Breeding Bluefin Tuna in captivity: A recipe for success?

When I went over to Japan- I went there with an open mind to try as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the first 3 weeks were a sort of ignorant bliss- I ate, enjoyed but frequently was at a loss to identify what I was eating. With one exception- I knew very well of the Japanese love of Bluefin tuna Read more

HiNGEd on Unique Stories

 “i’d rather wear a unique story…”- Boticca I’ve always been fascinated with the origin of the product I am using, eating, wearing, smelling or consuming in some way or another. I am curious about the intricate relations, history and most importantly the story that lies behind a product. I assume this is what lends itself to my passion for sustainability, and ethical issues since full transparency and Read more

Free Money + Sloths= a better life?

On the 15th September, in over 15 countries worldwide, people handed out their money two coins, or two notes at a time to complete strangers with one condition attached: the recipient must pass half this amount to someone else. Who are these people? Benevolent billionaires who would like to donate to my new handbag fund (a bona fide cause I assure you…)? Well, no Read more

Kuromame-Cha cha cha

In other words black soybean tea; possibly my most treasured discovery during my sojourn in Japan. It all began one cold spring trip to Hakone-the mountain escape for Tokyoites for a bit of rest and relaxation. My boyfriend and I were visiting to try out my first onsen (hot natural springs/baths) and experience the calmer, more picturesque side of Japan which had somewhat evaded Read more

Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

I'm really sad to hear and see the terrible impact of the earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and subsequent tsunami in Japan, whose far reaching destruction is slowly revealing itself day by day. For any worried English speaking expats in Japan-a great and reassuring resource can be found here: For those on twitter you will find a number of regular tweeters who are keeping everyone Read more

How unique is UNIQLO?

UNIQLO is among one of Japan's best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival. And when I say 'first stepped into Japan' I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in Read more

Ja-Pan du jour

'This bread demands a very slow fermentation and a lot of attention. However the result is worth it; the taste is incomparable, its texture sealed in and authentic, handcrafted product' Beck Pain Gris (2010) Toit Vert- A Japanese Bakery The translation is not quite as poetic as when read in French, but this description on the bread paper sachet demonstrates the care, attention and Read more

Ain't no Blue Mountain high enough

“Coffee should be as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love"- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. And that's exactly how I take mine. Coffee and I have had their ups and down, I briefly abandoned my caffeinated companion following my dissertation induced sleep deprivation, in the final year of my degree. It would be more accurate to describe this Read more

Toilets ...a metaphor for Japan?

Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia. Juxtaposition of a traditional Inari shrine Read more

Bling bling fruit and bargain bananas

When we think of bananas and the Japanese, the heralded 'Morning banana diet' may come to mind. Indeed a banana buying craze broke out in Japan when this diet debuted in March 2008. In a week, sales increased by 70% causing a price spike and pressure on imports.  The basic premise is that by only consuming bananas for breakfast with a glass of room Read more

Negotiating the foggy waters of product labels

My greatest difficulty since arriving in Japan has been the interpretation of product labels, be it food, cosmetics or simply flushing the toilets (some of which are more hi-tech than my mobile phone-I'm sure.)  This has been a sticking point for me since I tend to analyse everything I put onto my skin and into my body-an obsessive label checker some may call it. Read more

Negotiating the foggy waters of product labels

My greatest difficulty since arriving in Japan has been the interpretation of product labels, be it food, cosmetics or simply flushing the toilets (some of which are more hi-tech than my mobile phone-I’m sure.)  This has been a sticking point for me since I tend to analyse everything I put onto my skin and into my body-an obsessive label checker some may call it.  I have grudgingly adopted a laissez-faire approach to shopping here, aware that my state of ignorance will remain until my grasp of the language improves. Yet fear not! I have not taken a defeatist approach entirely, I have conducted some research into the world of labelling in Japan, in hope to enlighten myself and those of you reading this post.

Fortunately many products tend to have an English translation which enables non-Japanese speakers to identify said product. However these vague translations often lead to further puzzlement…foggy lotion anyone? Or cast a somewhat unappetising impression on a prospective meal…

And of course there are the scenarios of having absolutely no clue of what product awaits you on the interior of the (usually) beautiful packaging.

A standard source of confusion-not knowing what is in the individual packets

This all forms part of adapting to a foreign culture, and embracing this initial sense of bewilderment. Indeed my first few weeks were spent negotiating menus and sampling many Japanese culinary delights in blissful, tasty ignorance. I simply took comfort in the fact that the Japanese are among the healthiest nations in the world, and the highest life expectancy, so whatever they are eating must be good for me! This factored in with the fact that most food sold is freshly prepared and seemed to contain little artificial additives contributed to my sense of trust in what I have been eating. Fortunately I found a fantastic little site which has broadened my Japanese food knowledge, and given greater insight and appreciation of my meals and now feel I would be lost without it.

However despite all these little reassurances, my greatest concerns lie within the ethics and origins of the products I am consuming. How can I be certain the chicken I’m chomping on has led a happy, antibiotic free life, roaming and pecking at its own free will? And are those superb tasting eggs evil or ethical? Is that moisturiser I am slathering over myself in fact a cocktail of parabens, PEGS, and petroleum based ingredients? For all I know this may be labelled, however therein lies the crux of the problem:  a foreigner attempting to adhere to their values when they do not understand the language- when being as ethical as possible transparency is key.

