Dozens of German companies that recently took part in Japan's largest food and drinks trade show, however, are convinced that they can win over sufficient consumers here to make it an important export market for their products. But they admit that there are some uniquely Japanese hurdles that they need to overcome if their products are to be a success here.
"This is the second year that I have been at Foodex Japan and it is an important part of our three-year plan to get a firm foothold here," said Sascha Magsamen, founder of the Weingut Meine Freiheit vineyard in the Rheingau, a wine-growing region in Germany.
"For me, it is a question of sustainability in this market and because German wines do not have much of a reputation in this market — Japanese consumers almost always think of France and Italy when it comes to wines — we have to work hard to build a good image for German wines," he told DW.
Rival winesPart of the problem to date has been the popularity of cheap, low-quality and extremely sweet wines from Germany, which has arguably given German wines a reputation that Magsamen is now trying to change. "I want to show just how good German wines are and the broad range that are available," he said.
At present, Weingut Meine Freiheit wines are being served in nine restaurants in and around Tokyo and their reputation is spreading largely through word-of-mouth recommendations. Magsamen also operates a music company and his DJs are encouraged to promote the liquid side of his operations when they are overseas — he describes the sales tactics as a "guerrilla approach."
"We also sell in Scandinavia and Russia, but I am hoping that we might soon be selling 10 percent of our output here in Japan," he said. German companies exported €400 million ($493.6 million) worth of food and drink products to Japan in 2016, according to Germany's Federal Statistical Office, Destatis.
The 2017 figures are not yet available, but Ursula Holzhauser, counsellor for the food and agriculture sector at the German embassy in Tokyo, says the trend for 2017 was "positive." Exports to Japan in the first six months of the financial year rose, she said, "and there is no reason for them to decline in the second half."
Official statistics show that meat products accounted for the largest proportion of exports, at €85 million, with dairy products totaling €22 million.
Surprisingly, though, beer exports were worth a mere €4 million, as German brewers steer clear of a market where there is so much international competition as well as a number of very good domestic beers, which are also considerably cheaper for consumers here.
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German reliabilityHeidelore Knirr was attending the show for the first time, although she has been involved in exports of ingredients for pastries and baked goods for 25 years. Her company, Heidelore Knirr GmbH, is based in Frankfurt and represents small manufacturers in Germany, Belgium and France that are seeking access to new markets.
"Japan is a very attractive market due to the sheer number of people in the market and because people here take their food very seriously, meaning they are willing to pay for high-quality products," she said.
"German cars, machinery and industrial equipment, all have an excellent image in Japan because they are reliable and top quality, but German food is still not popular here, even though I believe the match is perfect," she said.
"German food is not trendy in Japan; they much prefer products from France and Italy, which are seen as traditional food nations."
And the key to success in this market, Knirr believes, comes down to mastering a couple of key issues.
"It is important to build the right contacts and personal relationships with your Japanese partners," Knirr said. "And then you need to deliver products that are of a good quality and to ensure that quality is reliable each time you deliver.
"Quality is the biggest consideration for the Japanese market and if your clients here find a small problem with a shipment, they will often reject it entirely,” she said. "But the potential of the Japanese market is huge — which makes it worth all the effort to be here and build a business."