What are the popular health foods for 2014 in Japan?

Big Site Last week the Health Food exhibition was held again at Big Site exhibition spot in Tokyo. Once a year the major health food providers promote their new health food products. It is the place to gain insights for the expected upcoming trends in the Japanese health food market. Based on my impression unlike earlier years I saw this year a big shift away from the usually promoted vitamins, minerals or then the green vegetables juice powder to much more herbal only remedies. Furthermore unlike last year the yoghurt boom seemed to be over on the development front. This does not mean that you will not see new yoghurt types on the shelf this year, but I guess the consumer response was not as positive as expected and not much further R&D investment occurred. I wonder what this shift to more herbal only products means for the general public. Is the demand for drinks like vitamin water or ionic drinks already fading? Most likely consumers are expected to shift slowly but surely to products from Africa like rooibos tea as a healthy choice or then acai from South America with lots of polyphenols are just examples of products that gain more foothold in Japan recently.
This year during the expo the focus was on products and manufacturing sites in Kyushu and Okinawa. At first Ukon (turmeric) from Okinawa seems the most obvious and got quite some attention, but I have to say a wide variety of herbs from the region was promoted. Kyushu is actually an area with a lot of health food related business. Just have a look at the overview of the manufacturing and research sites in English from the METI site for all the biotech related companies. The amount of different breweries and health food companies is definitely impressive!
Along the same lines when Japanese business is fighting to keep their turnover, the health food industry in Japan was growing 0.6% for 2012 to a total volume of JPY million 2,088,000. Below shows an overview of the top 10 companies in Japan, when Tasly Japan impressed me most from moving within one year from spot 20 to 10. (After the company name their respective sales turnover in million Japanese Yen is listed, plus their growth in percent experienced over one year.)

1. Kyusai, JPY mio 28,985 (6.3%)
2. Eigao, JPY mio 26,233 (2.9%)
3. Media Prais, JPY mio 25,275 (-4.3%)
4. Yasuya, JPY mio 18,327 (n.a.)
5. Everlive, JPY mio 14,094 (n.a.)
6. Asahi, JPY mio 12,637 (-8.8%)
7. Kenkoukazoku, JPY mio 12,615 (-4.5%)
8. HRK, JPY mio 8,098 (43%)
9. Ing, JPY mio 5,499 (-3.7%)
10. Tasly Japan, JPY mio 2,768 (69%)

What is your favorite Japanese health food? I must confess it took me a couple of years until I got used to the taste of “Aojiru” (a vegetable power mixed either with cold or warm water), which I prefer to mix into soymilk, because then it truly tastes marvelous.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Having lots of questions in regard to Japan?

Omiyage from Tokyo There are aspects of the Japanese culture or society that had and will continue to puzzle foreigners. I came across a youtube channel that addresses in a very honest, curious, non judging way about several aspects like why there is such a mix and match of buildings in Japanese cities or how come Japanese like to take pictures with the peace sign. While there is a lot of not noteworthy material in regard to Japan presented on the Internet, I have to say I am impressed with The Japan Channel Dcom. When you have time, check out the videos to the topics of your interest. I can only recommend it.


Wishing you lots of entertainment and laughter,

Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

3D barcodes as the key for safe shopping

microwave rice Most likely I belong to only a few shoppers who is concerned to know the actual source of the food or beverage I consume. Although it is impossible to control all my intake, I would like to make sure that what I prepare and consume at home comes from a region that I perceive as not affected by the fallout from the Fukushima incident. In a previous article on this blog I had hoped that manufacturer’s declaration on food products become more detailed (actual article). To my surprise some of the goods sold at a major Japanese supermarket Aeon (Japanese company website) have now 3D bar codes that allow to check for the origin of a product in hand. While on the top of the article the actual packaging of easily microwaveable rice is shown, the picture below shows the result of the 3D bar code search.


