For a homesick international resident in Japan, a snack from home, or a beloved name brand from childhood, can sometimes be just the thing. Today, non-Japanese ingredients are available at most supermarkets, and peanut butter is sitting right there on the shelf. If the local supermarket doesn’t stock it, there’s a good chance it can be found and ordered online.
Because it’s become so easy to find these things, maybe the closing of Foreign Buyers’ Club (FBC) on Dec. 5 didn’t hit the international community quite as hard as it once might have. Many new-to-Japan residents might never have heard of a company that, for decades, was the only way to get Honey Nut Cheerios, Kraft Mac & Cheese and many other staples of a life left behind.
In 1988, an American couple in Kobe, Chuck and Kelly Grafft, began looking for a better way to import their favorites from home. Friends caught wind of their efforts, asking to join, and FBC was born. As Chuck says, “we never sold things, we were buyers for our friends and family.” Family defined FBC and, even as the company grew, the couple continued holding special events on Halloween and Easter, building a community among nearby customers as well as those across Japan.
Back when only Tokyo residents could avail themselves of stores like Nissin or National Azabu, FBC was a lifeline for those further afield. The company boomed throughout the ’90s, reaching a peak in sales in 1998, and 30,000 members by 1999. But the Lehman Shock of 2008 and the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 prompted a decline in the number of expats in Japan. Then, in 2012, another blow: Chuck was diagnosed with cancer.
Today, stores like Kaldi Coffee Farm, Aeon Liquor, Kitano Ace and Seijo Ishii carry items expatriates of the ’80s and ’90s could only dream of. The increased competition, both brick-and-mortar and online; the ongoing pandemic; and Chuck’s declining condition combined to force FBC to recently close its doors for good.
“I know I could have handled it better, we should have done things differently,” Chuck says. Asked whether he considered selling the company, he admits it might have been possible, but also doubted the viability of the business model. “Everything is a Google search away these days. Without having a niche, it’s hard to see how a general store can compete.”
Jack Bayles, who founded Alishan Organic Center the same year Chuck opened FBC, has one of those niches, bringing organic and vegetarian food to Japan for decades. “We were much smaller, with a narrower focus that has allowed us to thrive,” Bayles says. From a mail-order catalog to having its own brand of organic grains, nuts and dried fruit, called Tengu, Alishan sells both direct to consumers and also supplies many national chains, with its products available in stores like Seijo Ishii, Kodawariya and Kaldi, as well as local markets and bakeries across the nation.
Meanwhile, companies without specific Japanese connections have used the internet to make inroads. Both California-based iHerb, global seller of supplements and spices, and British Corner Shop, offering a taste of home to U.K. expats, have become more prominent in recent years.
While FBC and Alishan may have long histories and rich stories behind them, they serve a constantly shifting community whose members come and go with the years. Rising to take the place of the weekly free magazines these companies relied on 20 years ago are fast-growing online communities like Gaijin Eats Japan, a Facebook group founded by Ken Sato in 2011. The Queens native, ecstatic over finding a New York-style, pizza-by-the-slice restaurant, decided to form a group to share similar finds with friends. For years, the group stayed small, not seeing much use until a boom in gourmet burger restaurants spurred more discussion, leading Sato to open it to new members.
“From there, it just took on a life of its own,” Sato says. About two years ago, Sato chose a group of trusted friends to help moderate the group, and began requiring approval of posts.
“The goal is educating and entertaining, and it was a conscious decision to keep out spam,” Sato says. The group’s goal is to share information about foreign food in Japan, “not just another place to talk about good sushi or ramen.” He attributes the page’s recent growth to people missing food from home, as well as a greater sense of adventure among diners. It’s no longer a clearinghouse for good burgers and pizza, as “people from Vietnam are looking for good pho, someone from Europe is asking about a certain Turkish dish and people are learning about each other’s food. People love talking about food.”
As Gaijin Eats continues to grow, reaching 5,000 members this year, it has continued to evolve. In the past year, Sato noticed a shift towards posts asking where to buy hard-to-find ingredients, and due to COVID-19 members began to share photos of food they’d made at home.
Thanks to such online marketplaces and communities, the closing of foreign institutions like FBC seems to mark the end of an era of expat life in Japan, softening a blow that only five years ago might have seemed unimaginable. The downside of serving such a transient community is highlighted in Chuck’s closing comment on FBC:
“The truth is, when we’re gone, people will get what they need elsewhere, people will move on.”
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