A Greengrocer Talks Supermarkets and the Future of Farming
In conversations with Nishi-Ogikubo restaurant owners, one greengrocer often pops up, Kodaka Shoten, in business in the neighborhood for half a century. Directly North of the station up the pedestrian street, you quickly come upon this open-air store with fruits and vegetables piled high. Yoshiyuki Kotaka is the second owner of Kodaka Shoten. There are about ten employees including full-time employees (all men) and part-time workers (mostly women). Nowadays, vegetable and fruit retailers called yaoya (greengrocers) are disappearing from the city, but the number of customers here remains relatively constant.
In the time of Yoshiyuki’s father, in the early postwar period, Kodaka was in a market building on Kita-Ginza-Dori, the main North-South a block behind its current location. This was a typical Showa-style market building in which stalls such as greengrocers, butchers, dried fish shops, and general stores were gathered under one roof. It also had the toy shop Ebisu, beloved by the neighborhood kids. (Although the market building is gone now, videos from similar markets convey the atmosphere: including the Taisei Store in Toyonaka City, Osaka in 1969, the surviving Kawasaki Showa Market, and images of a greengrocer from 1966.)
Kodaka waxed nostalgic about the old market. “It was an interesting time,” he said. “Customers would wait outside. I would drive up in the truck and they would be waiting alongside. I would have to shout, ‘Wait a minute, wait!” That place lasted for quite a while, about thirty years. That was really business! The customers were happy too. People consumed everything that day. And you had just loaded it off the truck. People were happy waiting for new produce. There weren’t greenhouse vegetables like there are now. Everything was seasonal. Everything you ate was delicious. Everything was domestically grown.”
However, in 1976, Seiyu, a major supermarket, was established directly next to Nishi-Ogikubo Station (where a drugstore is now located), and the Showa-style markets began closing. "Seiyu and some other supermarkets came,” Kodaka said. “That's why the business diminished. Everyone’s sales dropped. You couldn’t beat them. People who usually came every day would only come about once a week."
The Showa-period market building was torn down, he said, and a highrise apartment building was built in its stead. Kodaka was forced to move off on its own. “The customers came with us,” Kodaka said with a smile. “That’s why I am not afraid. People will always come with us for our products.” Kodaka exudes pride in the quality of his produce. The reality, of course, is that many such greengrocers did not survive this competition from supermarkets.
“Of course, I go to the (wholesale) market every day,” he said. "(In the old days) there was a market here (in the Suginami Ward area). The number of wholesalers decreased, so it became smaller and smaller. In the end, the places left with only four or five wholesalers were consolidated. (So now there are) Shinjuku’s Yodobashi (Shinjuku’s Yodobashi Market) or Ota (Ota Market). For the small places, sustaining business was impossible. At first, there was Yodobashi Fruit and Vegetable Market. That is the origin. From there the goods were distributed (to other smaller markets). That’s how it was done. Well, beginning about twenty-five years ago, almost no vendors came (to the local market), and the market here closed and the market integrated at Nerima (Nerima Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market). We also went there…. I'm usually going to Tama Fruit and Vegetable Market. (The wholesalers) went there and have survived. It’s in Kunitachi."
In short, his suppliers have changed due to the consolidation of the wholesale market, and now it seems that he in sourcing most vegetables at the Tama market.
The atmosphere and business style have also changed at the wholesale markets, he explained. (See the vegetable auction at Tsukiji market.) "In the old days, everything was auctioned,” Kodaka said. “They started Around 6 o’clock. The price could drop from one hundred percent to eighty percent. But now, it is almost all at a price set by the farmer. It’s like, ‘Please sell at this price.’ Every item comes with a price. Since recently – well, for about thirty years – nothing is auctioned anymore…. That was exciting – the auction. Some people won and some lost. Some people bought at 1,500 yen at first, but then it would be 1,000 yen or 800 yen at the end. That's how it was. It was exciting. Everyone was fully into it."
Now, as in the past, vegetables are generally purchased at the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, whether by the greengrocers or supermarkets. However, now that the auction has disappeared and the wholesale prices are nearly all fixed, the number of major supermarkets who set their price annually through contracts with farmers is increasing. "Major companies make contracts with production areas,” Kodaka explained. “Then the annual price will be stable. Farmers also feel more secure. But for us greengrocers that is impractical. So, we have to go through the market.”
We asked if it is possible for greengrocers also to make deals with farmers. “That's a little difficult, isn't it?” he replied. “You need volume." Even Kodaka Shoten, which sells a large volume of vegetables for a greengrocer, cannot compete with the amount that supermarkets purchase.
