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European winemakers fret over competition from Chile

Monday, August 25th, 2014

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

The competition: Wines from Australia, Chile and France with retail prices below ¥1,000

During the first half of the year, sales of wine from Chile exceeded those of wines from Italy, thus making Chilean wine the second most popular imported wine in Japan, and apparently, Chile is now gaining rapidly on No. 1, France. The main reason is the Chile-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement signed in September 2007, after which the tariff on Chilean wine started to decrease gradually from the standard duty on foreign wines of either 15 percent of import price or ¥125 per liter. Right now the tariff rate for Chilean wines is 5.8 percent, and it will be zero in April 2019.

According to a Jiji Press report, the further the tariff drops, the more sales increase. More significantly, the amount of wine being imported has gone up. In 2007, when the EPA went into effect, Japan imported 10,517 kiloliters. But 2013, the volume was 36,435 kiloliters, which is an average annual growth rate of 20 percent. For the first half of this year alone, 17,349 kl entered Japan, and since the end of the year is the big season for wine, it’s clear that this year’s volume will exceed last year’s. And note that France exported 19,093 kl to Japan in the first six months of 2014.

Nevertheless, importers have told Jiji that the EPA isn’t as big an influence as it seems. One wine industry association said that Chile’s product is more suited to Japanese tastes, whatever that means. But the fact is that other wine-making countries and regions are paying close attention to the Japanese market and may be worried about Chile’s ascendance. For one thing, while sales of alcoholic beverages in general have been on the decline, the consumption of wine has been going up. At present, the average Japanese person consumes a little less than three bottles a year. Consequently, Japan signed another EPA with Australia in July. According to the terms of the agreement, the tariff on Australian wine will disappear in seven years, which is faster than the rate reduction with Chile.

So Europe is especially anxious to get its own EPA hammered out, since it’s losing ground to these New World winemakers. Wine and cheese are two of the main products under discussion.

It may already be too late. According to a report in the Hokkaido Shimbun, Hokkaido Prefecture’s most prominent convenient store chain, Seico Mart, has seen a 10 percent increase in the sale of Chilean wines over the past year, or one-fourth of the chain’s entire wine sales revenue. That’s even more than French wines. The newspaper narrows the appeal down better than Jiji, saying that Japanese people prefer the slightly sweeter flavor of Chilean wine. But the real reason is the price. The bestselling wine in the chain is a Chilean wine that goes for ¥480.

A common retail belief when it comes to selling wine to people who aren’t connoisseurs in Japan is that ¥1,000 tends to be the limit, and Chilean wine is consistently below that ceiling.

Whatever you do, don’t call Nestle’s coffee ‘instant’

Friday, August 15th, 2014

According to the business magazine Toyo Keizai, on July 24, Nestle Japan announced that it was quitting four industry groups it belonged to: the Japan Fair Trade Coffee Conference, the All Japan Coffee Association, the Japan Instant Coffee Association and the Japan Coffee Importers Association. These groups have, according to Toyo, had problems acknowledging Nestle’s description of its new manufacturing method for coffee products that it started using last September.

Nestle no longer calls its Gold Blend and Nescafe Excella brands “instant coffees,” but rather “regular soluble coffee,” and insists that others do the same. Two months ago, these associations revised their industry fair competition rules, saying that they couldn’t allow Nestle to use such a description in their advertising, so Nestle decided to not work with them any more.

Nestle's Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle’s Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle says the manufacturing method is different, so it has a right to call its coffee something different. Most coffee called “instant” these days is made by freeze-drying liquid concentrated coffee liquor. Soluble coffee, however, is a “unique” blend of pulverized roasted coffee beans and dried coffee concentrate. To the layman and, obviously, other members of the coffee industry in Japan, that description doesn’t qualify as much of a distinction, but Nestle wants to stress that the new method makes for coffee that is closer to the real thing, meaning coffee brewed from ground roasted beans.

An executive of the All Japan Coffee Association explained to Toyo that his group’s reluctance to accept the new designation is based on complaints it’s received from consumer groups that say people may buy Nestle’s new product under the mistaken assumption that it’s “real regular coffee.” And as far as the new designation goes, people who don’t know what “soluble” means may think that regular coffee grounds dissolve in hot water, which, of course, they don’t. In any case, “soluble” is a pretty good description of instant coffee in general, so the distinction is moot.

