Japan’s big appetite for Aussie tastes

Already Australia’s most significant food and beverage import market by a considerable margin, Japan’s heightened food security concerns over products from China, are offering food and beverage exporters even greater opportunities.

“A lot of the Asian frozen products suppliers were dropped by Japan because of the frozen dumpling food safety scare in February,” said Austrade Sapporo trade commissioner and consul, Christopher Wood.

With the additional milk product crisis in China, there’s now a lot of opportunity in Japan. “Therefore, if in the past, a company has been given the cold shoulder on price, they may want to revisit their contacts because large food manufacturers are looking to safeguard themselves against supply issues.”

Opportunism aside, however, Wood has said that while “Japan is known to be a challenging market, the rewards are very good. Japan’s large, affluent population, lives in a small area, with good infrastructure and transport.

Not many Australian companies have offices in other parts of the world and if you’re looking to develop a market that suits your work day, than Japan is ideal because it only has an hour or two time difference with the eastern seaboard.

“Another advantage is that the seasons are opposite, so while it might be the down season in Australia, there’s a very good opportunity to supply to the northern hemisphere. This is good for vegetables and fruits, as well as products like chocolate, where temperature control is involved.”

While there are many advantages, the Japanese market does have its challenges, admitted Wood. “Japan is a long-term proposition. It’s not somewhere that’s a short-term, money in the pocket, ‘thanks very much and I’ll call you in a few years’ type sale. Like many other parts of Asia, they’re looking to build a long-term relationship. In Japan that’s particularly important.”

The flip side to this tendency, however, is that if you do identify a good strategic partner they’re not going to drop you as soon as a better deal comes along, said Wood. “They really are looking to develop a product over the long term.”

Sea the other side

The experience of seafood exporter Lonimar Australia has certainly been consistent with this. “The biggest challenge was developing credibility and relationships,” said Lonimar president, Kaz Bartaska.

“The Japanese are very big on having confidence with the people they’re dealing with and they’re very nervous about new players because of the risks associated. Getting our credentials and reputation established was the biggest job.”

On the positive side, however, “once you’ve established that trust and relationship the Japanese are loyal, supportive, and will do what they say they’ll do,” explained Bartaska.

“They work very diligently to develop the market and make things happen. It’s very much a partnership and they’re not just out for the best price. If you work sincerely with them and understand their culture and the sense of importance of serving the customer and having mutual respect, then it’s a great place to start exporting to.”

While many Westerners find the contrast of the Japanese culture fascinating, this is specifically what causes another set ofchallenges. “Would-be exporters can’t assume that everyone is going to be able to communicate in English to the level that they expect,” said Wood.

“In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka you’re more likely to get English speaking staff, but smaller Japanese companies, the SMEs which match the size of Australian companies, tend not to have that same level of support staff in English.”

What’s on the outside counts

Packaging can also be an issue. Japan is famous for its consumers demanding very detailed and beautiful packaging which is often a hurdle, with the cost of packaging often being 60% of the value of the product in Australia. Because it’s sometimes difficult to match that standard, Austrade is now helping food manufacturers get products finished or repacked in Japan.

There has also been a recent increase in labelling requirements due to food safety issues out of China. Unlike some Asian countries, however, Japan accepts stickers being placed over the original labelling and bulk shipments can also be repackaged and labelled in country.

One facet of the Japanese market would-be exporters don’t always realise, is that they don’t necessarily need to start off with the massive, confronting markets of major Japanese cities.

“There are smaller areas in regional Japan, such as Sapporo on the islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu, that have a similar economy size to Australia, so you can test the water and get used to export, before going into the bigger markets like Tokyo and Osaka.”

Darren Baguley is a freelance journalist for FOOD Magazine.

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