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.
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.
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.
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!
- MAFF-Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Japan)
- JONA-Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association
- ‘Japanese consumers hungry for more organic food’– Rodale Institute
- Free Range Eggs in Tokyo
- ‘Promoting Fair Trade in Japan’- People Tree Magazine