But Nestle Japan can pretty much do whatever it wants since its products account for 70 percent of the — pardon us — instant coffee market in Japan. It wasn’t until 1960 that the importation of coffee beans to Japan was liberalized. The next year importers started bringing in instant coffee, and by the middle of the decade Nestle’s Nescafe was the best-selling brand in Japan, as it was in the world.

Then, in 1967, Nestle Japan started selling Gold Blend, the first instant coffee to use the freeze-dried method developed by Nestle at its headquarters in Switzerland. The Japan affiliate was nervous, though, because it thought Gold Blend would “cannibalize” sales of Nescafe, so it made two different advertising campaigns: Nescafe for everyone, Gold Blend for more discerning consumers.

The Gold Blend commercials became famous for using well-known “artistic” talent, like novelists, classical musicians and kabuki actors. The ads were a success. Instead of eating up sales of Nescafe (which soon became Excella) Gold Blend’s sales augmented them. Eventually, Excella had a 50 percent share and Gold Blend a 20 percent share.

In 2012, Nestle Japan chalked up ¥7.88 trillion in sales, which boiled down to ¥1.2 trillion in profits. Respectively, those figures represented 2.3 percent and 25 percent growth over the previous year. Nestle is the biggest food-related company in the world. Their products are sold in 140 countries, and the headquarters refers to its Japanese business as a “miracle,” since demand is shrinking almost everywhere else. And it’s not just coffee. Nestle also makes Kit Kat, the most ubiquitous chocolate treat in Japan because of its auspicious associations with entrance exams. Until 2002 Nestle Japan spent ¥3 billion on TV commercials to reinforce this association and now distributes free Kit Kat bars in business hotels where university entrance exam takers stay to study before the test. They’ve become indispensable.

Now Nestle’s big scheme is Nescafe Barista, a series of refill systems it is selling to homes. The system is built around coffee making machines that use prepared single-serving capsules of its soluble coffee, and this is where the designation is important. Though it may be instant coffee by another name, that new name gives more of an impression of brewed coffee, which is important for another new system, called Nescafe Ambassador, that is being promoted to offices. Rather than capsules, these machines use larger containers of soluble coffee.

The pitch is made directly to employees of companies rather than people in charge of office services. An employee registers as an “ambassador.” Nestle then sends him or her a coffee machine, a supply of soluble coffee and a piggy bank. The employee sets up the machine in the office and other employees who want coffee deposit ¥20 in the piggy bank whenever they enjoy a cup. Refill containers last about a month or so, after which the money is sent to Nestle.

Conventional office coffee services involve a company representative who maintains and fills the machines, adding significantly to the cost. Ambassador cuts costs by having the employees take care of everything, and is meant to replace office-set vending machines and even convenience store coffee, which are now the main sources of break-time refreshment, since many companies are doing away with free coffee and tea on the premises to cut down on expenses. Coffee from vending machines and convenience stores cost at least ¥100 a cup/can.

Three months after starting the system in 2012, Nestle had distributed 60,000 machines. Toyo says that the company projects more than 100,000 machines per year from now on. And since there are an estimated 6 million offices in Japan, that’s a lot of potential soluble coffee sales, though it should be noted that canned coffee, which for years was unique to Japan, commands a sizable share of the coffee market, especially among workers, both white collar and blue. But then, Nestle sells canned coffee, too.

Local municipalities vie for your ‘hometown tax’

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Screen shot of web portal site for products being offered as gifts in exchange for "hometown tax" donations

Screen shot of web portal site for products being offered as gifts in exchange for “hometown tax” donations

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is already thinking about next year’s local government elections and in order to help their candidates is studying a possible increase in the maximum tax deduction afforded to people who contribute “hometown taxes” (furusato nozei), a system that was implemented in 2008 to help regional municipalities struggling with budget shortfalls.

Because an increasing portion of the population is concentrated in large metropolitan areas, local government tax bases are eroding. The hometown tax diverts some of the money people pay to big city governments to these smaller municipalities in the form of donations. In order to make the system attractive to taxpayers, the central government offered deductions not only for national income taxes, but also for local income taxes.

Taxpayers can donate funds to a local government that is different from the one where they live, and despite the name of the system it doesn’t have to be their hometown. It can be any locality. Say you live in Tokyo but you want to help out a town in Fukushima devastated in the disaster of 2011, something that many people have used the furusato nozei to do. If you donate 20,000 to that town in Fukushima through the hometown tax system you can get a deduction off your national tax bill this year, and since local income taxes are based on national income taxes, this deduction, as well as a separate deduction for charitable donations, is reflected in your local tax bill the following year, which will be lower that it would have been otherwise as a result. So for the ¥20,000 donation, the taxpayer ends up with an ¥18,000 tax savings (¥20,000 minus a ¥2,000 handling fee).

