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: http://www.survivingnjapan.com/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan-links-resources.html 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 honeycombed...an 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

Fairtrade

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 just ordinary people who seek to kick-start conversations and awareness on the benefits of economies based on sharing. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the local event in Tervuren, Belgium so the handbag fundraising continues…However aside from materialistic aspirations, this is exactly what this event aims to challenge, to get us thinking more critically and creatively about our relationship with money and to consider alternative and new forms of economic activity. The 15th September has been chosen symbolically as Free Money Day, since 3 years ago on September 15th 2008, Lehman’s Brothers, a figurehead for interminable economic growth and one of the world’s largest investment banks, filed for bankruptcy triggering the financial crisis, with repercussions which still resonate today.   Free Money Day has been initiated by the international group the Post Growth Institute, who seeks to inspire and equip people everywhere to explore paths to global prosperity that don’t rely on economic growth. In other words they seek to re-focus our priorities away from consumerist goals and shift to simpler values in order to regain meaning and a sense of balance in life, and for us all to gain greater fulfilment from a future beyond the pursuit of economic growth with no regard to consequences. From a logical point of view, exponential growth which we could almost consider as having become a mantra for ‘success’ and happiness, is completely incompatible in a world with finite resources. This hunger of humans for more of everything is to the detriment of the environment, our communities, our social needs, our happiness. Numerous studies, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs concur that up to a certain threshold, an increase in income contributes to individual wellbeing, however once our basic needs have been satisfied, an increase in our income does not directly correlate to us as happier little beans, just a crappier environment and often a poorer work-life balance. This is leading many to re-evaluate how we live our lives.

Click to see larger image. Source: http://www.businessballs.com/images/maslow_hierarchy.htm

This is by no means a new concept and has its roots in many different movements before it, in fact my whole end of degree dissertation study was focused on this topic and as much as I would like to delve back into the roots, evolutions, nuances and different manifestations of simpler living, I feel I would probably need a whole website rather than an isolated blog post to elucidate what terms such as ‘post growth’, ‘slow living’, ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’ encompass. I feel I can only scrape at the surface when introducing this topic and in fact the ‘Post Growth Institute’ is a very clear introduction and guide on how you can understand and incorporate simpler and ‘post growth’ values into your lives. I would therefore like to frame this post in the context of Japanese culturally specific approaches towards ‘post growth’ and simpler living by looking at the organisations and movements: The Sloth Club and Slow Living Japan.

Slow is beautiful

The Post Growth Institute notes that slowly “around the globe, in many different ways, people are coming to believe a different story.”

Sloth Club Logo. Source: http://www.sloth.gr.jp

The Sloth Club is one such group of people and this NGO formed in 1999, to promote the slow movement, sustainable living, fair trade and ethical living, and a local living economy. The sloth is a fitting face to a slow way of life and adherents idolise their furry, slumber eyed friend as a model for new approaches to living. And before you envisage hundreds of Japanese hanging from trees in an attempt to embrace ‘Slow’, “the aim is to emulate some of the basic behaviors of the sloth,” in particular its “low-energy, cyclical, symbiotic and non-violent lifestyle” so we should visualise the ways of the sloth in a metaphorical rather than literal sense.   A lot of the activities of the Sloth Club seem to encompass what many would simply associate with environmental or ecological and social rights group such as their engagement in antinuclear activism, peace activism and promoting conservation by means of the Hachidori Project.  Green and ethical actions indeed form a large core of their activities and the aims of slow living. Yet the Sloth Club has also been a large advocate and instigator of ‘Slow’ activities through organising ‘voluntary blackouts’ which encourage people to lead slower lifestyles, publishing guidelines for slow business, setting up slow cafes which serve organic and sustainably produced food and provides a community centre where events are held, organising ‘slow travel’ tours, involving themselves in ‘slow design groups’ and even setting up an alternative currency and ‘Slow Business school’.

