How one retailer is dealing with the vegetable crisis in eastern Japan

One of the most frequently uttered phrases at the moment in Japanese news reports is fuu hyou higai (風評被害). It means damage that is caused by rumor or reputation, not necessarily based on fact. I already touched on the subject of the fuu hyou higai Japan is suffering overseas in my previous post, and I'll get back to that again, but today I'd like to address the fuu hyou higai that is going on within Japan itself.

More than 2 weeks ago, at the height of fears about radioactive materials being dispersed in the air by the Fukushima nuclear power plants, several vegetables plus raw unprocessed milk produced in 5 prefectures - Fukushima, Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi and Chiba - were found to have higher than allowed maximum levels of either iodide or cesium, and the central government imposed 3 levels of bans or warning notices on these items. This caused a lot of consternation in Japan, especially in the Tokyo-Kanto area, which is the main market served by the mostly small-scale, family run farmers in these prefectures. If you pull out a map of Japan and examine where these places are in relation to Tokyo, it will all make sense; they are all clustered to the north-east and east of the metropolis. If you're a locavore living in Tokyo, you would usually want to seek out fresh produce from this area.

While only a few specific vegetables were found to be contaminated to a level high enough to be restricted, concern about the safety of all vegetables produced in these areas has meant that prices for produce from the area have plummeted. Many people avoided buying anything from the area. Some retailers refused to take delivery or cancelled their orders. This was, and still is, becoming a vegetable crisis.

Promoting the safety of vegetables from the "hot" areas

To find out how this vegetable crisis was being dealt with on the retail level, earlier this week I went back to the department store with the impeccable produce section that I profiled last year, Takashimaya in Yokohama. As I mentioned back then, this branch has the highest foot traffic and sales in the entire Takashimaya chain, and their food hall is the star of the store.

The Takashimaya produce department is run more or less like a store within the store. Rather than just assign employees from the general pool as is done normally in a Japanese corporation, people with actual experience as greengrocers run the department. (The same goes for the fish department. The meat department is divided between an internally-run butcher shop and counter space assigned to and run by Maihan, a venerable butcher shop based in Nihonbashi, Tokyo.)

On the morning that I went to the produce department to interview the greengrocers and take photos, NHK television (the Japanese national broadcaster, equivalent to the BBC in the UK) also had a camera crew there to film the setting up of a special section featuring safe vegetables from those 5 prefectures, with a focus on products from Gunma prefecture. (NHK showed about 10 seconds of footage on the evening news that day as part of an overall report on the vegetable crisis.) Representatives from Gunma were there, some dressed in jaunty green happi (a happi is a lightweight kimono-type jacket worn by sellers at outdoor festivals and so on). The setup and the posters were colorful and cheerful, but there was a deadly earnest seriousness in the atmosphere.

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The whole display wrapped around a large column. One corner was dedicated to Gunma produce, and the rest was mostly taken up by a mix of vegetables from the other three prefectures. The Gunma banner in the photo says "Good - Gunma's Farm Produce" and features a cute farmer character. (Would it be Japan without a cute character to go with a campaign?) "Good" (pronounced guddo and Gunma are a play on words.

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There was an additional sign displayed. It says "Ganbarou Nippon - Let's Go/Let's Do This Japan", and below: "Yokohama Takashimaya supports the producers of Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Chiba".

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The produce was absolutely impeccable, as it always it at Takashimaya. The Momotaro tomatoes (greenhouse grown, but sweet and juicy) look like jewels. The green vegetables look similarly pristine.

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The prices were quite low. Iceberg lettuce from Ibaraki was only 100 yen per head - unthinkably cheap for Takashimaya. Iceberg lettuce from other areas of Japan, sold in a separate section, was 225 yen a head. The green asparagus from Tochigi in the photo below may look expensive at 680 yen for 4 fat stalks, but not by Japanese standards, for this quality. I saw big bunches of leeks for 100 yen, pak choi for 63 yen per pack, and more. If not for the cloud of contamination fears surrounding them, people would be going crazy over these vegetables.