Obviously, small local governments like the system very much while larger city or prefectural governments, such as Tokyo’s, don’t, because they lose out on those diverted tax revenues. In 2013, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 22,000 Tokyo taxpayers contributed hometown taxes to other municipalities and it cost the Tokyo Metropolitan Government ¥500 million. By Tokyo’s budget standards that’s a drop in the bucket, but if the LDP raises the maximum amount allowed for the deduction, it could go up significantly, and, it should be noted, almost no one from other municipalities donates money to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

But there’s another factor that may drain revenues from big city governments, and that’s competition for furusato nozei contributions. Last month, in line with the aforementioned 2015 local elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tottori Prefecture, which received the highest amount of hometown tax donations in 2013. What makes Tottori, one of the smallest prefectures in the country, so popular? Two answers: beer and crab. In fact, Abe, a teetotaler, made a point of dropping by a local craft brewery because the factory’s product is sent by the prefecture to donors as a thank-you gift. Or, if you donate a certain amount you can receive crab from the prefecture instead.

In this way, donors get multiple effectiveness from their donation: tax cuts (two, in fact) and a free gift that conceivably could be worth more than the donation. Local governments and businesses also receive multiple benefits: they get diverted tax revenues as well as valuable PR for their local products. Now, hundreds of local governments are competing for hometown tax donations with attractive gifts, even if the donations are only a few thousand yen. Consequently, the number of donors and the amounts donated are rising yearly.

According the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in 2009 33,000 people received the hometown tax deduction on their returns, accounting for ¥7.3 billion in donations. Last year the number of deductions was more than 106,000, comprising ¥13 billion in donations.

Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe has already weighed in on the proposed limit increase, saying that furusato nozei is a “gimmick” for trying to correct an imbalance in local finances but its real result will be to stifle economic progress. The Tokyo tax bureau has complained about the gift system, seemingly because it removes the altruistic component — giving because you care — from the idea of “donations,” and, sensitive to the charge, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has cautioned local governments to be more “responsible” in offering gifts in return for donations. But that may just be lip service. Abe’s support at the local level is supposedly deteriorating, so he needs to do something to bring it back up even a little bit.

Inflation Watch: Food manufacturers offering less

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

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Use your noodle: ¥198 regular price 5-pack of Aeon instant ramen vs. ¥198 sale price 3-pack of Sapporo Ichiban instant chanpon

Economists in Japan have been carefully scrutinizing buying trends since the consumption tax was raised in April. Everyone has noted that buying has dipped by at least 4 percent since the 3 percent tax hike went into effect, but many think that it will rebound later in the year since so many consumers bought a lot of stuff just before the hike. And it is also true that some prices of goods and services have gone up, as well, especially food, but for the most part makers have tried to keep them the same, despite the fact that the lower yen has resulted in higher prices for imported ingredients, not to mention increased demand for all food products in developing countries. In addition, the higher price of oil has boosted the cost for packaging.

There’s, of course, one tried-and-true solution to the problem of stabilizing resale prices when costs go up: reducing volume. Rather than raise prices, especially at a time when consumers are specially sensitive to any change, manufacturers trim the amount being sold, according to Asahi Shimbun. Nippon Ham, for instance, did not change prices on 82 items in its product line but did reduce the amount being sold by an average of 10 percent. The company’s European sausage used to come in bags of 7 weighing 140 grams. For the same price, it’s now 6 sausages, or 120 grams. The company’s main competitor, Ito Ham, however, has decided to take a chance and increased the price of its pork products, saying that it was inevitable because worldwide demand for pork has risen recently.

The confection industry has been affected as well. Lotte cut the volume and weight of 6 products. Meiji shrunk 10 of its chocolate items, citing a 20 percent increase in cocoa prices from two years ago: Its best-selling Almond Chocolate treat went from 23 pieces to 21.

Chain restaurants are also dealing with the environment. Ringer Hut has increased prices on a number of its chanpon dishes by 3 to 5 percent, mainly due to higher prices for shrimp grown in Thailand, as well as higher transportation costs.