A glossary of Slow: 

Still befuddled? Here’s a quick go-to guide for those of you who are not yet slow enough to trundle through a more comprehensive albeit longer explanation of the movement:

  • Slow food– The most visible facet of the movement and catalyst for other forms of ‘Slow’. It was founded in 1989 in Italy to challenge the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s diminishing interest in the food we eat, its origins, its taste and how the modern agricultural industry and our food choices affect the world socially and environmentally. It is now a 150 country-strong organisation, represented by another symbol of ‘Slow’: the snail.
  • Slow travel/tourism– A more meaningful, interactive and ecological form of tourism which often reflect features of ‘Slow’ such as eating locally, reconnecting with oneself, others and nature, reducing environmental impact of the visit, and opting for tourism which is truly ethical: supporting communities, respecting cultures, experiencing different lifestyles without judgement.
  • Slow business– An educational and business development group which seeks to expand and promote ‘Slow Business’ in Japan and worldwide. Their main concern is with interconnectedness of the local and global, focusing on promotion of alternative lifestyles, fair trade, organic products and other core values of ‘Slow’. Key words are ‘share’ as opposed to business ‘monopoly’ in order to shift us from a greedy society to a sharing society. They have also set up a Slow Business School as part of their projects.
  • Slow design- A holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, reflective and considered approach to design.  It repositions the focus of design on individual, socio-cultural and environmental well-being as well as celebrating diversity and pluralism.
  • Other terms to watch out for: slow music, slow books, slow education, slow cities

How and why did this movement take hold?

Japan and Tokyo is probably one the fastest and busiest country and city you will meet, this is particularly true of the latter. An increasing dissatisfaction with the frenetic pace of work and life, with too little sleep and too much work has led to many to seek alternative and slower lifestyles. Many are re-evaluating their approaches to relationships with society, food and the environment. This is particularly prevalent in the context of the economic crisis and Fukishima nuclear disaster. An increase in the awareness of ‘Slow’ can also be attributed to and in response to the Japanese film ‘Oriteyuku Ikikata’ (Slow life down) released in 2009.   The gradual adoption of ‘Slow’ as a life philosophy has not been without its difficulties. It is a movement which challenges the

Source: http://sloths.org/slothnew.html

idea of never-ending consumption and exertion in Japan, which has helped develop the country and improve the material lives of the Japanese significantly since the end of World War 2. There is equally the negative association of ‘slow’ with ‘lazy’-an idea which slow advocates are working to disband. However a sign of the success of the movement points to Kakegawa City in Shizuoka Prefecture declaring itself a “Slow Life City” in December 2002, of which there are over 60 worldwide. And you never know, maybe next year we’ll see a Free Money event in Japan the next 15th September!   At this point I’m going to finish my introduction to ‘Slow’ here feeling dissatisfied that I haven’t really even begun to explain what this about. But after having completed a 10,000 word dissertation on the topic I guess a blog post isn’t really going to cover it. However this has perhaps given an adequate introduction to one manifestation of ‘simpler living’ which takes its form as ‘Slow living’ or ‘The Sloth Club’ in Japan, which thousands are shifting to worldwide, each in their different forms and foci with the global aim to live simpler, to live better, to live greener and for prosperity beyond economic growth.

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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 period as a brief sulk with all of coffee-dom. It had failed to keep me wide awake for 4 continuous days prior to my dissertation hand in, and thus thoroughly disappointed me by not achieving the ambitious goal I set it. However once I had slept and recovered from end of degree stress I resumed an amicable (ok deep set love) relationship with one of my favoured hot beverages and learnt not to abuse it so much…you know of the heart palpitating kind.  Also lessons learnt from living on my own in Bordeaux, France for a year, and running a whole machine of coffee in the morning (partly in enthusiasm for having my own coffee machine) before proceeding to drink it all throughout the morning and sending insane emails to my friends induced by the caffeinated shakes, taught me to drink in moderation. I could expend a whole blog post on my relationship with coffee but I would prefer to take you on a little journey and glimpse into the coffee market in Japan.

Plethora of coffee advertisements in Tokyo

Tea for two, and two for… a double shot espresso please

In terms of hot beverages, green tea and tea ceremonies are considered synonymous with the Japanese culture, more so than the oft-considered European beverage of choice, coffee. However Japan is the third largest importer of coffee worldwide, to the increasing detriment of their tea sales. On the consumer landscape nowhere is this more obvious than in the proliferation of coffee shops: Doutour, Starbucks and Starbucks inspired copies: Tully’s and Italian chain Excelsior. Starbucks has been particularly popular with a staggering 217 chains in Tokyo alone. Indeed Japan is the biggest market outside of North America for Starbucks, who established the first branch in 1996, in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Although Starbucks is often cast as one of the big daddy’s of multinational corporations, an evil, all encompassing, invasive capitalist force, you cannot knock ’em for their efforts in introducing Fairtrade coffee, and one of the best examples of waste recycling I saw. But then again that may be the local influences of Japanese legislation and culture towards recycling, rather than initiative taken by the chain itself. Furthermore the increasing interest in speciality coffee in Japan has been attributed to Starbuck’s arrival. Speciality coffee is of particular interest to coffee growers since it is a much more lucrative market in an industry which traditionally suffers from low commodity prices; growers can command a much higher price for the Arabica beans used for this type of coffee.