This additional detailed information is for me a great help and relief. Not only can I find the rice type, but as well the region where the rice grew and the packing site. I can get a true sense of what I am buying and with it I become a loyal customer. I am sure the addition of this small 3D bar code will result in higher sales turnover of this product. I strongly believe that today’s customers want to be informed and given a choice of what they want to buy. Having choices allows me to make a difference to support the products I believe in. Although many Japanese households live these days on a tight budget and limited choices, I believe over time customer choices will show that more information is better. In the meantime Aeon has for sure caught my heart.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Japanese business are looking for guidance from abroad

For sure I had to read the news on Nikkei Shimbun twice, because I could not believe my eyes. One of the most traditional, slow-moving company that I know in Japan is opening up and welcoming the opinions of non-Japanese decision makers. Based on the Nikkei article it seems that Hitachi is planning to incorporate the opinions of non-Japanese executives in the decision-making process for high level headquarters decisions. For sure I had never expected that in my wildest dreams. The planned foreign input is so far based on intra-company feedback. I wonder whether bigger Japanese companies become serious to open up to the global market, or whether it might be just a response to all the events that occurred at Olympus?
Starting this month Hitachi will hold quarterly sessions where non-Japanese executives from overseas subsidiaries will offer suggestions on how the company should change to achieve global growth. Soon the first Global Session will take place and feature Jack Domme the CEO of U.S. data storage subsidiary Hitachi Data Systems Corp. Based on the article of Nikkei Shimbun the goal is to increase their international sales from 41% (2012) with a modest increase to 50% in fiscal 2015. From the figure provided by Nikkei Shimbun the growth in sales does not seem aggressive to me, but we do not know how actually this year’s sales trend for Hitachi is.
Personally I hope this opinion sharing and opening up for new ideas will help Hitachi or then other companies in Japan to refocus on their strength. These days only a few companies can survive with solely selling into a local market. Let’s see whether other leading Japanese companies will follow the lead from Hitachi.

Brought to you by an excited Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

A helping hand is badly needed in Japan

Today I stumbled upon some further news that makes me again speechless. Personally I had been impressed about growth of kizuna (絆, Japanese word meaning “bond with others”) after the disaster of last year. So many people were volunteering or just simply trying to make life easier for everyone. Now as time has passed it seems that quite a bit of people are falling through the cracks, even though Japanese society still values and practices kizuna.
According to an article of Mainichi Shimbun in the aftermath of the last year’s disaster a government-subsidized free telephone consultation service was started. In the meantime due to increased social problems the line got so overloaded, that only after 20 attempts on average a person can get to talk to a consultant. About 20,000 calls are received per day, but only about 1,200 of them get connected. Based on the Mainichi Shimbun article this 24h service is called “Yorisoi (staying together) Hotline” and is operated by the Shakaiteki Hosetsu (social inclusion) Support Center. Calls about issues like poverty, unemployment and bullying are supported. In the meantime 38 call centers located throughout Japan were created.
Most shocking for me is that based on the information from Mainichi Shimbun about 70 percent of problems concern basic needs of a human being: Poverty and solitude, with many of the callers in their 30s to 50s. Examples are: “I lost my house after I became unemployed,” “There is no point in living” and “I just wanted to talk with someone.” While there is in the media the bashing of Namapo, reading these cited examples hurts my heart. A man in his 30s had lost his job, applied for welfare, but when calling for help at this hotline, he said: “I have no money and haven’t eaten anything for days.” Due to the worn out voice, the consultant judged right that the man was in a life-threatening condition. Contacts then from a local support center delivered some food to the caller. The man was truly grateful, especially as “no one had helped me before even though I consulted some offices.” The overview below shows the common reasons why someone is calling the support center (graph from Mainichi Shimbun)

Other support function are:
– 20% of consultations are about suicide (link to previous article on this blog)
– 6% of consultations are about violence against women and sexual issues.

It hurts me that the Japanese society, who is known globally for friendliness has ended up at a stage where so many people are starving, lonely, unheard… simply left on their own. I am left wondering how many people are falling through the cracks and no one in their environment might even know.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Looking at Japan from a different angle

Usually I do not make any recommendation on books in regard to Japan, but it is time to make an exception. What impressed me most about both books I am going to recommend is that they have been written quite a while ago, but are still so true in 2012. Although I hear daily in the media about Japanese society changing, becoming more transparent and open, Japanese companies embracing global business styles…at the end I wonder how much has really changed. Based on my personal experience for more than 10 years living and working here, apart from the March 11 event with the Fukushima disaster, it is difficult to see noteworthy changes, which is good from my perspective. Otherwise if Japan had become globalized and easily understood from the outside, there would be no reason for me to continue this blog 😉 Japan is still a mystery for a big part of the world.
The first book I would like to focus on is “Freakonomics”, which was first published in the U.S. in 2005 and based on the Freakonomics website went on to sell more than 4 million copies around the world, in 35 languages. The authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner bring interesting moral and economic issues to the light. Most likely it will redefine the way you view the modern world, or at least it did for me. One of the covered topics is in regard to sumo wrestlers and yaocho (yaocho is the Japanese word for match-fixing). For those who have not read the book or not seen the movie, have a look at this link:

