A macrobiotic marvel – Japanese pickled plum – saved Kylie Minogue’s GBP4m (US$6.9m) tour in 2000 and Madonna famously has her own chef to prepare macrobiotic meals for herself and her family. But in the very land that launched the food philosophy nary a macrobiotic bean has passed Japanese lips – until now. Michael Fitzpatrick reports.

In Tokyo, Macrobiotic Marche opened in 2005 on the first floor of a relatively new shopping complex in one of Tokyo’s smarter districts called Ebisu. The architecture might be modern but what it is selling is as old as Japan itself – items such as sugarless candy and lunch boxes made entirely from organic ingredients. The facility includes a café, a grocery store and an information booth. On the second floor, meanwhile, is the Macrobiotic Academy, which teaches macrobiotic cooking.

In a similar vein, a chain of organic supermarkets called Mother’s, which operates stores in the Tokyo metropolitan region, began offering macrobiotic bento (boxed lunches) in December 2005. The lunches are rich in grains and entirely organic. Besides the lunches, the Mother’s stores also sell other organic foods.

Even some larger supermarkets and department stores are jumping on the bandwagon by offering vegetables and bento that are macrobiotic or organic.

Neither has the trend gone unnoticed by the mail-order industry. Several firms have started delivering macrobiotic foods to people’s doors. The Suppleshop, a net-based home delivery organic food portal, says that since the organic food boom took off in Japan there has been a marked increase in sales of macrobiotic goods.

“There has been enormous interest since food scares and the slow food movement established a foothold in Japan,” says a Suppleshop spokeswoman.

The shop’s biggest sellers are the macrobiotic staples of brown rice, seaweed and miso (fermented soybean paste). One of the fastest movers is Katsuhiko Takedomi’s award-winning organic rice, which he grows to strict macrobiotic principles on his farm in a remote region of Japan.

Chiba-based Ishii Foods also runs a successful macrobiotic/organic food delivery business. Its biggest sellers to date are boil-in-the-bag brown rice products. “Japanese people like to be healthy,” says Kazue Isshi, who runs the business. “But they also value convenience.”

Its YAKUZEN series of packaged brown rice and gruels sell for JPY500 (US$4.24) and are delivered free if orders exceed JPY2,500. “We can hardly keep up with orders on all our organic produce. Customers order by phone, fax, via the web or even by sending in a postcard,” says Isshi.

The growth of these businesses underscores consumer demand for fresh and natural food in an era when many food products are processed, frozen, or laden with additives. Japan is going back to its roots.

Like most industrialised countries, Japan sacrificed much of the fine detail of its food culture to big business a long time ago. Out went centuries-old customs of fermenting soy, soybeans and miso in favour of quicker, cheaper mass industrial methods that brought cheaper and more plentiful food to the new urban masses in Japan after World War II. The old emphasis on natural preservation methods and fresh food meant that nearly all foods the Japanese consumed were extremely good for them but by the end of the 20th century Japanese food had been corrupted to such a degree that the country’s rate of stomach cancer is now the highest in the world.

The traditional Japanese diet per se will be healthy but only if top quality ingredients are used, if rice is not overly polished, as it is in Japan, and that miso, salted fish and pickled vegetables contain more than just salt and MSG.

Despite the commonly held view that Japanese food is healthy, increased health concerns among consumers in Japan are prompting them to turn in their droves to alternatives such as functional foods. And while many Japanese have turned to a very westernised diet of late, an increasing number are coming to rediscover their own ancient food culture through the teachings of the macrobiotic diet.

The take-up of such foods, until recently, had been slow and retailers that specialised in them were mostly small to medium-sized. But the most established macrobiotic brand in Japan is Mitoku, also the world’s largest exporter of traditional Japanese foods.

With more than thirty customers in twenty-two countries, Mitoku exports over five hundred products to firms in Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and North, South and Central America. Sales have grown from US$3,000 in 1968 to over $12m in 2002. Mitoku is also one of Japan’s largest importers and distributors of organic and natural foods from Canada, Europe and the United States, selling these products along with traditional Japanese products to over ten thousand customers in Japan.

A report from the USDA states that plentiful “opportunities exist for foreign importers of macrobiotic/organic food in Japan.” With such a dynamic growing market and macrobiotics almost perceived as a foreign health food import, international organic food makers should not be shy of selling back to Japan what it unwittingly invented itself.