A reader asked a very worthwhile question:
I’m a current JET in Hokkaido, and something has been bothering me about farming in Japan, or rather what I don’t see marked on the groceries. How do you know if food is organic or not? In America, as you may well know, it’s not “organic” unless the sign is screaming it at you. Sometimes literally. So does this mean that all food grown is organic, or that there is a mix and no one really seems to care one way or the other?
This is an excellent question because it has an easy answer: Unless you buy it at a health food store (and even maybe then!), your food is almost certainly not organic.
The bad news: there’s little organic food
The main reason is a relative lack of demand in Japan, although it is increasing slowly.
Another reason is the same in America and Japan—the organic certification is difficult and expensive to get. It doesn’t only
depend on your own habits, but on the people around you as well. If their spray drifts over your field, you may not be able to get certified.
Another reason may be the policies of choku-uriba, or areas reserved for local farmers at stores. Choku-uriba play a similar role as farmer’s markets in America, except that the farmers drop off their goods, which are then bought at the store’s registers. The store takes a commission and the farmer can collect the rest of the money. In some cases, though, farmers may not be allowed to advertise that they are organic. Why? It would give them an unfair advantage over their competition! This still seems strange to me, but it actually happened at our local store. So in this case the risk of becoming organic would not pay off with extra dividends.
That said, the situation here is probably better than you might think.
The good news: local farmers maintain a more reliable level of quality
We can be grateful that Japan has a much higher level of small-scale and medium-scale farming activity than America. Individuals often have at least a kitchen garden, and quite often have land that they cultivate. Since they’ll be eating what they grow they have a very good incentive to keep it as clean as possible. Most small farmers/gardeners I talk to follow the same pattern of spraying while their plants are young and most vulnerable and not spraying either after the fruit forms, or within a few weeks of harvest, depending on the crop.
If you buy food sold at choku-uriba, that food must have a written history of chemical application submitted when the food is put up for sale. This won’t make it any more organic, but it allows the store to ensure that a chemical wasn’t put on immediately before harvest, for example.
So although most food is not organic, I think much of what’s grown locally is generally more trustworthy than what’s coming from larger farms. Additionally, it’s not difficult to find out who’s using which methods since it’s a popular topic of conversation and is documented in many cases.
Given all this, my recommendation would be to grow what you can by yourself, and get the rest from someone in your community whose methods you can live with. Offering them what the food would cost in a store would benefit both of you as it allows them to avoid paying commission to the store.
Have you just arrived in the country? If so, go say hi to someone working in their garden and inquire about what they’re working on. Even if you don’t have any language skills, you can find a way to get your point across. If you’re curious enough I bet some of whatever they’re growing will arrive at your door eventually, and if you reciprocate it’ll keep coming.
As for the rest of what you will inevitably need to buy, well, that’s up to you and it will probably be a patchwork. Some stores will be better than others. The largest supermarkets get their produce from wherever, and much of it will likely be treated with chemicals to help preserve it and make it appealing on the shelf. Your best choice may be the stores devoted to local produce; around here the most popular one is called Yo-te-te. In the middle are the smaller markets who source from around the country and world but also have the choku-uriba that I mentioned before.
I should also mention that you might want to be a little more stringent with your choices in the summer than the winter. In order to deal with the armies of insects that appear in the summer, farmers use more chemicals then than in the winter, when they might use none.
Do you or have you lived in Japan? Please share your experiences finding healthy foods in the comments!