If you started your day with a cup of coffee, think about how you selected the beans for your brew. Perhaps they were on sale, or your favorite roast from Brazil or Colombia. Chances are, however, you didn’t have the option of buying organically farmed coffee.

The market for organic products in Japan is still tiny. Although it is the world’s third biggest coffee consumer, there are few statistics on the quantity of organic coffee imports into Japan. A look at the total market value of organic produce may give a rough idea, however.

According to estimates by the Japan External Trade Organization, total sales of organic products jumped from 100 billion yen in 1995 to 250 billion yen in 1997. That is still only one-twentieth the market value of developed organic markets such as those in the U.S. and Germany. Furthermore, the actual Japanese market size is difficult to calculate as, until recently, organic certification groups had vastly different standards. Also, products were often directly sold to buyers, bypassing regulatory bodies.

One of the factors hindering the development of the market for general organic produce in Japan has been the difference in the treatment of imported and domestic organic produce. While imported products have had to comply with rigorous certification standards, there has been a lack of regulations on the labeling of domestic products. This has fostered confusion and made it difficult for consumers to discern between truly organic products on those cleverly marketed as “organic.”

New regulations, however, are leveling the playing field and making it easier for suppliers of genuine organic produce to compete. Earlier this year the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries passed long-awaited natural farm produce labeling standards called Japan Agricultural Standards. They restrict the use of the “organic” label to only produce farmed using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides for at least three years. Penalties will come into effect in April 2001 for producers who use misleading labels or are uncertified.

Importing general organic produce into Japan has never been easy, but dealing with organic coffee poses its own special difficulties, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a regulatory body.

First, many production stages are involved, compounding the difficulties involved in organic certification, and second, there tends to be an economic inequality between coffee producers and buyers. Recently, however, the organic movement has converged on the concept of “fair trade.” In fair trade, buyers enter into long-term commitments with growers, fix minimum prices and guarantee down payments.

Ryuichi Nakamura follows fair-trade principles for his coffee import business.

Ryuichi Nakamura of Fukuoka’s Wind Farm is a coffee importer who operates on fair-trade principles. Fair trade, or “organic commerce” as Nakamura puts it, complements organic farming because it helps producers become self-reliant.

Nakamura travels to Brazil twice yearly to meet with interested organic growers, and to visit Jacaranda Farm near Sao Paolo, from which Wind Farm imports the organically grown coffee beans, thus personally ensuring that chemical-free farming practices are maintained.

The beans are roasted at Wind Farm in Fukuoka to achieve the mild taste popular with Japanese consumers, and sold under the Organic Coffee label at about 40 stores from Fukuoka to Hokkaido.

Nakamura’s concern with environmental issues was sparked by the furor over mercury poisoning in Minamata in the 1960s, in his parents’ native Kumamoto Prefecture.

“The Minamata disease affected many people my own age,” he said. “I’d always loved nature, but Minamata made me think about the environment in a different way.”

Nakamura formed Wind Farm in 1992 after 10 years of working in the regulation and retailing of locally grown organic produce. He also organizes conferences in Fukuoka on ecologically sound farming and alternative energy and sends charity donations to Chernobyl through Wind Farm.

At the September 2000 Fukuoka Dialogue, a conference held by the Fukuoka Foreign Trade Association, organic food producers from China, Thailand and other nations reportedly called for further easing of regulations for organic imports. Others, however, were enthusiastic about the recent changes.

“The new JAS legislation demonstrates that even though changes in Japan are slow, they do come. I feel that my goods can compete on a more even playing field now,” says Mark Dodd of M.D. Global Ventures, who spoke at the conference. M.D. is a Canada-based organic foods trader whose largest customer is Joyfull, a Kyushu restaurant chain.

Health seems to be the main factor behind consumer’s increased interest in foods farmed chemical-free. But concern over the environmental impact of conventional farming is also growing.

Tokyo and Osaka are the biggest organic-produce markets in Japan because of their large populations and greater number of eco-conscious shoppers. In Kyushu there are areas such as Kumamoto Prefecture where environmental issues are immediate, and others where these issues seem less so.

Nao Osaki (right) and Makiko Nakai of Fukuoka fair-trade store Ecops.

“Some Fukuokans still think organic goods are inferior,” says Nao Osaki, manager of free-trade products store Ecops. “More information is needed here to change attitudes.”

Yet the market is growing in Kyushu.

“Often the best introductions are made in the smaller cities, such as Fukuoka. There is less resistance to change, and I find business is more freewheeling,” Dodd said. “I think the future is very bright for organics in Japan.”