A little background on labelling…

The Japanese consumer is one of the most demanding and interested in the origins of their product; all food products are required by law to display the country of  origin, or Japanese region and very precise information will feature on the label outlining chemicals used in its production.

A foreign import which has complied with the JAS organic certification regulations

All certified organic products will be stamped with the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) leaf symbol, which was established for plants and foods in 2000. In order to streamline the process of certifying foreign products, international certifying bodies are permitted to stamp a product with the JAS organic label providing they adhere to JAS standards. JONA (Japan Organic & Natural Foods Association) is Japan’s third party certifying body for organic products and the key features of certification include:

  • Only processed products in which over 95% of ingredients are organic can be certified organic.
  • Those products with less than 95% organic ingredients but over 70% are not permitted to use to JAS mark but will still be labelled as ‘made with organic products certified by JONA’.
  • GMO foods are prohibited.

Although it is not immediately evident, there is a strong market for organics in Japan, particularly since it is a nation who is very conscious about their health. According to reports, the demand for organic products outweighs current supply and compared to the organic product ranges I see on a daily basis in the UK, and Europe, Japan’s range seems scant. However the organic label does not reveal the full picture of agriculture in Japan. Prior to the label’s introduction in 2001, the vast majority of farmers had been using methods which avoid synthetic chemicals, or minimised its use. So to some extent their produce was already organic. Due to the strict regulations, and additional costs of being certified organic, many farmers are now no longer considered as ‘organic’ thus reducing the overall ‘official’ numbers of organic farmers and products. And unlike its European and American counterparts, there is a long history in supporting small and local producers in Japan, who are an ageing population and like all farmers face challenges from rising costs and competition from cheaper imports. The latter being particularly pertinent to Japan who is the world’s biggest food importer-over 60% of its food.

However for those products not labelled as organic, it is not uncommon to see on fresh produce, a picture of the farmers who have cultivated said onion or radish, enhancing that connection between consumer and producer.

Free range

So what about free range poultry and eggs you may ask? Free range chicken has tended to be a minority activity in Japan due to the scarcity of land, and battery eggs are the norm. This is particularly concerning since Japan has the highest consumption of eggs worldwide. Free range eggs can be found, but this tends to be in higher end restaurants, or at a premium in some large supermarkets, on the Internet, specialised food shops, natural food shops or as one dedicated blogger found-a small supermarket chain Yoshiya. The key words to look for are hanashi-gai meaning ‘free-range’, generally accompanied by a happy looking chicken or smiling face.


Fairtrade is another label and concept which seems to be low on the radar in Japan and I’ve personally only seen it on products found in boutiques, international chains (such as Starbucks) or in very limited ranges in large supermarkets. This fact is confirmed by the Fairtrade fashion pioneers ‘People Tree’, who recently launched the People Tree Fair Trade fashion collaboration in Tokyo at the British Embassy with Emma Watson in order to raise awareness for Fairtrade in Japan.

Of course if I’m ever going to fully negotiate these foggy waters of Japanese labelling I know that the inevitable solution is to learn Japanese!


Posted on by nbunce in Blog Post 7 Comments

7 Responses to Negotiating the foggy waters of product labels

  1. Franzi

    Thanks for this informative article!
    I think, for reading Japanese labels you should concentrate on learning katakana. Beside the most basic ingredients like sugar ?? there are hardly special expressions in Japanese, so the words you already know are just written in katakana. They look strange that way and it will take some time to understand that for example aroeekisu ?????? means Aloe vera extract, but with a little practice you’ll be able to understand and look for the things you definitely don’t want.

  2. Franzi

    Oh, the question marks were supposed to be Japanese characters… Sorry…

  3. nbunce

    Thanks for your comments, I also had difficulty putting Japanese characters in my blog post, it resulted in question marks too! So if anyone can advise me on how to get it into wordpress I’d be grateful!

  4. Maki

    I admire your effort to research all this. Many of Japanese – including me – don’t know difference between those organic JAS and JONA labels as well. We just see them and consider like, “well, it seems better with this organic label.” More organic oriented Japanese must know that though.
    I used to go to People Tree shop in Jiyugaoka and yes I saw very little fair trade products elsewhere in Japan. It’s easier to find them on internet shops actually.
    You must have found tons of funny English labellings in Japan. You can find funny Japanese on imported Chinese or Korean products as well 😀 Living in London, I also see many funny Japanese, e.g. Super Dry fashion retailer – kyokudo kanso shinasai. Our cross-cultural misunderstandings never end but some of them are hilarious and I like them.
    The confusion about food ingredients can be just unfortunate. Pond Smelt is not popular fish in the UK for sure as it exist only in Japan or California, of course you don’t know what kind of fish it is if you have never seen it before 😉
    Anyway thanks for your interesting article, I enjoyed it.

  5. Ashley

    Glad I stumbled across your blog! I too try to live in an ethical and eco-conscious way – which can be (obviously) difficult at times in Japan. Everything you’ve listed here have been my conclusions thus far as well – though I’m always trying to find more options. I also try to introduce these kind of alternatives on my blog as well (hoping people might catch on).

    Anyway, looking forward to more of your thoughts!

  6. Ashley

    Oh, I’m going to add your blog to the blog list on my site too. Hope that’s all right. 🙂

  7. nbunce

    Great to hear feedback about my posts, and thanks for the add on your blog roll Ashley! I look forward to taking a look at your site also, and seeing which comparisons we can draw!

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