eat market," Weller said.
Japan is an established fried potato market, "but we can see there are opportunities for frozen and dehydrated products," she said.