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I was rather expecting to see vegetables from three of the prefectures - after all only a couple of vegetables in Gunma and Tochigi were found to have higher than desginated limits of radioactive materials. But I was a bit surprised to see quite a lot of vegetables from Fukushima too...I guess that was my own prejudice, or misconception, showing. The vegetables on the right with white stems in the photo below are really beautiful examples of mountain udo, a type of edible aralia that's in season for only a short time in the spring. Below is a box full of perfect, large fresh shiitake mushrooms, at 1500 yen the box. (The gorgeous garlic chives on the left are from Tochigi, and again are really cheap at 100 yen per bundle.)

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Takashimaya is really putting its reputation on the line by backing these local producers (all located within about 200-250km of Yokohama), and the safety of their products. (On the other side of the circular display were some really local produce, from the prefecture where Yokohama is located, Kanagawa. Apparently even those are feeling the hurt of fuu hyou higai these days, even though no vegetables from the area have been found to be unsafe.) The typical customer who shops for produce has Takashimaya is probably pretty well off, and can afford to go for the best. So, arguably having the backing of a store like Takashimaya, and being allowed to promote their produce there, means a whole lot more for the farmers of Gunma and the other affected prefectures than say, being in a discount supermarket. Takashimaya is also trying to get its customers to buy these vegetables of course. Whether they put their trust enough in the store to go along with this remains to be seen.

I stood in a corner observing the action around the feature display for some time. The tension emanating from the Gunma representatives was almost palpable. Whenever a customer approached the hot spot to look at the vegetables, you could almost see the Gunma reps straining to hold back from trying to hard-sell their vegetables. When a lady did finally pick up some lotus root and put it in her shopping basket, a rep bowed deeply to her to thank her...with the NHK camera and sound guys hovering right behind to catch the action. If I hadn't known the deadly seriousness behind his bow I would have been chuckling a bit at this excessive display of courtesy...but I couldn't. If the producers of Gunma and the other affected prefectures can't get customers to buy their produce again soon, they may lose their livelihoods.

According Mr. Morimura, the chief manager of the produce department, the situation was quite dire for the first few days. Suddenly they were unable to fill large sections of their shelves, since nothing was coming in from the affected prefectures. Several customers called in, some in a state of panic, asking about the safety of vegetables that they had purchased a couple of days before and whether they could get refunds. Even after shipments resumed from the 4 prefectures, they simply could not stock any vegetables from them because the customers were avoiding them. Since then, he said, things had improved considerably. Prices were still lower than usual for those vegetables, and many customers were still staying away from them, but a few were buying them again. Some because of the bargain prices, and others who expressed a desire to show their support for the farmers.

Mr. Iijima (pictured below sorting some shimeji mushrooms with an eagle eye), another manager, told me something else. He said that the shipments coming in from the affected prefectures now had printout sheets indicating that they had been tested for radioactive residue, and found to be within designated parameters. (I was rather astonished to find out that they routinely got in two to three shipments of the same type of vegetables per day, picked, packed and shipped within hours. Talk about fresh.) Farmers' associations, wholesellers and retailers have been clamoring for this kind of inspection and safety certification from the central government, but it's obvious they aren't waiting around for the government, but going ahead with their own inspections. The inspections are not officially sanctioned, but they are certainly better than not having any data at all.

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In the end, what it all comes down to is a matter of trust. The trust that Takashimaya or other retailers have in the wholesellers and the producers. The trust that the customer has in Takashimaya, or wherever they choose to shop. Normally food safety is overseen and certified by the government, but in this current situation where things are moving so fast, the government hasn't been able cope fast enough, so for now the private sector are trying to self-police themselves, until the government catches up. Everyone hopes that they do catch up very soon.

Consumers in Yokohama, Tokyo and the rest of the Tokyo metropolitan area can choose to stick to vegetables from other areas and avoid the 'local' produce entirely. Some are choosing to do so, and will probably continue to. Is it in their best interest to, even if it means potentially losing many of these local farmers? Time will tell.

I went back to just take a quick look a couple of days later (yesterday in fact). The feature section is still up, and it did seem like the produce was moving. The lone Gunma rep in a green happi there looked more relaxed than his colleague on the first day at least.

