While the Japanese might bake gorgeous cakes, make superb electronics or fuel-efficient cars (see my previous post), one thing they certainly don’t do is grow inexpensive fruits and vegetables.
The Japanese electoral system works in such a way that rural districts get over-represented in the Japanese Diet as compared to the amount of people who actually live there. For political parties, this means that getting one rural vote counts much more than getting an urban vote. Virtually all parties court the support of farmers and promise them generous subsidies and protection from foreign competition in return for their votes. In return, the farmers’ associations hold politicians and parties accountable for their promises and can withdraw their endorsement if a party fails to live up to their promises.
What this results in is that Japanese consumers pay among the highest prices anywhere in the world for food. When I first moved to Japan, I was surprised to find that rice, the everyday staple of the country, was incredibly expensive. The cheapest 5kg bag I could find set me back 18 dollars, and I bought it at the dollar store!
One vegetable that is cheap is cabbage, the omnipresent cabbage. You cannot escape it. I ate it everyday, as a sidedish to just about everything. Finely shredded cabbage makes an appearance at way too many meals, and if you’re in need of some cheap roughage, cabbage is the answer.
At the same time, most of the Japanese I’ve met would agree that domestic produce is safer and tastes better than foreign products, and various surveys show that, given a choice, the Japanese would rather pay inflated prices for domestic products than buy stuff from abroad.
One of the items that blew me away were melons. Why anyone would pay $30-150 dollars for a melon is beyond me. They come in beautiful wooden boxes, with a ribbon attached to the stem.
In my last trip to Japan, I visited a melon farm to get a glimpse of the most expensive melons anywhere in the world still attached to the plant. They were protected by a piece of plastic on top and they put a little piece of styrofoam underneath to prevent them from rotting against the ground. Other than that, they just looked like melons.
I also tried an 8-dollar peach. It was good indeed (it better be!), but nothing that would make me want to spend 8 dollars again for it.
Another reason why retailers can get away with these prices for premium fruit is that they are given as presents. A box of premium fruits or a melon is a bloody good present, and one that will set you back quite a bit of money. I bet that the worst nightmare these people have is that one day the Japanese will suddenly decide that it’s just fruit…(just like the diamond industry always worries that people will suddenly decide that they are just rocks).