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Branding Naniwa Vegetables: Strategy and Importance
Branding Naniwa Vegetables: Strategy and Importance
Visiting the Central Wholesale Market--A Trade Center that Supports Osaka's Big Appetite
Osaka Kaleidoscope
#1 Visiting the Central Wholesale Market--A Trade Center that Supports Osaka's Big Appetite

While Osaka can be characterized in various different ways, its tradition and culture related to food is probably the most recognized and best associated feature that describes the city. Its rich gastronomic culture, which has entitled the city to a nickname "tenka-no daidokoro (nation's kitchen)," is based on a wide range of food varieties that have been long cherished by locals, from popular takoyaki & okonomiyaki snacks to high-end cuisines. Osaka became a gourmet city not as a place of production but as a trade center of products. Kombu (kelp), for example, has been an important ingredient for local cooking although it is not a local product. Instead, famous shio-kombu (salted kelp) was created and the culinary technique using kombu dashi (kelp-based stock) developed as a result of good quality kombu being harvested in the northern part of the country and brought to Osaka. Fugu (blowfish) and kani (crab) became local favorites during winter from the same historical background of the city: Osaka was the nation's gourmet center to which a variety of quality ingredients were gathered from all over the nation. Today, the Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Market (Fukushima-ku, Osaka) plays a significant role in supporting people's appetites and the characteristic food culture of Osaka. Serving various functions that the public is not always aware of, the wholesale market is also a great place for us to rethink the relationship between food and our lives from various perspectives.
What process do these foods go through after they leave their origin and to eventually reach our dinner table? Let us explore what is taking place today at the wholesale market, an important relay station of the food distribution.

History of wholesale markets in Osaka
Fresh food markets in Osaka were formed centuries ago, about the time when Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle in the late 16th century. Until the early Showa period, several markets were located and flourished within the city, including Tenma, Zakoba, Utsubo, Kizu, and Namba.
The first public market in Osaka was established in April, 1918 (Taisho 7) by the city to provide commodities to citizens at low prices and to keep the prices stable. Coincidentally, a series of public protests known as kome-sodo (rice riots) erupted in July of the same year and expanded throughout the nation, which eventually led the national government to establish the Central Wholesale Market Law in 1923 (Taisho 12) to promote the normalization of fresh food trading at appropriate prices. In the wake of the implementation of the new law, the Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Market officially opened in 1931 (Showa 6) at the present location of the Honjo (Central) Market in Noda, Fukushima-ku, where both water and ground transportation were convenient. The market has two branches now, the Tobu (East) Market and the Nanko (South Port) Market. The Honjo and Tobu Markets handle vegetables, fruits, and seafood, as well as processed products, while the Nanko Market is exclusively for meat products. This report was made based on our visit to the Honjo Market.

Fish products
Many of us may think that the Central Wholesale Market mainly deals with the trading of fish products. According to the data in 2006, vegetables are the most traded products at the Honjo Market in terms of the quantity, taking up about 46 percent of the market total, while fish products, both fresh and frozen (excluding processed products), account for only 17 percent. As for the trade volume in yen, however, seafood is indeed the primary category traded at the market and makes up about 35 percent of the market total, compared to that of vegetables (24 percent).
The day at the market begins early in the morning. The auction for fish starts at 4:00 a.m. everyday and was finished before we began our tour of the market at 8:00 a.m. Although we missed the auctions, we were still able to witness various bustling activities of the market that we don't normally see at retail stores, such as the process of cutting up tuna, piles of whole tuna waiting for shipment, a machine that continuously sliced frozen salmon one after another, and so on.
Large varieties of fish, such as tuna, are often harvested and imported from outside Japan. We saw a big tuna from Spain being cut up at the front of one intermediary wholesaler's shop. The wholesale market today is literally an international showcase where a variety of food items are gathered from around the world.
A number of processed seafood products are also traded at the market. We stopped at another intermediary wholesaler's shop that specializes in katsuobushi (dried bonito). Along with kombu, katsuobushi is an essential ingredient for Japanese cooking as a base for dashi stock. The traditional process of making katsuobushi requires time and labor; fresh bonito meat is planted with a certain variety of fungus and goes through a process of indoor drying and sun-drying, repeated three to four times over the period of four to six months, until it weighs about one fifth of its original weight. Traditionally-made katsuobushi is filled with flavor and nutrients.
"We will be losing an important part of Japanese food culture if we stop using katsuobushi for cooking," says the owner of the shop. "I hope more people will have a chance to experience and learn the true taste of dashi made with good katsuobushi."
Many people today would open a packet of instant dashi to prepare stock rather than cooking from scratch with kombu or katsuobushi. As we sampled freshly-shaven flakes of the finest hanakatsuo at the shop, the full, exceptional flavor of authentic katsuobushi filled our mouths. It was the true taste of nature and matured by the attention to detail and care of the traditional producers.