Dairy prices and volumes have changed, but for a slightly different reason. Morinaga has increased the price of a standard block of butter by ¥10, and cheese prices by about 7 percent. Snow Brand is boosting prices for 17 cheese items by 5 to 14 percent. Since Japan’s dairy industry is protected, much to the disappointment of the U.S., the problem isn’t imports or competition for ingredients abroad, but rather economic factors within Japan. Production of milk has been dropping due to an acute labor shortage and the fact that as older dairy farmers are retiring there is no one to take over their businesses.

But even if you’re on the lookout for such price and volume changes, you can sometimes be fooled. Recently, we came across packages of Sapporo Ichiban instant ramen in a discount store for less than ¥200, which we thought was very cheap for a so-called name brand. Usually, multi-packs of instant ramen from companies like Sapporo and Nissin cost more than ¥300 regularly and about ¥250 on sale. Private generic brands usually cost about ¥200 for the same amount.

So when we saw the cheap Sapporo Ichiban pack and bought it, it wasn’t until we left the cashier that we noticed the pack only contained three servings. Traditionally, multi-pack ramen has five servings. It was a stupid mistake, and we wondered how many other people picked up the pack without realizing. The point is that Sapporo Ichiban didn’t sell 3-packs of instant ramen before the consumption tax hike, so it’s obviously a sales strategy, and one we’ll just call clever, not underhanded.

A modest proposal for alleviating the endangerment of Japanese eels

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

This year, doyo no ushi no hi, the “day of the ox,” falls on July 29 in accordance with the old Chinese calendar. Counterintuitively, Japanese people don’t celebrate the day by eating beef but rather eel, because, supposedly, eel, or unagi, helps maintain a person’s stamina during the hottest days of summer. But it should be noted that the custom of eating eel is commercial in origin. According to legend, the tradition started in the 18th century in Hino, Western Tokyo, where nobody ate eel because the fish was a kind of local deity. An inventor named Hiraga Gennai came up with a publicity campaign to get people to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi because both ushi and unagi start with the “u” sound. The campaign worked, and now everybody eats unagi on doyo no ushi no hi. Well, maybe not everybody, but enough to drive Japanese eel to the brink of extinction.

Japanese eel for consumption are caught in the wild as fry and transported to eel farms throughout Asia. Eel is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s endangered red list, and so the environment ministry made the same designation on its list of at-risk species. However, this information has been tempered somewhat lately by media reports saying that the eel catch was higher this past year, thus driving the price of imported eel, mainly from China and Taiwan, down considerably. Consequently, eel dishes on the 29th may be cheaper in some places than they were last year.

Unagi fans will see this as good news, but it isn’t. The reason eel is on the endangered list is that Japanese people catch and eat too much of the fish, which wasn’t the case before the mid-1980s, when eel was considered something of a delicacy eaten only on special occasions. In other words, the cheaper the eel, the more likely eel stocks will be decimated.

Japan not only is the major consumer of Japanese eel, it is by far the major consumer of all eel: 70 percent of eel caught in the world is eaten by Japanese people. The speed at which Japan consumes eel has outpaced the species’ ability to reproduce itself. Japan first started buying eel overseas in 1980, mainly in Europe, but wild eel has been protected there since 2009 when it was declared endangered by the European Union.

Japan is trying to import more eel from Southeast Asia. Right now Japan itself produces 20,000 tons of unagi a year on farms, about half the amount at its peak in the late 90s. In 2000, Japan imported 130,000 tons from China and Taiwan. That amount dwindled to 32,000 tons by 2013, and yet eel prices in restaurants are still cheaper than they were in the 1980s. Why? Because so many restaurants serve eel. Before the bubble era, eel was only consumed in specialty restaurants and rarely at home. Now, even fast food chains serve eel; or, at least they do on doyo no ushi no hi.

And that may be where the problem lies. Last year, Osaka Gas conducted a survey asking consumers if they plan to eat unagi on ushi no hi, and 30 percent said they would. The biggest portion, 57 percent, said they hadn’t decided. Among those who said they definitely would not eat eel, one-third explained that eel was too expensive, another third said they don’t really like eel, and the rest said they’d eat it some other day. (A mere 2.6 percent said they wouldn’t eat eel because it’s endangered.)

While 30 percent doesn’t sound like a large portion, we’re talking about one day out of the year, a day when even people who don’t eat eel regularly feel the desire to eat eel, because the media makes a big deal out of it. The problem is that there are no statistics about eel consumption in Japan, only eel production, but we can assume that everything produced and imported is eaten here, since Japan doesn’t export eel. And as Minako Saito points out in her Tokyo Shimbun column, eel isn’t a hugely popular delicacy like fatty tuna (toro), it’s simply a “seasonal dish,” so if you divorce eel eating from doyo no ushi no hi, you may substantially be able to decrease the amount of eel that is consumed, because, according to government statistics, a relatively huge portion of eel is consumed on doyo no ushi no hi.