The Numbers in Sumo Cheating: Freakonomics Movie

The second book worth reading is “Beating Japan” from Francis McInerney, Sean White. The book was written 1993 during the time when the US feared that Japan might take over a big part of the global business. The essence of the book is that the world has not to be so worried, unless Japan starts to radically change and overcome some economic limitations. Quote from the book:

“The Japanese are in a tough spot: they need the loyalty of foreign customers, but have firm hold on them. To get closer to their customer, they must overcome significant cultural differences. At the same time, the Japanese economic engine is running out of steam: the industries that powered its postwar recovery are mature or in decline. New competition is emerging elsewhere in Asia eager to imitate the Japanese and gobble up the markets they fought so hard to win. A breakthrough source of export energy is needed to keep the engine in high gear. Japan has not found that source.”

In my daily life I come across many Japanese, who yearn for change, but at the same time are looking for someone who can create a path for them and guide them. Only in very few cases I have come across people here, who bravely dash forward into the unknown. I guess the fear of the unknown is still much higher than the pain of the present. Personally I see this behavior as positive, because for me the mystery of Japan is still ongoing. Maybe one day I understand Japan a bit better 😉

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

What is your viewpoint about ナマポ (Namapo)?

To be honest I am getting tired of seeing the bowing and apologizing Junichi Komoto in a lot of local news media (popular Japanese comedian, info in Japanese on wikipedia). It seems to me since last week the story gets so much attention, because a good scape goat was found: Junichi Komoto let his mother continue to receive welfare benefits after his career as a comedian took off. Since the government is struggling to make ends meet, examples of potential misused money gets recently a lot of attention.
According to Japan Times the number of welfare recipients in Japan is increasing steadily – by about 5499 people per month – having now reached 2,097,401 people. The story with Komoto started a few weeks back. Because the main Japanese media tends to stays away from potentially critical topics, the weekly gossip magazine Josei Seven covered the story: “A popular comedian with an estimated ¥50 million annual income did not provide enough financial support for his mother”. Of course this became a hot topic and juicy details were shown. Komoto’s mother began receiving welfare benefits about 15 years ago, when she quit her job due to ill-health. Back then according to Komoto, his annual income was less than JPY 1 million and he was not able to give any financial support to his mother. Although Komoto started to send money to his mother about five years ago, his mother did not quit receiving welfare until last April. Actually her benefits were reduced by the same amount Komoto provided, all decided together with the local welfare office. Komoto concern for privacy: “I didn’t want anyone to know that my mother received welfare benefits. I was ashamed of that. I was doing my job thinking I need to help her get out (of the welfare benefit program) as soon as possible.”
Under the Japanese Civil Law, direct relatives such as parents, children, brothers and sisters have a duty to support their family members. Local welfare offices are required to follow-up with the evalutaion of the annual income of the applicant’s family, so that can be decided whether they can provide financial support. It seems to be in the case of Komoto all those steps were done in collaboration with the local office. On the other hand, interestingly the questionnaire is nonbinding and municipalities have no way of determining if the answers are accurate.
Personally I don’t think the attention should go so much to Komoto (I am no fan of him), but much more the spotlight should be on the increasing number of welfare recipients, who are alcoholic and at the same time spend their money on Pachinko (Japanese version of gambling). Just stroll around in some areas in Osaka, or just check the lines at the local Pachinko after the welfare payday. I don’t think pointing the blame to Komoto as a scape goat will bring any changes in the way welfare receivers are supported.
To make matters even more interesting, recently there had been some online information on how to become a Namapo (welfare recipient). Personally I have not seen the actual documents or DVD’s with the explanations on how to apply for welfare easily. Because several sources state the availability, I assume these guides had been used. Chances are welfare benefits are higher than the salary for contract workers, so it is not surprising to me that some perceive a life as a Namapo more attractive.
Just for your info, the name Namapo was created from welfare in Japanese「生活保護」and just taking out two characters from the whole word:「生」and「保」, which is then read as Namapo.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

P.S. From March 30th an update on the topic above: The Japanese media is targeting another comedian, who had been questioned about his mother receiving welfare support. From the comedian group King Kong, Yuta Kajiwara (梶原雄太) seems to be the next scapegoat. The good news: I start to assume that all behind this comedian/namapo trashing is the goal to increase the number of welfare workers in Japan, so that applications can be checked more thoroughly. Let’s see how the story develops.