From producers to consumers--the distribution food products
 The chart below is the basic route that most products take after they leave their producers until they are eventually delivered to consumers

In the above system, the wholesalers buy products from the producers or are consigned by them to put the products up for auction at the market, and the intermediary wholesalers buy the products from the wholesalers and sell them to the retailers. In other words, wholesalers are the seller and intermediary wholesalers are the bidders at the market auctions. While this basic wholesale system largely determines the final price of the products, some changes have been seen in the system in recent times. More large-scale retailers such as supermarkets tend to buy a bulk quantity of a single product, which has increased the number of aitai-uri (fixed-rate trade) and therefore has decreased the traditional biddings. The number of trades where retailers directly buy products from producers and don't go through the wholesale market is also increasing, .
the prices, the wholesale market serves an important function in controlling food safety. At the market, the inspection laboratory examines the level of pesticide residue and food additives and watch for possible bacterial contaminations in marketed products. Closed to the public, the laboratory is located on the top floor of the tall management building of the market and is equipped with various analysis equipment, bottles of reagents, and other lab equipment. The laboratory also has a supercritical fluid extractor, which is a rare device to be used at the wholesale market. The machine uses CO2 gas as a solvent and subjects the tested product to high-pressure in order to extract any pesticide residue, which will be further analyzed. The equipment helps improve the automation of extraction/analysis process and shorten the time that is required. Since the supercritical fluid technology itself is still new, owning such a machine is quite rare at any testing facility.

 Auctions at market
At 9:00 a.m., a loud siren went off and the auction for fruits began. While the fish auctions mostly begin and finish in the early morning, the auctions for vegetables and fruits are held from early morning till later in the day. We watched the bidding for apples and citrus fruits. Different types of bid according to the buyer’s or bidder’s different needs.
While the auction proceeds as sellers call out biddings in a unique pitch and bidders busily exchange their hand signs, it is common for the intermediary wholesalers to check the products in advance and know what they want to bid for prior to the auction. Once the auction starts, it is almost impossible for outsiders to follow the procedure and see who has bid and for how much. Sold items are marked with the price on their boxes and are piled up one after another, waiting for shipment to be delivered to retailers.
About 70 percent of all the auctions held at the Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Market (Honjo and Tobu) are for vegetables and fruits, which well surpasses the national average (30 percent). Considering the recent decline in the number of wholesale auctions, the majority in vegetable/fruit auctions gives an indication of the unique characteristic of Osaka's wholesale markets. Although we did not quite understand what was going on at the auction, we at least knew what made Osaka's market unique by listening to rhythmical calls that bidders made along with the signs, such as "takaiwaa (too expensive)" and "zenbu itemae (I’ll take the lot)."

Changing food culture

As a recent consumer trend for food, people are becoming more particular about the origin of the products. While the globalization has brought us the accessibility to a variety of food products from around the world, our concerns about how they are produced and/or processed are also increasing. Rising interest in food safety should be welcomed, but it is also arguable that there has been a distorted, excessive belief in certain products’ origins. Professionals at the wholesale market warn us consumers that we need to trust our own eyes and sense of taste in choosing what to eat, rather than depending on "Product from XX’s" labels. A young intermediary wholesaler for an eel shop says that he hopes "more people would actually see, buy, and eat food for themselves before they decide which products are good to eat, regardless of where they are from.
Many of them also insist on the importance of talking with the shop owner when shopping. "For seafood, it is essential to talk to the shop before you pick what to buy," says the eel shop owner. "They will tell you which one is the freshest and which one is in the best season. Ask the shop for their recommendation and confirm it with your own eyes before making a final decision to buy."
This is not a tip limited to buying seafood, of course. Today, many people shop at supermarkets, where such traditional communications between the shop and the customer rarely occur. Although changes in our lifestyles have been somewhat inevitable, we need to pay more attention to what we have lost in exchange for modern convenience. We may have lost more than we think we have gained.

Basically, we eat what nature provides us. It is natural that nature's products vary in taste and nutrients, depending on the conditions of weather, soil, or water current. However, to keep the products' quality at a certain desired level, the producers have introduced various machines and data technologies. We may appreciate today's constant supply of almost any food products throughout the year. However, we cannot immediately conclude that our diet has been enriched because of this convenience. Some people have pointed out that our food has actually become less nutritious. We may have forgotten how to live on food in a way which nature has intended.
While globalization continues to progress, new and diverse ideas about our food and lives, such as "chisan-chisho (locally produced, locally consumed)," have emerged. The Honjo Market is known for its unlimited selection of products, as it is often described as "there is nothing that is not sold (at Honjo)." At the Tobu Market (Higashisumiyoshi-ku, Osaka), on the other hand, traditional Naniwa vegetables and other local specialties are traded and have become a symbol of the market. Senshu mizunasu (eggplant), Kema kyuri (cucumber), and other vegetable varieties that have been long grown in the area are expected to become a new "brand" to promote the recognition of Osaka City.
 Food is essential for our lives and developed food culture enriches our living. Osaka has established a unique tradition that involves food, but how can it be saved and be inherited by the generations to come? People today do not have much time to spend on choosing ingredients and cooking them in an authentic manner. It has also become so easy to buy prepared food. It is often hard for us to imagine realistically how those ingredients are produced and how much labor has gone into their production before they eventually arrive to us consumers. We may be facing the unprecedented time when we are surrounded by excessively abundant food and at the same time are allowing our cherished food culture to disappear. Our tour of the market made us determined to preserve Osaka's invaluable tradition as a gastronomic city.

■Related links
Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Market (General information available in English)
Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Market Honjo Market Association (available only in Japanese)

July 19, 2007
Michi Komura, Osaka Brand Center