Japanese dedication to providing high quality products.
Generally speaking, in Asia except for Korea, most people tend to believe that the quality of Japanese products is the best. Even in China, many people agree that Japanese quality is the best. How about in Europe? Many people might say “products Made in Germany are the best”. Here in Japan, we know that many people buy German cars such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Yet, we only hear about German cars but not about any other items.
After WW2, Japan quickly recovered from devastating economic period in just 15 years or so with the U.S.’s support and Japan’s ability to join the world as one of the most developed countries. It has been very well known as a miraculous success story like that of West Germany. Japan quickly became the second only to the U.S. in terms of GNP.
In 1950’s the people in the U.S. used to look down on Japanese products for their quality. Yet, slowly and steadily the situation started to change in the 1960’s, and accelerated in the 1970’s. Many people in the U.S. now admitted the high quality of many Japanese products.
Finally, in the 1980’s, the “Bubble Economy” period, Japan’s trade had a huge surplus with the U.S. due to the quality of Japanese products. At this period, “Japan Bashing” was also acted intentionally on many mass media in the U.S. in the 1980’s.
In 1985, the G5 Meeting was held at the “Plaza Hotel” in New York City. Japan’s trade surplus, especially with the U.S. was taken up as the main theme of discussion among finance ministers of the world’s top 5 leading countries. Under the Plaza Accord, they agreed to move the exchange rate between the Japanese Yen and the U.S. dollar in order to lessen Japan’s trade surplus. As a result, the exchange rate was moved from 260 yen to 240 yen, later it went from 240 yen to 220 yen until it became a 78 yen exchange rate to one U.S. dollar in just 10 years. It was like a dream to some and a nightmare for others. That drastic exchange rate shift started to hurt the Japanese economy and Japanese manufacturing businesses suffered from this sharp and sudden change in the exchange rate. That is because most of major big businesses in Japan are exporting companies.
As a result of this sharp change, Japanese companies were forced to move their factories overseas to seek cheaper foreign labor costs. That flow of dynamic change left no jobs for Japanese new graduates for many years. This economical phase was really tough for many Japanese.
During the late 1980’s until the early 1990’s, mostly Japanese manufacturing companies shifted their factories overseas. With this shift, lots of Japanese products made in overseas started to pour into the Japanese market as well as the rest of the world. Not only Japanese cars, and electric products but also many other items including daily necessities. Then, there was a deterioration of the quality of Japanese products in many cases.
I have several kettles with whistles at home. The idea of this type of kettle is to remind you of the boiling water with a whistle. We have the one we bought from a local store in 1980s. This one makes a very clear and loud sound while the ones I bought in the past 20 years make only a slight sound and they were all manufactured overseas. Yet, nowadays, we can’t find any kettle like the one I have at any stores in Japan. Even though they are produced by Japanese companies, they are shipped from overseas factories, either from China or other countries. I talked to a sales manager of this Japanese company some years ago and he admitted the deterioration in quality.
This is just one example. For many other Japanese items, the same things are happening. Lately, we hardly can find “Made in Japan” here in Japanese market any more. Long ago, one of my best friends in the U.S. was very pleased to know that the Subaru Legacy she bought as brand new was shipped from Japan instead of being manufactured in the U.S. factory. She knew how well Japanese quality was in many regards.
During my stay as a graduate student in 1990’s, I happened to buy a TIMEX in a town
but unfortunately it was broken easily the next day. I was shocked that such a thing really happened but I didn’t ask the store to exchange for another one since it was not an expensive watch. A few days later, I drove to the local mall to buy another TIMEX again. Surprisingly, this watch that I bought was broken about a week later.
I talked to my American host family about what happened to my two TIMEX watches in just a few weeks. She was telling me, “Kazu, TIMEX is a cheap watch in the U.S.” Then, quickly I replied, telling “Yes, we have cheap watches in Japan, too. They are called CASIO, but this kind of trouble never happens to CASIO.” She and her husband treated me very nicely during my stay at their house for almost a year when I was a graduate student. I rented a room from them. We often talked about the distinction between American and Japanese cultures including the quality of U.S. and Japanese products.
Based on what she was telling me, for example, the quality of American cars used to be low but after Japanese cars came into the U.S. market, especially after the OIL SHOCK in 1973, the quality of the U.S. cars was gradually forced to improve to catch up with Japanese quality.
Before I came home from the U.S., I decided to try a TIMEX one more time and bought the third one. This one lasted a lot longer than the other previous ones and I kept it for nearly a year in Japan but after that this one was also broken.
Even the use of car navigation systems, people started driving cars installed with car navigation systems recently overseas while in Japan we started using them over 20 years ago. Actually, I have a Toyota car. I bought it 20 years ago and it has a car navigation system with a TV. That car has never had any troubles so far.
The high quality of Japanese products has been well known, as I said. Today, even in the U.S., many people admit not only that the quality of Japanese products is high, but among the best in the world.
