By RICHARD SMITH
For the Capital Press
TOKYO -- Japan's fresh California strawberry imports appear poised to rise again this year.
The market here took in almost 3,110 tons of California strawberries in 2010 and increased 1 percent to 3,140 tons last year, Japan Ministry of Finance data show.
Demand appears to increasing, industry insiders say.
Major fruit importer Royal sourced 250 tons two years ago, 262 tons in 2011, and plans to import 300 tons this year, Toyohito Ueda, the company's fruits division general manager, said.
"Many big supermarkets have launched sales for the first time this year," Ueda said. The strawberries are used as an ingredient in fruit salads and sliced fruits.
Aeon Group manages 1,900 supermarkets in Japan. The company plans to increase purchases from 13 tons last year to 40 this year, Tomokazu Ishii of Aeon's agricultural products group said.
"(California strawberries are) not a strongly acidic variety suitable for industrial use, but one good as a fresh table strawberry, which meets our standards," Ishii said.
The California Strawberry Commission ended all of its export promotion programs this year. The former Japan representative, Scott Hitchman, president of Milton Group, still represents the Washington State Department of Agriculture as well as the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers.
Hitchman said that through his Tokyo-based marketing firm's efforts, 13-outlet Costco Wholesale Japan started selling California strawberries in 2009.
Costco buyer Tomoko Shibata refused to answer questions regarding her chain's strawberry business.
"It's confidential," Shibata said.
Last November, however, the "Shopping Paradise" television program featured Costco Japan, and its top 10 best-selling items. California strawberries were sixth.
"They have made it a strategic item in their fresh produce segment as a result and promoted aggressively with us the last couple of years," Hitchman said.
Skylark Group manages 2,800 pastry shops and restaurants, which use strawberries in parfaits, sundaes and cakes.
The company used 200 tons of California strawberries last year, an 11 percent increase from 180 in 2010, Tatsuya Ishida of Skylark's purchasing department said.
This year, however, purchases will go down 40 percent to 120 tons. "That's because our Gusto restaurant chain (about 300 outlets) has switched to other fruits," Ishida said.
Market players here said the main appeal of California strawberries is their availability during the off-season of Japanese strawberries.