Taste for imports drives up Japan's grocery bill

Haruyoshi Yamaguchi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Yen weakness may be driving up the cost of food imported into Japan, but analysts say even pinched pocketbooks won't stop the country's consumers from getting 60 percent of their meals overseas.

"[Imports] probably will stay more or less stable in the long term unless Japanese agriculture can become more competitive," said Yasuhiro Enomoto, senior analyst at Marubeni Research Institute. In the short-term, however, he expects consumers will buy more domestic-produced food to protect their wallets.

The yen has lost around 40 percent of its value against the dollar over the past two years, shedding around 18 percent between April and September.

Japanese farmers provide just 39 percent of the 2,224 calories consumed by an average adult every day, government data shows. Combined with April's 3 percent consumption tax hike -- also imposed on groceries -- food costs shot up by around 5 percent on-year in both the second and third quarters.

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But even if the yen doesn't get any weaker, Japan's grocery bills may keep getting bigger.

"Many food companies have been able to hold back from passing on the cost of the weaker yen to consumers," said Akio Shibata, director of the Natural Resource Research Institute.

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That's because of which foods get imported. While Japan produces enough of its main calorie source -- rice -- and around 80 percent of the vegetables to meet domestic demand, it imports much of its meat, seafood and grains, Shibata noted.

According to the latest consumer price data, food prices in November rose by 2.9 percent on-year. A 10.3 percent on-month drop in the price of fresh vegetables was not enough to compensate for a 13 percent rise in pork prices – Japan imports around half of its pork.

Still, corn and wheat prices scraped around four year lows over the summer, helping to limit Japanese diners' pain.

That's not likely to last.

Indeed, Nissin Foods will hike the price of its iconic cup noodle by nearly 6 percent from January. Almost all cup noodle ingredients are imported.

"It's not just the weaker yen," said Masayoshi Kanaya, a Nissin Foods spokesperson, citing a shortage of truck drivers as also pushing up distribution costs.

Inefficient domestic farms

Some price drivers are long-term problems, including a fragmented agriculture industry protected by punishingly high tariffs on imports. Prices are 56% above the world average, according to Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data.

The tariffs, imposed even on staples, can be painful: 778 percent on rice, 360 percent on butter, 328 percent on sugar and 252 percent on wheat, according to a paper published by Yutaka Harada, a professor at Waseda University and senior fellow of the Tokyo Foundation.

Domestic producers depend on this protection to stay in business, Haruda notes. It's a problem compounded by the country's tiny, largely family-run farms.

Japan's average farm size is just over two hectares, according to government figures, compared with the global average of 30 hectares in 2000, the latest numbers available from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Small farms aren't as efficient, making Japanese products less competitive against imports, said Marubeni Research Institute's Enomoto.

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Very little domestically produced food is priced comparably with other countries, such as the U.S., Australia and China, which are major exporters to Japan, he noted, adding only eggs, poultry and rice are around the same price points.

"Japan needs to move away from the small farm model to larger, more business-oriented, organized farms focused on profitability," he said.

More efficient farms may be coming, if only through attrition.

The average age of Japan's 2.05 million farmers is 66.1 years, and most don't have heirs, said Hikaru Oishi, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). The government is encouraging aging farmers to pass the reins to a younger generation who can combine operations under a broader tent.

To be sure, Japan's grocery shoppers may see both more imports and plumper pocketbooks if the trans-Pacific free-trade talks result in a deal. Talks between Japan and the U.S. are deadlocked over access to Japan's agricultural market.

Shibata reckons a deal will be reached in two to three years and will trigger a flood of cheaper basics, from pork and beef to soybeans.