Overseas market eyed for Japanese varieties of tomatoes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Farmer Takaaki Teshima holds a plant of the popular Otokogi Tomato, which he grows in Okegawa, Saitama Prefecture.

As branded tomatoes and cherry tomatoes are selling well in domestic supermarkets and convenience stores, expansion into overseas markets is being eyed.

But despite the popularity, exports of fresh vegetables in general have been sluggish. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry will strengthen its support for overseas sales, setting a target of exporting ¥5 trillion of agricultural, forestry and fishery product a year by 2030.

100 bags in 2 hours

In early December last year, Takaaki Teshima harvested reddish tomatoes on his farm in Okegawa, Saitama Prefecture. The variety named Otokogi Tomato by Teshima has been sold nationwide.

Teshima, 47, the owner of Teshima Nouen, quit his job at a food company in 2010 to become a farmer. He wanted to “grow vegetables that would taste different depending on who grows them,” and chose tomatoes.

He tried the so-called Sparta cultivation method of not watering them — or giving them environmental stress — so that the tomatoes taste sweeter. He adjusted the amount of water in each plant mound to find the best quantity and produced tomatoes with a perfect balance of sweetness and sourness.

Otokogi Tomato has quickly become popular for its “nostalgic taste.” It has spread through word of mouth and the brand has 45,000 followers on social media.

Since 2020, Teshima began selling them out the front of his farm. Every day he would put out 100 bags of four to six tomatoes and they would sell out in two hours. He also began cultivating several varieties of cherry tomatoes and plans to organize tomato picking this spring.

“I want to keep making delicious tomatoes that are second to none,” Teshima said. “I want customers overseas to enjoy Otokogi Tomatoes someday.”

Imported for decoration

Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family and are native to the Andes in South America. They were introduced to Japan in the early Edo period (1603-1867). Back then, they were called “togaki,” which literary means Chinese persimmon, and planted for decoration. The vegetable was the motif of renowned painter Kano Tanyu in that period.

They began to be eaten in the Meiji era (1868-1912). In recent years, colorful and sweet cherry tomatoes have been selling well. They are sold in plastic cups in supermarkets and convenience stores. Cherry tomatoes have a sugar content of about twice that of ordinary tomatoes, and some have a Brix reading of more than 10, which is equivalent to some fruits.

According to the agriculture ministry, tomato production in 2020 totaled ¥224 billion, about 10% of the total figure of all kinds of vegetables at ¥2.25 trillion. The main production areas are Kumamoto Prefecture and Hokkaido, and many new farmers and corporations are said to have started growing tomatoes because they can easily differentiate the taste based on differences in cultivation methods, on top of the vegetable having a large market.

Hoping to export more

Some production areas such as Gunma Prefecture export their products to Singapore and elsewhere, but exports of tomatoes are virtually untouched.

Tomato exports from January to November 2021 totaled ¥74.47 million. Although this figure is up from ¥3.17 million in 2012, it accounts for only a small portion of total exports. This is because it requires a lot of effort to preserve vegetables’ freshness and package them, but their unit prices are low. As a result, many producers are reluctant to export vegetables as they are not profitable.

According to the ministry, exports of agricultural, forestry and fishery products from January to November last year exceeded ¥1 trillion for the first time, at ¥1.08 trillion. The ministry has set export targets of ¥2 trillion by 2025 and ¥5 trillion by 2030. In addition to popular items such as wagyu beef, scallops, strawberries and apples, the ministry hopes to strengthen support for exports of vegetables such as tomatoes and onions.

The ministry plans to establish a system to certify organizations that develop and research overseas markets, facilitate export procedures and support capital investment.

“We will encourage vegetable farmers to expand their focus from current domestic distribution to export and increase exports as a whole,” a senior ministry official said.