Japan – a gateway to Asia

By Asako Nagata - 5 May 2016

Choosing the right market when exporting food is an exciting yet challenging task. Potential trade barriers, market trends, and competition with local products are just some of the factors that can work for or against you.

Market insight

The third largest economy and second largest food market in the world, Japan has a heavily food focused culture. Known for its discerning taste, what's popular in Japan often goes on to be successful in other Asian countries – that's one of the reasons it's sometimes said to be the gateway to Asia.

Japan is also considered a leader for quality in Asia. Food quality and safety standards are high and consumers expect the same from imported food as they look beyond the national cuisine and explore food from around the world. While some imported foods have been completely incorporated in the Japanese diet, others remain a foreign novelty, but no less popular. Either way, imported food is often sold at premium supermarkets, specialist shops or on the internet and sales are growing each year.

To better understand the market, lots of Asian suppliers visit the annual FOODEX Japan food and beverage exhibition. It's seen as a good way to test how products will be received in Japan and Asia as a whole.

It's also worth noting that Japan's population of over 127 million is concentrated in a few main cities, which can make access and distribution to key areas easier.

Increased opportunities

If you are considering exporting products bearing health claims to Japan, you'll benefit from major changes in labelling legislation that were enforced in April 2015. The Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), which is the sole agency overseeing general food labelling, enforced Food Labelling Standards (Cabinet Office Ordinance No. 10 of 2015). The purpose of the change was to simplify and streamline overcomplicated Japanese labelling legislation into one piece of legislation. However, it also introduced a new 'Function Claim' system which enables food business operators to make claims within their own responsibility for processed foodstuffs and agricultural/fishery products, provided that the claim is supported by relevant scientific evidence. Previously, food business operators had to go through a lengthy and costly approval process in order to make any health claims under the category of Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU). Under the new system, products with health claims are required to be registered by the CAA instead of being approved.

Japan is also in the process of establishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among twelve countries located in the Pacific Rim, including major markets such as the US and Australia. If this goes forward, trade barriers such as tariffs will be lower, which could open up the Japanese market to more proactive trade between member countries. The Cabinet Secretariat of Japan reported that tariffs for more than 400 foodstuffs including fruits, beef, and chocolates, will be abolished - all of which have never before been subject to abolishment.

Foreseeable challenges

When exporting to third countries, you are required to ensure that products comply with local legislation, and Japan is no different. One of the initial challenges importers could face when exporting to Japan is the limited availability of information in English. There is some useful information available through authorities' websites, but it is very limited and often does not reflect the latest changes in legislation. Some of the biggest challenges for exporters entering Japan are:

On top of these, exporters also have to tackle the usual issues such as labelling, contaminants, and product specific legislation. And, complicating things further, some provisions are controlled under bylaws which are overseen by 47 local authorities, such as permitted headspace for food and beverages containers.

Understanding Japanese food legislation can seem daunting to exporting businesses. The expanding Regulatory Affairs team at Campden BRI includes a native Japanese speaker on hand to help.

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