Sometimes small-scale local farmers wholesale vegetables to local supermarkets and sell them as "local vegetables" in a corner of the vegetable counter. "Oh yeah,” Kodaka said. “That's good for farmers. If they sell it on the wholesale market, they'll be undercut on the price. Because the goods will be treated all the same, even if they are especially delicious. That's why you're doing it at the curbside stand.”
According to Kodaka, about thirty percent of the vegetables are going through this route instead of the market. “Previously one hundred percent came through the (wholesale) market,” he said. “The amount arriving at the wholesale market is decreasing.”
According to industry estimates, the income that producers can receive is about 62 percent of the wholesale price of vegetables (the price at which retailers purchase vegetables. The selling price is the retailer's costs and profits). This price structure is one of the factors that explain why the number of farmers is decreasing.
There used to be many farmers in Suginami District, including the areas surrounding Nishi-Ogikubo, but these are steadily decreasing in number. “These farmers have no successors,” Kodaka said. “So naturally, they have to sell out. Everywhere, you see this kind of thing.”
We asked about the state of business after moving from the Showa-era Market on Ginza Street to the current location. "It's been twenty years now. After all, it's a bigger space here. It wasn't so roomy before. You can put out a greater variety product. Then naturally the number of customers will increase. I feel a sense of responsibility (to the customers). When customers say, ‘I want that,’ or ‘I want this,’ I'll try to have as many seasonal items as possible."
Greengrocers have a different relationship to customers than do supermarkets, Kodaka explained. "Supermarkets feel the same all year round,” he said. “After all, they buyers aren't face-to-face (with customers). They just have the goods. We're face-to-face with customers. If you sell something you don't think tastes good, you won't be able to stay in business. That’s what you have to be most careful about. That's why. So, you have to keep your eye on everything. If something doesn’t meet the market price, you can’t get it. You have to get something else.”
The number of small restaurants and eateries in Nishiogi is one key feature of the local market. “. “This is a neighborhood with many private restaurants,” Kodaka said. “That's why I have to keep my eye on the inventory. I'm paying attention to that. Today, if I see this is good, I’ll put it in.”
The greengrocer also shapes the business of local restaurant owners as well, he explained.
"Some items on a menu are decided on a daily basis,” Kodaka said. “Many owners come to see what we have, and then decide on the daily menu. I will recommend this item today. Others will place orders, of course, and we will prepare it for them as they need it.”
Kodaka will also consider costs for these commercial customers. “For example,” he explained. they will want items A, B and C. But A may be expensive, so I will recommend that they can make a delicious dish with C. They will be happy about that because A is too expensive. Of course.”
Ordinary household customers are still the mainstay of the business, he said. The ratio of restaurants to ordinary households is about three to seven, he explained.
There is no time-series data on the numbers of greengrocers in Japan, but Kodaka told us that they are decreasing year by year. According to government statistics, the number of greengrocers nationwide in 2018. The number of greengrocers in Tokyo was 911or 14.72 greengrocers per 100,000 people in Tokyo. Tokyo is only 33rd place among 47 prefectures nationwide. By the way, Kochi Prefecture was ranked first, with 30.49 greengrocers per 100,000 people (with a total of 225 greengrocers in rural Kochi Prefecture). Tokyo is thus on the lower side.
Nishi-Ogikubo, however, seems to be, according to our observations, a place where greengrocers are still thriving. “There are quite a lot of restaurants here,” Kodaka explained. “However, sales to restaurants are high-volume and low margin.” The restaurants in Nishiogi that we have interviewed so far are trying to provide tasy food while keeping costs down. The local greengrocer plays a role in this.
With these thin margins, business is not easily sustained financially. “This job is difficult,” he said. “I have to make a living. I just can't do it as a hobby. I have to make a profit. In the end, customers want to buy quality produce. If you have good quality, the customers will come from far away."
Kodaka says it is important for him to serves as a connoisseur of vegetables. “It is something people put in their mouth,” he explained. “If you don't take responsibility for your products, you won't stay in business. That's it. If you can do that, customers will come. You have to find good products, so go to the market early. Only by getting there early are you going to keep getting things. There may be something good that is C. So even if you are looking for A, there are times when C is better. That is how you get your profit. Do you have the eyes to see all the items available and think about what people are going to feel like eating? There have always been connoisseurs."
