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Selling Tofu in the 21st Century

How is Japan's tofu industry reacting to the effects of the globalized food industry?

May 17, 2005

How is Japan's tofu industry reacting to the effects of the globalized food industry?

In Inuyama City, about 150 miles west of Tokyo, one tofu maker found a way back into the black by thinking like his Western competition.

In the hazy dark of a humid predawn, Takuji Yamato's tofu shop sits aglow among a neat row of single-story wooden houses.
All the buildings are dark except his. Inside, Yamato and his wife work quietly and methodically in the amber lights and the wafting steam.

They wear ankle-length aprons and white rubber boots, which protect them against the hot, sloshing mess of beans and soymilk that will eventually become tofu.

This is what Takuji Yamato has done for six or seven days a week for the past 40 years.

He gets up at three in the morning, starts the tofu at four A.M. and turns out hundreds of thick white curd bricks before the time most of his neighbors have even decided which socks to wear.

It's a grueling routine, but for Yamato it's about ensuring both his livelihood and tofu's place at the Japanese table.

He says, "In general, the Japanese tend to keep our cultural things to ourselves, and that's not good. With tofu in particular, the more who learn the value and the goodness of tofu ensures the tradition of tofu itself."

But the changing tastes of modern Japan threaten tradition. Yamato says that ten years ago, his sales were slipping as customers started filling their shopping carts — and bellies — elsewhere.

"There's so much variety from all over that people can choose what they want," he says. "And that was causing the biggest decline."

Like many Western countries, Japan is a nation of fast food chains, convenience stores and western-style supermarkets that sell tasty meals to go and mass-produced staples like tofu.

Tokyo-based food writer and cooking instructor Noriko Nakamura made her name by introducing Italian, American and French fare to Japanese home cooks, but according to her, they don't represent the best of the West.

Nakamura explains that "the supermarket changed our lifestyle very much. Before, when we buy something, we can ask the owner of the store about the food we want to buy. But in the supermarket, we can't ask anybody."

She also believes that mass-produced tofu takes away from the local flavor. "With local stores that sell tofu, we can ask what they make, how they cook it, or the best menu or recipe for their tofu."

According to Nakamura, supermarkets are limiting. "We can ask the vendor about the food, but in supermarkets, we can't."

With more to choose from, many Japanese — especially the young — have turned away from the tastes they grew up with and developed an appetite for Western foods.

Tomoko Nagao is the cookbook author and chef at Toraya Café, a popular sweet shop in the tony, and very Western, Roppongi Hills neighborhood of Tokyo.

Nagao is famous for making desserts that blend traditional Japanese ingredients like adzuki beans with Western ones like chocolate.

"Since McDonald's came to Japan, the choice of food has kept on expanding, never shrinking, in terms of the variety of food," Nagao says. "This is definitely the major impact we received from the United States. The prosperity of the food industry decreased the attention toward the Japanese traditional foods."

She admits that her culinary compass points to the West — she makes annual inspiration-finding trips to France and most admires the American chef Alice Waters.

But she's bothered by what she calls the "oversupply" of Western foods on the Japanese market.

"I don't know if it's good or bad for Japanese people. Now we have too much access to foreign foods. It's fun, but at the same time we have a tendency of losing our roots, of what we had in the past. I think too many choices are available."

But back in Takuji Yamato's shop, there's no such thing as too many choices. To stem dwindling sales and get his customers back, Yamato decided to steal a page from the competitor's handbook.

He gave his customers more to choose from, adding unexpected flavors and creating tofu with a more novelty appeal.

If bacon ranch dressing could move more burgers, why couldn't some fiery, sweet wasabi do the same for bean curd?

“At first, a lot of people didn’t know what it was," he says. "But little by little, it built up a following. Now people come for those specific kinds of tofu.”

His best sellers include black sesame tofu, which tastes like peanut butter custard.

There are also grass green avocado, deep purple-flecked shiso leaf and whole grain millet tofus. They did the trick — and Yamato's sales rebounded.

"The new kind of products have a greater appeal with the younger people and since there’s a feeling of going back to traditional things, the new twist has become kind of cool for the young people," he explains.

"So lately, there’s been more and more young people coming, not just the older people for the traditional kind of tofu.”

Yamato knows that modern Japan's fickle palate means there's no guarantee that his latest twist on tofu will hold its appeal. But he's heartened by history.

Tofu has secured its place in the Japanese diet for more than 1,100 years, well before fast food and convenience stores landed on Japan's shores.

Yamato thinks that bodes well for its future, too.

"Although a little bit worried, I thought about the whole history of tofu and they’ve been making tofu for thousands of years. So, in that context, it’s probably not going to disappear," he says.

"And if I do a good job making good tofu, people will come, and that will be my spot in the tofu cycle.”