Exports of food, agricultural products to Asia booming

Hidetaka Yamamura / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent
Japanese sweet potatoes are sold in Bangkok on Nov. 2.

BANGKOK — Exports of Japanese food and agricultural products to other Asian nations are thriving, with this year’s exports growing faster than ever before.

Consumers’ inability to travel to Japan amid the COVID-19 pandemic has further heightened demand for popular Japanese foods, while online business negotiations are making it easier for Japanese companies to expand their sales channels overseas.

Yakiimo a big hit

Japanese-style yakiimo baked sweet potatoes have been a hot item in Thailand for the past few years, winning the hearts of many with their sweetness and sticky texture. Various types of Japanese sweet potatoes, such as beniharuka and “silk sweet,” are sold at shopping malls in Bangkok, and many stores have a machine to bake the potatoes just like Japanese supermarkets.

According to the Bangkok office of the Japan External Trade Organization and other sources, the export value of sweet potatoes from Japan to Thailand increased about fivefold between 2016 and 2020.

It used to be widely believed that yakiimo baked sweet potatoes would not sell well in warmer regions, but they are said to have become a hit in Hawaii and Singapore when the company that operates the Don Quixote chain of discount stores started selling them there. Yakiimo have since spread rapidly in Southeast Asian nations.

Economic growth in Southeast Asian nations has led to a larger middle-class population with purchasing power.

“Japanese sweet potatoes have become a brand name in the region, and they’re selling at about three times the price of those from other countries,” said Akira Uchida of Nihon Agri Inc., who is involved in the export of Japanese agricultural products.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

New record expected

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, exports of agricultural, forestry and fishery products and other food in 2020 reached a record high of ¥921.7 billion. Exports are expected to reach a new record this year, as their total value exceeded ¥730 billion from January to August.

High demand in greater China and Southeast Asian countries is the key driver of this growth.

Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, travel to Japan was popular in these countries and regions, and there were many frequent repeat visitors. The prolonged travel restrictions amid the pandemic have increased people’s strong craving for things Japan.

Most of the countries and regions with the highest number of visitors to Japan in 2019, before the pandemic occurred, were the top destinations for exports of agricultural products from Japan.

Supawut Chaiprasitkul, vice president of the supermarket and food division at The Mall Group, a major retail company in Thailand, hopes people will be able to enjoy Japanese products at home since they cannot physically travel to Japan.

Help from JETRO

JETRO is putting significant effort into online business negotiations amid the spread of the virus.

In response to overseas firms asking to check sample products, JETRO handles customs clearance procedures from Japan and arranges for interpreters, in a bid to help expand sales channels for Japanese companies.

“In the past, we had to bring buyers to Japan or travel there on our own. Now, with online business meetings, we can save costs and time,” said Takeshi Sakiyama of Chuwa International Corp., an Oita-based exporter of sake and shochu.

In Asia, some countries have continued suspending imports of Japanese agricultural and marine products since the 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

There are also issues related to additives used in processed foods, which are regulated differently in each country.

Tomohisa Ishikawa, director of the Macro Economic Research Center at the Japan Research Institute, believes that demand for Japanese food and agricultural products will continue to grow in Asia.

Japan will need to make steady efforts, including negotiating persistently with foreign governments to lift import restrictions and developing products that meet the regulations.