A note about fish

This article is about the vegetable situation, but I'm sure you're concerned about the fish and seafood situation too. Ironically, most of the fishing harbors and boats alone the north-eastern coast were destroyed or rendered inoperable in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, and haven't been restored yet. The only nearby fishing going on when TEPCO started to release contaminated sea water (on purpose or inadvertently) from the Fukushima plants was in Ibaraki Bay, where kounago, a type of tiny fish, were found with higher than safe levels of radioactive material (higher than domestic levels that is; they would have been under EU or WHO established levels). As of this writing the Ibaraki fishing association has voluntarily stopped all fishing until further notice, while urging the government to get going with comprehensive inspections ASAP. If you look at sea current directions and proximity, there's a fairly good chance that the contaminated water will stray to the Chiba coasts, and a lesser chance that it will affect the fish off the coast of Kanagawa or Tokyo bay, though no fish from those areas have been reported to have any above-limits levels of any radioactive substances as of this writing.

What my family is buying these days

Prior to seeing this special display, my mother was staying away from all produce from the 'hot' prefectures, just like many other people. She's been re-thinking her stance a bit, and on the day of my investigation (she tagged along of course) she did pick up those gorgeous green asparagus spears from Tochigi. We had them for dinner pan-steamed (cooked in about half an inch of water in a pan, lid on, until tender), seasoned with a pinch each of sugar and salt, and finished with a bit of butter. They were sublime. Since then she's gotten some spring cabbage from the area too, and it was so sweet and tender. For her, the backing of a store she trusts really seemed to make a difference.

My sister on the other hand (who has kids), and lived in Machida, Tokyo, is still wary about buying from the area, though she says that if the reports improve she may start looking at them again - especially if prices are good.

For the moment both are staying away from fish from Ibaraki Bay, and even fish caught off the shore of Kanagawa. Although they may be overly cautious, both said they're going to wait awhile on that situation until there are better recommendations and guidelines. (They are buying fish from Hokkaido to the north, the Japan Sea side, and the south.)

[Update, April 29:] The situation changes all the time, and in the last couple of weeks or so both my mother and sister have been buying safe vegetables from affected areas. And just yesterday my mother got some really nice fresh squid caught off the shores of Kanagawa.

How about you?

If you live in the west or south of Japan, or in northern Hokkaido, you don't have much to worry about in practical terms. If you live in the Tokyo-metropolitan area and are wondering what to do, just look at the labels. Department stores and supermarkets all clearly indicate point of origin, and even small independent shops are doing that too now. This goes for fish and seafood as well as vegetables. By knowing exactly where something comes from, you can decide what's best for you. If you don't read Japanese, at the very least learn how the kanji for various prefectures look. The area prefectures or metropolitan areas you need to know are:

  • 福島 - Fukushima
  • 茨城 - Ibaraki
  • 群馬 - Gunma
  • 栃木 - Tochigi
  • 千葉 - Chiba
  • 埼玉 - Saitama
  • 東京 - Tokyo
  • 神奈川 - Kanagawa

(Incidentally, I saw some Tochigi-produced strawberries over in the fruit section, and asked whether the worry/avoidance and price drops had affected them too. Apparently not. Because they are grown in polytunnels maybe? But so are many of the vegetables people are avoiding. I just don't understand peoples' logic sometimes.)

In closing, admittedly I may be biased, but the usual safety standards for food products in Japan are so high (almost excessively so) that, barring products for which warnings have been issued, I still feel quite safe eating or drinking anything here. How you feel about it is up to you really.

Postscript

There are quite a few mom-and-pop greengrocers left in Japan, despite the proliferation of supermarkets, department store food halls and the like. There are several in my mom's neighborhood in suburban Yokohama; some are literally mom-and-pop places. All the ones I've looked at have the place of origin clearly marked for every item of produce they sell. (One store, which is a grandma-and-grandpa place, proudly proclaims that they 'only sell kokusan (domestically grown) produce'.) This week I have seen a lot of produce from the abovementioned areas on sale, such as nanohana from Chiba, broccoli from Tochigi, and so on. Since small stores cannot afford to take a loss if something doesn't sell, perhaps this means that consumers are becoming more willing to buy those vegetables now.

I hope to be able to talk to an area farmer soon too, for the other side of the story. I hope regular readers don't mind the lack of recipe posts at the moment, but I feel that reporting on what's going in in Japan is really important right now.)

Many thanks to Mr. Morimura and Mr. Iijima of the Takashimaya produce department, as well as to Mr. Hanai of the public relations department, for letting me have so much access and for patiently answering my questions.

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