Click here to read this month's feature:  U.S. Pork is Rising in Japan

There’s a cable TV show called The Iron Chef. It takes place in Japan and involves two handpicked chefs who are given a specific ingredient, then have an hour to prepare creative, delicious and beautiful dishes to be judged for the coveted Iron Chef title. There’s even play-by-play analysis.

The show is huge in Japan and has achieved a cult following in the United States.

I can count on one hand the times I’ve watched even a portion of The Iron Chef. I just didn’t get it. That is, until I went to Japan.

Even though my visit was brief, it doesn’t take long to see that the Japanese relationship with food is different than that of Americans. Simply put, the Japanese appreciate food; Americans take it for granted.

Food presentation gets equal billing to flavor when the Japanese sit down to eat. Restaurant windows display colorful replicas of the dining selections to entice you through the doors. It’s common for women to attend cooking schools to increase their skills. Even grab-’n-go lunch boxes, called O’Bento, are laid out with color and variety in mind.

Upscale department stores have dazzling food displays. You’ve likely heard about $100 melons that the Japanese buy for the gift-giving season or the pampered Kobe beef. While those products are still around, they’re not the everyday norm. Price – or more accurately, value – is important to the Japanese consumer, whose economy has been rocky.

Value combines price with safety, freshness and quality – those are traits that consumers, retailers, restaurateurs and trade journalists said the Japanese want. Those are also things U.S. pork offers this market.

But what about domestic pork? In the article, “U.S. Pork is Rising in Japan” on page 16, I point out that Japanese shoppers prefer domestic pork. But it’s a universal truth that peoples’ words and actions don’t always jibe. As one Japanese trade journalist told me: “The reality is that Japanese consumers are buying more imported products because they cost less.” In fact, 60 percent of Japan’s food calories are now imported.

So, imported products are readily accepted, sometimes even preferred. U.S. grocery retailers, Costco and Wal-Mart are looking to expand their presence in Japan, which could open the door to more U.S. products, including pork.

The Japanese diet is shifting from grains and vegetables, which had made up two-thirds of the total, to a more protein-rich diet. In the past 40 years, meat has gone from 5 percent of the daily diet to 19 percent. 

There’s also the fact that Japan’s population of 120 million is dependent on a land-base equal to California. What’s more, only 8 percent of the land can be farmed. 

Facing a continuous spiral away from food self-sufficiency – 80 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 2000 – the Japanese government wants the country to become less dependent. Exactly how it will accomplish that is uncertain.

Japan’s farm-based community is aging. More than half of the population is at least 60 years old. Like the United States, finding workers is a problem. Young people see no future in agriculture and migrate to the cities. Environmental issues are limiting growth; and 80 percent of farmers already have part-time jobs.

Part of the answer may come in the form of corporate farming. The government is studying the prospect, and some Japanese believe it would ultimately be more productive and efficient. Of course that idea may not be very popular, and the country’s farming community has a strong political voice.

Add it all up and there’s good reason to believe that U.S. pork can expand its sales in Japan. However, Japan has the option to buy pork from any number of courting countries.

One thing that could keep the United States from expanding pork exports there is our “take-what-we-give-you” attitude – and Canada’s more customer-service-based approach. Other possible problems would be if a widespread herd-health threat such as food-and-mouth disease or a human-health scare surfaced.

Yes, it’s important to understand that exports offer potential future growth for U.S. pork. However, it’s just as important to understand that it can be a vulnerable future.