The Japanese government has set out an ambitious programme to increase food exports. With a focus on high-quality, high-value, products the authorities hope that increasing Japanese food sales internationally will help revitalise the country’s lacklustre economy and offset declining domestic consumption. just-food spoke to Japan’s Parliamentary Vice-Minister Yasuhiro Ozato to find out more.

Japan has set out a plan to significantly ramp up food and agriculture exports as part of its bid to return the country to a sustainable growth footing. Regulators hope that an evolution in Japan’s agricultural sector – and a rebalancing of the import-export relationship for food products – could help boost the nation’s economic prospects as the export boom of the 1960s and 1970s did.

To this end, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pursued an agenda of substantial economic reform that has included measures to liberalise trade and restructure agricultural production.

While opening up export markets, these efforts have also aroused fears that Japan’s heavily subsidised and protected agricultural sector could be hit by an influx of cheaper imports. Currently, Japan’s agricultural production is dominated by smaller-scale, family owned farms where yields are lower than in some other countries.

The Japanese government, however, is betting that Japanese agricultural producers will be able to leverage the opportunity presented by the growing global market for food products.

Speaking to just-food at a trade event in London, Parliamentary Vice-Minister Yasuhiro Ozato details the government’s growth agenda for the food sector.

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“Last year, the Liberal Democratic Party drew up some policies on the promotion of the agriculture and food sectors to double their income,” Ozato says. “Along with that, the government has set a strategic plan for the forestry, fisheries and agriculture industries in order to revitalise the regional economy. In particular, putting focus on the doubling of exports of Japanese agricultural products. The government is aiming to increase the export of agricultural and seafood from Japan from JPY500bn at the moment to JPY1trn by the year 2020.”

A strategy briefing drafted by the Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reveals that the government hopes to grow Japanese food exports tenfold by 2030, increasing their value to JPY5trn.

The Japanese government has set aside a budget of JPY22bn to increase Japanese food export for fiscal 2014 up from the JPY1.5bn spent by the government in 2012, according to MAFF.

Part of the reason why Japanese food makers must look overseas are the demographic trends of a declining birth rate and ageing population. The average age of a Japanese person now stands at 45, compared to the average age in the US which stands at 37. This means that food volume sales are flat to down and look set to decline further in the coming years.

Currently, Hong Kong is Japan’s largest overseas market, accounting for around 20% of exports, followed by the US where Japan exports food products worth almost JPY80bn annually.

However, as the nation looks to ramp up its international presence the government has targeted new growth markets. These include various countries in southeast Asia where demand is on the rise – such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Another focus for expansion is the European Union, Ozato says.

“There are many important markets for Japan. For instance, the Asian market is very important for Japan. We regard the EU as a highly possible market for Japanese products.”

Total Japanese food exports to the EU are currently relatively low – standing at around JPY25bn annually. The Japanese trade authorities believe that the market has room to grow and offers considerable potential for high-end Japanese products, Ozat suggests.

“Consumers in the EU have got very high purchasing power. We are trying to target affluent households to purchase agricultural, forestry and seafood products from Japan. In that sense the European market has high potential.”

As Japan looks to grow the presence of its food industry in the EU the government is pursuing a free trade agreement with Brussels, Ozato adds. “We have ongoing negotiations with the European Union in terms of free trade. I understand that the British government is supporting Japan in this sense and we are proactively dealing with these negotiations.”

Russia and the Middle East are also growing export markets for Japanese food products and the sector is working to leverage growing demand from the Muslim world by increasing production of products with Halal certification.

Important product categories for export are Japan’s high quality beef and seafood products. “Wagyu beef is one of the major focuses of this strategy,” Ozato says at an event to celebrate the opening of the EU market to Japanese beef after an import ban following the 2001 BSE outbreak in the country.

As Japan looks to grow its international food sales, the authorities are working to promote “brand Japan” as offering trustworthy, safe, reliable, high-quality food products, Ozato reveals.

“The idea is to promote Japanese agricultural products, in particular high quality food materials or ingredients, along with the promotion of – or export of – the culture of Japan. So in that sense, processed food is as important as the agricultural items,” he continues.

Japanese seafood and meat exports have faced a number of hurdles. In particular, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster three years ago, seafood exports have been dampened by concerns – which Japan says are unfounded – over radiation levels. Japan is currently disputing an import ban imposed by South Korea over the scare in the World Trade Organisation.

Other issues impeding Japanese food exports include Japan’s slow uptake of the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) certification system. While HACCP has become the universally recognised and accepted method for food safety assurance globally, it is not mandatory in Japan. This has damaged the ability of food processors in the country to export product, Ozat reveals, highlighting the impact on the seafood sector in particular.

“As for the seafood export from Japan, so far we haven’t been too good. One of the reasons is because we were late to receive the approval or certification of the HACCP principles in Japanese facilities for processed seafood. We have to improve this situation,” Ozato insists.

This year, three facilities for Wagyu beef have received HACCP certification and the authorities are working to increase the number of approved beef and fish processing facilities.