Unfortunately instant coffee sales still reign, and calling that stuff ‘coffee’ is somewhat a stretch of the imagination…powdered, reconstituted watery mud which once resembled a coffee bean in days of yore is how I perceive it, much like ‘Dairylea’ is ‘cheese’. And I don’t expect Starbuck’s aggressive marketing of their new ‘instant coffee’ VIA® is doing much to buck this trend either. However the fresh coffee market is a growing one, by Japanese wishing to emulate that café experience at home. Although Nestlé is king of instant coffee, 4 main Japanese brands exist; the most established being UCC who source their famous Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. Blue Mountain denoting the region in which the coffee is grown and is noted for its high quality, mild flavour and expensive price, of which over 80% is imported to Japan.

Interestingly fresh coffee appears to be a phenomenon among young women, and Japanese males are more likely to choose RTD’s (Ready To Drink) coffees, espressos or lattes such as instant, pre-prepared in bottles or cans. Don’t want to comment on gender differences here…but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions… 🙂

The canned revolution

So far, nothing remarkable about coffee in Japan, right? Think again, Japan is the home and founder of canned coffee. Weird, wacky Japan strikes again. Yup coffee in a can, found on supermarket shelves or in a vending machine along with all the usual sodas, water and soft drinks you would come to expect. And what’s more it comes hot and cold, introduced into vending machines by Pokka Coffee in 1973. However canned coffee made its first, albeit brief, appearance in 1965 as Mira coffee and have since expanded in terms of brands, design and coffee type: black, café au lait/ milk coffee, flavoured coffee and most bizarrely coffee jelly. And according to sources, that really is as disgusting as that sounds, especially when you’ve misread the label and are expecting a liquid hot coffee.

Source: Japan Fairtrade Label

And how does canned coffee taste, I hear you ask? Well of the 3 I sampled, definitely not Barista standard, and some lingering nuances of metal. There also seemed to be a significant absence of organic, or Fairtrade standard coffees, although my research has yielded evidence of some Fairtrade canned coffees, from the cooperative Agricultural Fedekokagua, however I cannot guarantee that this is the correct name of the organisation. Yet again my lack of Japanese linguistic skills stumps me.

Blue Mountain

Blue Mountain coffee is an interesting case, unlike its poorer counterparts; this coffee has established a reputation for high quality and thus has a high demand which has pushed its prices up to 10 times more than your average coffee. Its fortunate location, climate, strong marketing thanks to Japanese company UCC and consistent attention to quality have all contributed to Blue Mountain’s advantageous market position. Indeed the strong tie with the Japan is what guarantees its market endurance and good prices. When Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica in 1988 much of the island was left devastated, with much of their crops destroyed. However Japan responded by helping the growers as much as possible, and in the meantime prices soared in Japan. A gesture which was not forgotten in Jamaica, and thus explains the monopoly which the Japanese have on this high quality coffee.

Fair or unfair trade coffee?

In Japan, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here) Fairtrade is generally low on the radar. Coffee is no exception and did not appear in a Fairtrade form until 2002 in Japan, again thanks to a Starbuck’s initiative.

