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German food aims to win over picky Japanese

March 12, 2021

The vast majority of Japanese people equate German cuisine with sausages, beer and sweet wines. Firms taking part in Asia's largest food expo are trying to change these attitudes.

Rock salt, spices and canned cream on the SKW East Asia stand
Many of Germany's star products were on display at Foodex 2021Image: Julian Ryall/DW

Japanese consumers adore German cars and have the utmost admiration for German engineering, the classical composers of the past and tourist sites such as Neuschwanstein Castle, the Black Forest and the Rhine.

It is fair to say, however, that they are far less impressed by German cuisine.

"We have an image problem," admitted Tomoko Morimoto, the managing director of Tokyo-based Elfen Co. and founder of the privately initiated Association for German Food Promotion. The Tokyo-based company works with the Association for German Food Promotion in a market that many see as having great potential — if only Japanese people can get past the sausages and beer stereotypes.

"Japan has always been difficult for the German food and drink industry because the impression that Japanese consumers have is quite simplistic," Morimoto told DW at the Foodex 2021 expo at Tokyo's Makuhari Messe convention center this past week.

"If you ask Japanese people about European cuisine, they will always think first of French and then Italian food," she said. "But when they think about German food, 99% of Japanese only know about sausages, sauerkraut, beer and sweet wines."

Foodex 2021
SKW imports rock salt and spices, along with the popular Sahne Wunder whipped creamImage: Julian Ryall/DW

Gaining a foothold in untapped market

The biggest task facing German firms who want to gain a foothold in a market of more than 126 million people — the vast majority of whom enjoy dining out and are keen to try new tastes — is convincing Japanese that Germany has so much more to offer, said Morimoto.

Germany had one of the largest and most eye-catching European pavilions at Foodex 2021, the largest food show of its kind in Asia, but far fewer individual exhibitors than in the past due to travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While last year's event was canceled outright, companies looking to break into the market or find a distribution or retail partner had to rely on their Japan-based staff this year.

With the aim of promoting new and innovative food products in Japan, the German Agriculture and Food Competence Center in Japan showcased several products at the booth of the German Chamber for Commerce and Industry in Japan (AHK Japan).

By order of the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, AHK Japan established the German Agriculture and Food Competence Center in Japan in March 2020. The center promotes the export of German agricultural and food commodities and supports German companies in initiating or expanding their business in Japan.

Miho Inui, of the Association for German Food Promotion
Miho Inui said the coronavirus pandemic has complicated German firms' efforts to build new business in JapanImage: Julian Ryall/DW

In response to coronavirus-related challenges and to create new promotion channels for unknown products in the Japanese market, the competence center held a digital food contest for innovative German food and beverages in January. The jury for the contest was made up of Japanese importers who selected the five most promising products to be exhibited at this year's AHK Japan booth in the German pavilion.

Miho Inui is a representative of the competence center and supported companies whose products were on display but which could not send sales representatives or executives to Japan for the event.

"Not being able to be here, to talk to potential partners or clients, certainly makes things more complicated and difficult," she said. Nevertheless, Inui added that several promising contacts had been made that might lead to firm orders in the future.

The Katlenburger Kellerei sparkling fruit wine with yogurt caught the attention of some expo attendees, along with the Wostok organic soda, produced by Baikal Getränke, that are set off with labels that are a throwback to the styles of the Eastern bloc during the years of the Cold War.

And in a true deviation from the Japanese image of German food, there were vegan "meat" products by Berlin-based LPP Lotao and Wiesenhof International, headquartered in Lower Saxony. 

"We are working hard to break the stereotype that all German food is heavy and based on beer or sausages, and these sorts of products go a long way to helping us to demonstrate that to people who are passing by," said Inui.

High hurdles to entry

There are other hurdles to entering the Japanese market, however, including high taxes on some foodstuffs such as cheese to protect domestic producers, along with a notoriously choosy consumer base.

Hajime Sasaki, manager of the natural products division of importer SKW East Asia Ltd
Hajime Sasaki, of importer SKW East Asia, said German firms are shocked at the demanding consumers in JapanImage: Julian Ryall/DW

Hajime Sasaki is the manager of the natural products division of importer SKW East Asia Ltd. and said many German firms are shocked at how demanding consumers are in Japan.

"Quality is the most important consideration," he told DW. "Even if it is clear that there is no problem with the contents, a Japanese consumer will not buy a product if they see a scratch or tear in the packaging. That means that we have to check every individual can of Sahne Wunder canned cream for faults when they arrive.

"The president of the company came over here a few years ago and he did not believe me when I told him, so we took him to the warehouse where they were physically examining every can for defects," he said. "He was amazed."

SKW also imports rock salt and spices from German firms, but has noticed an increase in interest in organic foods.

While the US and European nations may have long marketed organic products, the concept is only now beginning to catch on in Japan, Sasaki said. He anticipates this may be an opportunity for German companies looking to get a foothold in a newly emerging sector.

And while the number of trade visitors to this year's Foodex was significantly down on previous years, Shinjiro Seo, sales manager in Japan for Einig-Zenzen wines, said he had been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in the brand's products.

"There has been a lot of interest and we have fared quite well, despite the pandemic," he told DW. "Even before coronavirus, we focused on the retail market rather than restaurants, bars and hotels. For the last year, people have been staying at home and drinking instead of going out. Our mail-order business and internet sales segment have also done quite well."

The company imports more than 300 different types of wine at all price points and varieties, including red, white, rose and sparkling.

Yogurt wines, chocolates and fizzy drinks on display
Yogurt wines, chocolates and fizzy drinks are just some of the products helping to change perceptions of German cuisineImage: Julian Ryall/DW

Pandemic makes business more difficult

"Despite sales doing better than expected, the pandemic has made business more of a challenge," Seo said.

"Business here is all about meeting people face to face, building up relationships and trust over time and then working hard to keep those ties in place. With the restrictions on travel and meeting people because of the virus, that has been a challenge."

Logistics and delays in shipping have also proved a complication, along with the elevated costs associated with transportation over long distances. But Seo is confident that German wines have a place at the Japanese table. 

"Sweet whites are our biggest sellers, but we are also trying to educate our clients and Japanese people in general that Germany produces a wide range of wines and that they don't always need to buy French or Italian wines if they want a really nice dry white," he said. 

"I believe the potential for German wines to do well is certainly there; all we need to do is to convince Japanese people to think differently."

Morimoto agreed. "We need to do more and better marketing, we need to get the information out there and we need to use all the channels that are available to us, including social media," she said. "But I am convinced the potential is huge in Japan."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea