A common topic of conversation among my foreign friends is cheese, more specifically, where one can buy it at justifiable prices. Cheese is notoriously expensive in Japan owing to a number of factors both cultural and bureaucratic. The agricultural ministry is very protective of Japanese dairy farmers and slaps a fairly high tariff on any milk-based products from abroad. The duty on cheese is about 30 percent, but that’s 30 percent of the total cost of importing the cheese, meaning 30 percent of not only the wholesale price, but also 30 percent of the transportation cost and the insurance. And soft cheeses, at least, have to be shipped by air, so costs mount even more, and by the time the cheese is in your local store it has passed through the grubby hands of middlemen and can cost three or four times what it cost in its home country. Theoretically, if you buy it in bulk or over the Internet you can save some money, but Japanese, I’m always told, don’t eat cheese that much. If that’s true, then why is Japan the second biggest cheese importer in the world?
It’s no secret that the big national food companies that deal in dairy foods like Meiji, Yuki-jirushi (Snow Brand) and Morinaga directly benefit from the cheese tariff and most likely lobbied to have it put in place. But the bulk of their sales in this realm is processed cheese (natural cheese imported for the purpose of making processed cheese is tariff-free), which Japanese consumers prefer. In fact, 90 percent of the so-called natural cheese sold in Japan is imported from abroad. This would seem to indicate that Japan produces very little non-processed cheese. If it’s true that Japanese consumers in general don’t like “real” cheese, meaning the harder, smellier kind, what exactly is there to protect?
The price of cheese from Switzerland should have at least come down a little bit because Japan concluded an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the country that went into effect last September. This means that Swiss can buy cars and electrical appliances from Japan without any import duties and Japanese can buy luxury watches and chocolate and Nestle’s instant coffee with the same benefits. Cheese, too, since it’s a major Swiss export, mainly emmenthal (the one with the holes) and gruyere. However, we have not noticed any appreciable change in the price of cheese from Switzerland in the past nine months. At the very least, the price should have come down in relation to the Swiss franc, which, like most currencies, has lost much of its value against the yen in the past year. I know there’s a lead time when it comes to price changes pegged to foreign currency fluctuations, but I’ve seen absolutely no change in the past few years in the cheese cases of my local stores.
Last week we bought a tiny block of Swiss emmenthal (¥480 for 100 grams) and an even tinier block of Swiss gruyere (¥1,100 for 100 grams) at Cheese Oukoku (Cheese Kingdom), a chain operation that you usually find in the basements of department stores. Their salespeople like to show off their knowledge of all things cheesy by advising customers on how to enjoy certain types, how it’s made, the aging process, etc., but when we asked one of them about the Swiss issue he professed to know nothing, and said he had never even heard of the EPA. What about the drop in the franc and the euro? we asked. Shouldn’t that make a difference? “The price of cheese hasn’t gone down,” he said. That much we knew just by standing there and looking.