Choosing vegetables relies upon the eyes and the nose, he said. “You don't have to taste it,” he said. “You can tell by the smell (picking up a tomato and putting it to his nose). Tomatoes will smell completely different. Greenhouse tomatoes won’t have this smell.”
Appearance also matters, he said, such as the coloration on a naturally grown tomato. “With greenhouse tomatoes, this color doesn't come out. This is a natural tomato,” he said, holding up a green and red mottled tomato. “That's why the taste is completely different. Different fields will grow them different. They are not all delicious. In production areas in the mountains, the temperature at night drops sharply. If it doesn’t go down, then they are no good. That's why Hokkaido's vegetables are delicious all year round. In the summer produce from Hokkaido is delicious no matter what you eat. But the temperature is changing over the last few years, so if we keep on like this (shifting towards greenhouse plants), it is ridiculous. After a while, the customers will not be able to eat delicious food.”
Kodaka contrasted the approach of greengrocers towards stocking vegetables to that of supermarkets. "(At the supermarket) it's stocked in the refrigerator for about two days. It is purchased from market and put out, bunch by bunch. It's a problem if they run out of an item. That item would not appear in the store." For Kodaka, on the other hand, the vegetables procured that day are sold out the same day. “It's no good in the evening in the summer, so I feel like I'll sell it even if I make a loss on it. It’s a very reasonable price. Supermarkets will do this for sushi, but not for vegetables.”
Vegetables are relatively easy to judge, Kodaka said, but fruits are a different story.
"Fruits are different depending on the temperature, so even if you say that it was delicious last year, it could be off now, depending on the temperature. For examples oranges. We all know Wakayama oranges, Ehime oranges. If you stick to these and buy them, it's expensive. But there are other good ones. Kumamoto still has a good mountainous terrain. The taste of oranges from the mountains is completely different. In the end, you must taste one. So, we will try them at the market, then buy.”
We recently hear news about soaring vegetable prices, but from Kodaka’s perspective this is just a healthy interaction between the weather and market price. “This is just the weather,” he said. “If a typhoon doesn’t come, the price of vegetables will plummet…. But when a typhoon comes, it takes out about one third of the produce, so the market price goes up. If the typhoon doesn't come, everyone has a good harvest, but the price drops to nothing.”
Finally, we asked him what he thought about the future of the greengrocer. “Actually, it all depends on the farmer,” he said. “If you grow it, you will sell it. It depends on how much strength the farmers have."
The problem is that the “strength” of Japan’s farmers is fading. Japan’s population is aging, and the aging process is even more advanced among the rural population. In the 2020 edition of the "White Paper on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas" issued annually by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the next two decades will see an aging and declining agricultural population. In particular, the percentage of the rural population over age 65 is predicted to increase from 31 percent in 2015 to 39 percent by 2040.
Mr. Odaka ruefully said that as the number of Japanese farmers tapers off, we will have to rely more on imports and hydroponics. “If you grow it by hydroponics, the taste is no good,” he said. “After all, hydroponic plants do not get the sun. If you know the taste of vegetables grown on the ground, it is not good. Hey, it’s true, it doesn't really taste good (bitter smile). That's right. How long will we be able to continue like this?"
For his part, Kodaka will continue to stand at the store and sell while explaining to customers how to eat delicious vegetables that he is proud of. In the Showa era, it was a sight that was seen everywhere in retail stores in the shopping district. We can hear him speaking to customers: “Today, sister, hot pot? Chinese cabbage fried in oil, it's delicious. The green onions are cheap, and it's delicious in all kinds of things. The shitake mushrooms have thick stalks….”
Kodaka’s philosophy is to maintain a sincere attitude of enabling many people to eat delicious vegetables and a sense of pragmatic balance in his business. Above all, he must be a connoisseur who purchases the best vegetables. The liveliness of Kodaka Shoten is the result of these efforts. However, the environment for such “good vegetables” is getting worse year by year. The future of greengrocers hinges on the very uncertain future of Japanese agriculture. (James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura February 6, 2022)
(interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura October 21, 2022; translation by James Farrer; transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura)
■ Tokyo Central Wholesale Market "Nishiogikita Kodaka Shoten, Suginami-Ku"
■ “Number of greengrocers and fruit stores by prefecture” 2018
■ “Situation of Vegetables” Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (2021)
■ Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, “Farming and Forestry Census” (2020)
■ Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, “Food, Agriculture, Rural White Paper” (2020)
■ Kazuoki Ohno, Nihon no nōgyō o kangaeru' ōno kazuoki [Thinking about Japanese Agriculture], Iwanami Press. 2009.