Yet Fairtrade is a contentious issue, and more so with coffee than other Fairtrade products. Coffee is the commodity where I have seen the greatest discussion and doubt cast over the actual benefits of it being Fairtrade. The basic premise of Fairtrade is to guarantee coffee growers minimum prices, above market price, as well as additional benefits such as development of educational, health and community resources. For their part growers must implement crop management, environmentally friendly practices, belong to cooperatives and not use child labour. However it is argued that by guaranteeing minimum prices this would only encourage greater production, on an already saturated market, and thus cause greater oversupply and weakening of market prices. It is for this reason that Japan initially rejected the idea of Fairtrade. Others argue that by creating a two-tier market this enables farmers to sell their lower quality beans to Fairtrade where they are guaranteed a minimum price, and sell their higher quality beans to the open market which is solely determined by quality. In other cases, some farmers may seek to improve the quality of their produce, however since they sell to cooperatives; their beans are mixed with other farmer’s produce which may be of lower quality, so this does little to encourage individual improvement. There are a lot more discussions and complexities related to Fairtrade and I only seek to give you a brief overview here. There are  Fairtrade companies who ensure high quality of their coffee beans, and indeed some of the best coffees I have tried have been of the ethical variety, and it is for this reason alone that the Japanese began to engage with the Fairtrade market. They recognised the coffee beans are also of quality and are thus worth the premium paid for them.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions, but urge you all to do further research. I admit I have difficulties coming to solid conclusions, and this mixed with the fact I generally prefer the taste of coffee grown in Africa somewhat influences my choice. However in my eyes, Fairtrade is a short term solution to a current worldwide problem of agricultural tariff barriers set by many Western governments. If subsidies were stopped and the markets were to set the price of commodities, then there would technically be no need for Fairtrade, since prices would increase. However if unfair trade rules continue to exist, then a need for fairer trade is necessary to help those in the most vulnerable positions.

There is also some awareness of Rainforest Alliance labelled coffee in Japan and its sales currently outstrip those of Fairtrade, but market share still remains small. Counterparts such as ‘Bird Friendly’ are also fairly minority; however they were a label I stumbled upon several times during my foray into coffee products in Japan. The Rainforest Alliance fits in well with Japanese demands for safe and high quality foods through its focus upon social and environmental issues and therefore is a label which has potential to do well. However I was pleased to see the range of organic coffee available in Japanese stores, and can wholeheartedly conclude it was the best tasting coffee I brewed in Japan. But be warned the brands I chose are of a strong character: they sent me and my boyfriend into a coffee spin; we spent a good hour in Asakusa one morning with symptoms of dizziness, light headedness, palpitations and a caffeine fog. We reduced the dose the next day.

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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 temperature water, you will lose weight, providing you have regular meals, snacks in moderation and eat dinner before 8pm. There are probably more ins and outs to it, and I suggest you check out the official site if you want further information. My interest lies not in diet crazes, but in the provenance of these bananas.

Even prior to this banana diet frenzy, which has been unique simply due to its endurance; bananas were the fruit of choice among the Japanese-consuming  970,000 tonnes in 2007.  They are among the top 10 countries who import bananas, accounting for 7 % of worldwide banana imports between 2002-2006, the third largest import market after the US and Europe. Some of this may be due to bananas being much lower priced than their fruity counterparts. Indeed during my time in Japan (I’m now back in Europe for the time being) bananas were pretty much the only fruit I ate due to the extortionate prices of other fruit there. Difficult times lay ahead for me as a self confessed fruit junkie, and led to much raisin rationing. Thankfully a whole platter of fruit (or so it seemed in my fruit deprived and somewhat jet lag state) awaited me on arrival back home, in response to my cries of fruit deficiency. So an arigato to the mother there.

Diamond encrusted fruit?

This begs the question of why fruit is so expensive in Japan. Part of this can be explained by Japan’s very protective agricultural regulations; the prices reflect the high tariffs imposed on fruit imports. This enables stronger protection of domestic producers and in the context of increasing concerns over food miles, this approach can only be applauded. The Japanese are also stringent on quality, so if the quality of the import is not competitive with local quality, it is likely to be rejected. And then there is the case of ‘gift fruiting’, in which fruit is chosen for their aesthetic value then polished, boxed and lovingly presented as a perfect gift for one’s family, friends, boss… Oh and a giant price tag is slapped on for good measure. However many Japanese producers tend to be small scale farmers who produce in small quantities and will take great care over their fruit, to the extent that in some cases apples are individually wrapped on the trees to protect them! This goes some way to justifying this premium on some fruit.

So why the ‘bargain bin’ banana prices?