Like beef cattle, eel became the victim of an affluent society that thought everyone, and not just its well-off members, should have the right to eat it whenever they wanted. As we now know, the worldwide taste for beef has led to major environmental collapse, and Japan’s taste for eel has driven the species to the edge of extinction; except that Japan doesn’t really have a huge taste for unagi. It’s mostly PR-driven, so if you stop the PR and allow consumption to drop to a more rational level, the price will go up and unagi stocks should grow.

Japanese franchises cut loose by overseas brands after serving their purpose

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Burberry outlet run by Sanyo Shokai in Matsuzakaya department store in Okachimachi.

Burberry outlet run by Sanyo Shokai in Matsuzakaya department store in Okachimachi.

According to Asahi Shimbun’s online magazine Webronza, the U.K. apparel maker Burberry has decided to end its long-standing licensing agreement with Japan’s Sanyo Shokai in order to develop its own retail outlets in Japan. Sanyo first signed the agreement in 1965, and since then has made Burberry one of the most consistently successful foreign brands in Japan by tailoring the company’s line to Japanese bodies and tastes. Though Burberry’s famous tartan check pattern is at the heart of Japan’s love for the brand — owning a Burberry scarf was, for a time, a rite of passage for Japanese high school girls— Sanyo’s main achievement was making the Burberry trench coat a timeless fashion favorite.

In 2006, an American, Angela Ahrendts, became the CEO of Burberry and worked to return the company to its roots as a high-end brand. She downplayed the tartan check pattern, reducing its use to only 10 percent of the product line, and concentrated more on new, original designs. From 2006 to 2013, when Ahrendts left to become senior vice president of retail and online at Apple, the company doubled its sales revenues and tripled its stock price. One of Ahrendts’ main concerns was doing away with all the licensing agreements the company had with regional companies. She bought out the Spanish franchise and opened directly owned stores in Spain that have become just as successful if not more so than the franchise business.

As it stands, of Burberry’s ¥349 billion annual sales, only ¥18.5 billion comes from franchises, or 3 percent, but after Spain was cut loose, Japan accounts for 60 percent of all franchise business. Burberry obviously thinks it can make more money dealing directly with Japanese consumers, specifically high-end Japanese consumers, since an imported Burberry trench coat costs as much as ¥230,000, while the trench coats that Sanyo makes under its Black (men) and Blue (women) Burberry labels only cost half as much.

Sanyo isn’t the first Japanese company that has worked hard and long to successfully popularize a foreign brand among domestic consumers only to be let go by the foreign licensor. Adidas did the same thing with Descente in 1998, and Mercedes Benz eventually took over Japanese sales of its cars from Yanase, who no longer has the import license for Mercedes, only a sales license. However, in Yanase’s case the situation was the opposite of Sanyo’s. Yanase cultivated Mercedes as a brand only for the well-to-do (leading to the old joke about the cars being the exclusive property of doctors and yakuza), but Mercedes wanted to cater more to middle class buyers and started opening their own showrooms in Japan.

The luxury Belgian chocolatier Godiva, now owned by a Turkish company, is also discontinuing its long-standing licensing arrangement with a Japanese company, the tea importer Kataoka Bussan. Starting in 2015, Godiva will start selling its chocolates at directly owned stores in Japan.

Some franchises suffer more than others. At least half of Sanyo’s ¥106 billion annual sales comes from Burberry products, which it sells in 300 dedicated department store outlets, so the loss of that business is a serious setback. The advantage of this model to the overseas brand is incalculable in that, for years, Sanyo took care of all promotion, building the brand to where it is now. For what it’s worth, Burberry by far sells more trench coats in Japan than any other apparel maker, domestic or foreign.

The reason these franchises can do this is Japanese consumers’ distinct identification with brands, which accounts for some unusual distribution deals, especially for brands that are considered exclusive. The problem for Japanese makers who also count on brand identification is that it seems to be a one-way street.

Japanese brands don’t have the traction overseas that they once did. Sanrio has made Hello Kitty famous worldwide, but mainly by giving the trademark to anyone who pays for it. If you buy the rights to Hello Kitty, you can do anything you want with the name and the image. That’s good for licensing, but now the company wants to make money from sales, and the transition has proved to be more difficult than Sanrio thought.

Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

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