Annals of cheap: bananas
Bananas have been unusually inexpensive this fall. Normally the retail price remains in the ¥200-¥230 per kg range (1 banana is about 150 grams) year-round, and the average price for all of 2011, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was ¥218. However, the ministry recently conducted a survey of 42 retail outlets in Tokyo and found that from January to September of this year, the price was slightly less than ¥210, and at the end of September it suddenly dropped to ¥197. Then, in early October, it fell further to ¥192 and has stayed there ever since. It’s the lowest price for bananas since 1979, and importers and wholesalers don’t like it at all. According to Tokyo Shimbun, smaller importers are hoping that the larger importers will limit their supply since it appears the price drop is due to a continual flood of bananas into the market.
Why the sudden price collapse? Apparently, it has to do with political situations on two fronts. China is, for all intents and purposes, currently carrying out an embargo of Philippine bananas due to a diplomatic flareup between the two countries over control of an island in the South China Sea. Though there are no formal sanctions involved, China recently reinforced inspections for diseases and pests that have resulted in banana shipments from the Philippines being held for extended periods of time in Chinese ports. Consequently, they are in danger of spoiling, so a lot of the bananas originally meant for the Chinese market have been coming to Japan.
China is the second biggest producer of bananas in the world (after India, which consumes 80 percent of its product), but several years ago the country signed a free-trade agreement with the Philippines, and bananas are one of the latter’s few big export crops. Another major banana market for the Philippines is Iran, which is currently under the shadow of a genuine U.S.-led embargo owing to Iran’s nuclear development program, so some of the bananas that the Philippines were planning to ship to Iran are now also going to Japan.
Then there’s the weather. Japanese consumers usually buy more bananas in the spring and the fall because the fruit ripens and spoils more quickly in hot weather. This year, high temperatures lingered until the end of September, so wholesalers tried to move stock more quickly by reducing prices. A representative of fruit conglomerate Dole told Tokyo Shimbun that demand will probably increase soon, driving the price up slightly. “And the international situation will likely calm down soon, too.”
Actually, the price drop may not have made much of an impression on the average consumer. Bananas are the most ubiquitous fruit in Japan, and always seem relatively cheap because they are 100% imported from tropical areas and thus aren’t subject to seasonal price fluctuations. In 2008, according to Foreign Ministry figures, bananas accounted for 60 percent of all imported fruit. The average Japanese person consumes 8.55 kg of bananas a year, which comes to 20 kg per household. It is by far the No. 1 fruit in Japan, handily outselling all others, be they domestic or imported. As far as the latter goes, Japan imported 1.06 million tons of bananas in 2011, and 90 percent came from the Philippines.
However, Japanese persons of a certain age will remember when bananas were an exotic extravagance. In the ’60s, when it was practically the only imported food available to the average person, they bought bananas one at a time and ate them as if they were a very special treat. The first bananas were imported from Taiwan, but in the ’60s the Philippines started increasing banana orchards specifically for the Japan market. The two countries have an alliance forged in bananas.