Regardless of world events, changing economic conditions and disease outbreaks, one thing has remained constant in the pork export market; Japan is by far the largest buyer of U.S. pork, purchasing about $800 million to $900 million of it every year.

“Japan takes about 4 percent of the U.S. pork produced,” says Ron Plain, University of Missouri agricultural economist. “In addition, Japan historically buys high-value cuts, so it probably imports about 5 percent to 6 percent of the value of U.S. pork sales.”

Through September, exports of pork and pork variety meats to Japan were up 1 percent over 2002 levels. However, due to tariff safeguards that have been in effect for almost 18 months, the value of those U.S. pork exports is down about 7 percent, says Lynn Heinze, U.S. Meat Export Federation vice president.

As in many developed countries, Japan has faced some tough economic times, however, that may be turning around.

“The overall Japanese economy is showing some improvement,” says Heinze. “Meat sales have remained strong, because once people decide to improve their diets by eating more meat, it is very difficult for them to go back to eating less meat.”

Other economic factors may be turning the tide in the favor of U.S. pork. “The yen was stronger versus the U.S. dollar in December than it’s been in three years, which makes it cheaper for Japan to import products,” notes Plain.

One factor that has aided pork exports to Japan is the country’s struggles with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. As an immediate response, consumers turned away from beef and began eating more pork, though that impact was much greater 18 months ago than it has been with the latest BSE cases in Japan, says Heinze.

While Japan’s rise as U.S. pork’s No. 1 market has been dramatic, and it’s been vital to the U.S. pork industry, it didn’t happen by chance.

“U.S. pork developed a number of strong markets in Japan, especially for high-quality cuts,” says Heinze. “We’ve established strong relationships with processors, who prefer to use U.S. pork in their specialty processed meats.”

The USMEF has an office in Japan, and several U.S. packers have representatives in the country as well. The U.S. pork industry has worked hard at being a consistent and reliable supplier by doing things like researching ways to extend product shelf-life. Some niche marketing

opportunities have surfaced, like the Berkshire Gold program. The United States has worked hard to provide consistent quality to Japanese processors. That’s vital since 44 percent of the U.S. pork shipped to Japan is used for further processing.

All signs suggest that the strong relationship between U.S. pork and Japanese consumers will continue. Japan’s domestic pork production is weak and declining, while the country’s demand for pork remains strong.

“Japan has a lot of people and not much land. People and hogs don’t mix very well in crowded spaces,” says Plain. “With the steady crowding out of livestock, Japan will likely continue to buy more pork every year.”

However, to maintain strong Japanese markets, the U.S. pork industry will need to continue to change and adapt to the market’s demands.

“The Japanese are talking more and more about traceability,” says Plain. “Sometime in the next 10 years, the United States will need some kind of animal identification and/or traceable system to maintain our meat exports to Japan.”