No More ‘Forbidden Fruit’ : U.S. Apples Make a Crunchy Debut After Japan Lifts Ban
Few things are more gauche in Japan than eating something while walking down the sidewalk. And apples, a luxury food item here, are always peeled and sliced before being eaten.
So it was a victory for American culture, as well as for U.S. apple growers, when pedestrians in downtown Tokyo last week started biting boldly into Red Delicious apples handed out free as part of a weeklong hoopla publicizing the latest opening of Japan to a foreign product.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Brent Evans, Asia marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission, when he spotted two young office women heading off while still munching shiny red apples. “They’re eating and walking away. They said that would never happen.”
Washington apples have sold briskly across Japan since first hitting the supermarket shelves on Jan. 9. Japanese media have given heavy coverage to the arrival of the U.S. fruit. Sales so far, however, have been driven largely by curiosity, and consumer doubts about American apples remain strong.
“American apples are cheaper than Japanese, so, if they suit our taste, it will be good for consumers,” said Ayako Toshimasu, 45, as she waited in line for a free bag of apples at a noontime “apple-biting contest” sponsored by the Washington Apple Commission.
But Toshimasu had worries too. “When I saw them on TV, they looked over-waxed, so I wonder if we had better peel the skins thicker than for Japanese apples,” she said. “Japanese tend to be concerned about chemicals.”
Apples are produced here with great care. Growers usually pluck away leaves near each apple while the fruit is still on the tree, to ensure that it receives balanced sunlight. Then the apples are protected by individual bags several weeks before harvesting.
But Japanese apples are more pink and green than red. Many Japanese think the U.S. fruit looks unnatural, and some even say the shiny red apples call to mind the beautiful but poisoned apple in “Snow White.”
“When I saw them on TV, the color looked artificial,” said Fumiko Nakamura, 30, an office worker. “Since the color was too artificial, I was worried that they have some chemicals. I usually peel the skins when I eat apples. But since they are advertising the safety, I will try eating one whole. But I expect I’ll go back to peeling them.”
The arrival of apples from Washington recalled the equally noisy arrival last year of rice from California. Despite much fretting by Japanese about the quality of foreign rice, California’s short-grained product has turned out to be popular.
Japan ostensibly opened its apple market to imports way back in 1971. With the exception of occasional imports from South Korea, however, no other apples were allowed into the country until last year, when some began to arrive from New Zealand.
The ban was justified on the grounds that foreign apples might carry pests or diseases such as fire blight that could spread to Japan’s orchards. Foreign critics, however, said the real purpose of the tight restrictions was to protect Japanese apple growers. The issue joined the list of chronic U.S.-Japan trade disputes.
With the arrival last week of U.S. apples--which must undergo rigid controls and inspections before shipment here--Japan’s overall apple market may begin to see major change. About 250,000 boxes of red and golden delicious apples have arrived in Japan, Evans said. A total of 15,000 tons is due by the end of March.
The U.S. Embassy predicts annual sales of American apples may eventually reach $100 million.
U.S. officials stress that the only chemicals used on fruit exported to Japan are ones also allowed in Japan. They also say that there is plenty of room for the apple market to grow. U.S. predictions are that Japanese fruit will continue to dominate the existing luxury niche, while American growers try to create a new mass market.
The average Japanese consumes only about 15 pounds of apples a year, compared to 33 pounds in the United States and 48 pounds in Europe, Evans said. U.S. apples are expected to sell for about 70 cents to $1 per apple here, he said--compared to a typical price of $1.50 for a Japanese apple of similar size.
“We’d like to position Washington apples as an apple that has wide appeal for mass consumption as a snack,” said Mike Scott, a grower who is chairman of the Washington Apple Commission. “Therefore, it has to be convenient and it has to be quick. We’re not anxious to position it as an apple that you have to sit down and peel and slice up to eat.”
Terry Elwell, export marketing director for the Apple Commission, said that trying to break into the Japanese market had been like trying to overcome the Berlin Wall.
“Japan doesn’t change until it’s ready to change,” Elwell said. “A confluence of things had to come together to make this happen. Two years ago the Liberal Democratic Party lost. Afterward, there was an internal revolution: The consumers here got tired of paying (high) prices. The internal structure of Japan changed. The stars lined up for us. Otherwise I’m not sure we’d be here yet. . . . These guys are black belts at bureaucracy.”
So how do they like them apples?
Etsuko Ohashi, who won the first round in last week’s apple-biting contest by leaving a heart-shaped hole with her first bite, seemed moderately impressed.
“The taste was good,” she said. “Compared with Japanese apples, it was mild, with a bit of a sour taste. The shape and color are good, but it’s small.”
Japanese growers are already responding to U.S. competition by changing some practices, such as abandoning the effort to remove leaves that are too close to the fruit. Traditionally, about 20% of the labor involved in growing apples in Japan has gone into leaf removal, according to a recent report in the Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper.
Japan also will start exporting top-of-the-line Fuji apples, which are bigger and sweeter than most American apples, to the United States.
Apple diplomacy was highlighted in Washington last week when President Clinton presented visiting Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama with a red-ribboned basket of Red Delicious, calling it a “symbol of our progress.”
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter F. Mondale later offered a light-hearted reminder of how much effort had gone into the struggle over apples.
“That took us only 24 years,” he said. “But we got it done.”
Times researcher Chiaki Kitada in Tokyo contributed to this report.