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The Feb. 1 signing of an economic partnership agreement (EPA) between the European Union and Japan, reasons behind the growing Japanese appetite for Italian cheeses and an unexpected source for the growth of Italian grappa imports into Japan were all topics Ambassador Giorgio Starace touched upon during a conversation at Foodex Japan 2019.

“The signed EPA has just come into force,” began the ambassador, remarking that in 2018, food exports to Japan amounted to roughly €1 billion out of €10 billion worth of Italian exports to this country overall.

“It is interesting to compare the statistics concerning the growth of Italian exports to South Korea over the last decade following the signing of a free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea. Exports doubled in 10 years. We are sure that here in this gigantic market of Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, we will do much better than with our exports in South Korea,” said Starace.

Agri-food categories showing growth in the Japanese market over the 2017-2018 period included chocolate and confectioneries,; blue cheeses, sherries, ports and other fortified wines, specifically grappa, produced by small to medium enterprises, the ambassador said. The reason behind the increased popularity of grappa, a fragrant, niche liquor made by distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems left over from pressed grapes during the winemaking process, made sense but was a complete surprise, he noted, saying an uptick in Japanese tourism to Italy was behind the boom.

“The tour operators bringing the Japanese to Italy are now focusing on the regional territories as opposed to the larger cities,” he said. “I learned a weekly television program broadcast here in Japan for over 10 years, “Chiisana mura no monogatari Itaria” (A tale of small villages Italy)” sends a group of Japanese to small Italian towns. This program introduces tourists to the territories, but is very much focused on the Italian philosophy of life,” he added, speaking of the regional food and wine introduced to the program’s viewers. “The success of grappa in the Japanese market is due to people’s knowledge of Italy’s territories and, in cultural terms, shows that Japanese tourists are very mature,” Starace said.

The embassy and Italian Trade Association will attempt to further promote the Italian way of life this year through an Italian sparkling wine promotion called Aperitivo Italiano. “Italian sparkling wines are expressive of the young generation in Italy,” said the ambassador. “Very often you find now in many Italian cities sushi bars where they have sushi, sashimi and prosecco. We’ll launch Aperitivo Italiano in many little bars in Shibuya and Shinjuku, to show the Italian tradition of networking and having a nice, happy life.”

Italian cheeses are also becoming more popular in Japan, said Starace, referencing a 14.5 percent growth in the blue cheese category. “Importers told me that the popularity of Italian cheeses is due to their being ‘dry’ and not so rich compared with other north European cheeses. Another reason that surprised me is that Italian cheeses are considered very good for cooking and coupling with other kinds of foods,” he said with a smile.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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