  1. Firstly there has been a downward trend towards fruit consumption among the younger generation. Why? Many people find it a pain to peel and cut fruit, and prefer supplements or fruit based beverages. However if you ask me, eating a pear or an apple is not overly troublesome…But in Japan, the mindset tends to be that apples, or grapes for example must be peeled and chopped. The only fruit which seem to have bucked this downward trend are pineapples, kiwifruit and yes, bananas. And whilst the import restrictions remain so severe the prices will remain high, also contributing to the falling consumption of fruit.
  2. Unlike fruits such as apples, there is no domestic production of edible bananas, and the worldwide oversupply of bananas has led to depression in banana prices everywhere. This was caused in part by the establishment of the EU Banana Regime market in the nineties, and wrangling with the WTO and the US who disputed the EU’s protection of former colonies who produced bananas. This consequently created uncertainties in the banana market and overproduction, thus saturating the market and depressing prices. This was compounded by the financial crisis in Asia towards the end of the nineties and the poor economic situation of the Russian Federation, which led to lower than expected market demands for bananas.

As mentioned in my previous post there does seem to be a great gaping hole in the Japanese Fairtrade market, and this was equally reflected with the bananas I saw on my shopping expeditions. Dole seems to be the main contender, or should I say monopoly on the banana market. Dole I equate to dollar bananas i.e. cheap bananas sourced from the blood and sweat of oppressed underpaid plantation workers. Strong imagery perhaps, but not entirely far from the truth…Coming from the UK where Fairtrade bananas (and organic) has become the norm, where leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose only stock Fairtrade, further emphasised to me the lack of ethical provenance of bananas in Japan.

Facts and figures:

But these are just initial observations, and as any researcher worth their soya sauce should know, one should not take observations at face value. The Philippines has consistently been Japan’s primary source of bananas, accounting for 60% -90% of their fresh banana export (depending on which sources you read). Yet despite the exports accounting for a good proportion of Filipino earnings, it hasn’t necessarily been a cosy relationship for the workers, who have reported health problems due to the application of dangerous pesticides during its cultivation. In 1986, ‘The Stop the Philippine Banana Pesticides Campaign’ was set up to apply pressure on multinationals.  A survey found 26 different chemicals being used which included World Health Organisation (WHO) class A (extremely hazardous) pesticides aldicarb, phenamiphos and ethoprop. Although the Japanese government have set a limit on pesticide residues, this applies to Japanese products, and not those imported.

Part of the problem of banana cultivation is that historically it is a form of agriculture which expanded to the detriment of forests and natural vegetation, which reduced biodiversity due to its monoculture plantations, and thus required large inputs of artificial fertilisers and pesticides to prevent disease and maximise productivity.

On a human level, the conventional banana industry is well known for its abuse of labour laws: child labour, low pay, excessively long working hours, discrimination, sexual harassment and the ignorance of health and safety regulations.

The slightly less depressing news…

Due to overproduction, the expansion of areas for banana cultivation has stabilised thus reducing the threat to primary forest since the focus is now upon increasing yields on existing farms. However this does not negate the problem of intensive agrochemical use on monocultures (and its enormously polluting effect), nor the danger it poses to workers health who in the vast majority of cases still remain unprotected and exploited.

However a few environmental and social certifications and labels do exist in the world of bananas, the most recognised being:

  • Organic farming
  • Fair Trade
  • Rainforest Alliance

The main impasse to organic production is the fungal disease Black Sigatoka, which remains a large threat to the banana crop, as well as its ability to mutate and develop resistance to fungicides. Furthermore, in Japan, their strict phytosanitary rules and inspections also create difficulties for traders attempting to import organic bananas, a similar situation they face in the US and New Zealand.

In terms of Fairtrade, Japan has been importing small quantities of the ‘balangon’ bananas from the Philippines since 1989, through the company Alter Trade. However this still remains a minority activity which is somewhat surprising when you discover that the production of bananas by Fairtrade producers currently exceeds market demand, and there is therefore a surplus. This has led to FLO International (Fairtrade Labelling Organization International) restricting new producer groups from registering for Fairtrade status, unless they can prove they are able to sell to a new Fairtrade market. This is to prevent existing Fairtrade producers losing business due to a glut of new Fairtrade producers. The alternative proposed is a Fairtrade quota system.

Bin the bargain bananas!

Perhaps this seems a simplistic or naive conclusion, but as one of the biggest banana importers in the world, wouldn’t it make sense for the Fairtrade market to expand in Japan, to go some way towards rectifying the lack of market demand for Fairtrade? Yet as long as Japan continues to rely on bananas as a cheap source of food, and fuel for their weight loss regimes, challenging the ubiquitous, unethically low priced bananas will prove difficult, particularly as the price of other fruit remains so high.

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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

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!

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Posted on by nbunce in Blog Post 7 Comments
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