With peach trees, each thin branch has many little buds. During the months of January and February, the size of peach buds is as small as that of a grain of rice. During winter, they absorb enough moisture from the rain and snow and start swelling to be five to six times bigger size by the middle of March as it gets warmer.
In the middle of March, we manually thin 60-70% of flower buds off each branch. The work is all done only by hand and is totally impossible to use any tools or machines to do this kind of work. At this stage, we thin all the buds of peaches that are attached to the top-side of each branch and also flower buds growing close to the bottom part of the branches. Every peach flower bud can grow to be a peach at the end. That’s why, with this work, we have to be careful to try to leave any leaf buds that you can see right next to the flower buds.
If you don’t do any thinning work, you can expect a really huge amount of small peaches will come out, just like what you see in many oversea countries. The nutrition can be taken from leaves while the flower buds begin to grow as peaches. If we do thinning when they are still flower buds, we intentionally can provide more nutrition to the ones that are left and let them grow better.
Those buds growing upwards on the branch could grow as peaches turning upward but they would be unstable when they mature. Still, they can be damaged out in the rain and from wind.
By contrast as long as the flower buds are growing under each branch of the peach tree, they are protected by the branches and can grow naturally with stability.
Additionally, as the nutrition begins to move towards the top of each branch, any fruit growing around the bottom tends to not be tasty. That is another reason why we need to thin flower buds when they are still tiny.
In a way, April is the most important month for fruit growers. The weather in April can have the most affect towards the harvests. In April, we fruit farmers manually pollinate for most of our fruit flowers except for some varieties of peaches and grapes. For the peaches, briefly, there are two different varieties. Some varieties of peaches are born through “self-pollination”, while others can be born through “cross-pollination”. For the varieties with self-pollination, we do not need to pollinate them. The pistils will be pollinated by the pollen that is provided by its own stamen. Except in some cases, here in Japan, the fruit farmers manually pollinate almost all kinds of fruit flowers such as cherries, plums, pears, nectarines, prunes, apples and a lot of others as well.
Only Japanese farmers thin flower buds of peaches by nearly 70%. Even for pollination, only Japanese farmers do it manually. Actually, I have heard that there are some farmers in overseas doing pollination manually for some vegetables as very exceptional cases. Here in Japan, it has been very well known that fruit farmers are manually pollinating for every kind of fruit in every district from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Manual pollination has been done for over 60 years here in Japan. To tell you the truth, my father was the first person who started manual pollination in this district.
“Cross pollination” can be done not only by the insects, the power of wind and the bees from beekeepers, but also by fruit farmers intentionally. As far as I know, only Japanese fruit farmers are doing pollination for fruit flowers, holding the sticks in their hands. They use the sticks with a feather on the top. For the pollens that they use, farmers get other varieties and make them at home. The farmers in other countries depend on just bees. This distinction in our works clearly shows how diligent, patient and creative the Japanese are, which I believe this is closely related to Japanese character.
Bees tend to fly some kilometers away. You have no guarantee that these bees will definitely pollinate your fruit flowers. On the contrary, we humans have memory and intelligence and can remember which branches we have done and go on working with all the branches on each tree. We also remember how many times we have done the pollination and can catch up with late blooming flowers. All the flowers of any tree do not bloom at one time. They bloom gradually, depending on the temperature and the weather condition. We have to follow the blooming flowers during the spring time period. If it rains or it is too windy, we can’t do the pollination work and have to wait for the next warm day.
Especially for the case of cherries, we have to pollinate manually and repeatedly for about 10 days when their flowers are blooming, because the percentage of successful pollination work is much lower than any other fruit.
As regards peaches, we trim flowers after pollination. As I already mentioned, we trim out about 70% when they are buds. After manual pollination, we trim the pollinated flowers and only 15-20% of them are left as a result. That is what we supposed to do in April.
In order to avoid the risks that can be caused by various factors including natural disasters in most cases, we have to lessen the number of fruit buds, flowers and tiny fruit carefully and repeatedly. Basically, we do the same trimming work when they are tiny fruit for all the other fruit such as plums, prunes, nectarines, apples, pears, persimmons, grapes and a lot of other fruit as well. In Japan, we fruit farmers do this thinning work thoroughly but also carefully many times before the fruit gets swollen enough to harvest. We do all this work while checking the growth of the fruit. If we thinned the fruit too late in the season, it would waste nutrition. Before they absorb too much nutrition, we have to thin a lot of excess fruit from the tree. That way, we can provide more nutrition to the remainder and can create very big and tasty fruit. After thinning and trimming lots of buds, artificially pollinated flowers, and tiny sized peaches, only a very small number of peaches will be left on each branch. The number can vary, depending on the length of each branch.
When the peaches get swollen, we cover them with a special double-layered paper, usually in June a few weeks before the harvest comes. In Japan, we usually cover each fruit except small sized fruit such as cherries, prunes, plums and blue berries with double papers one by one. The purpose of this double paper is to protect peaches from rain and wind damage. Of course, it is impossible to do this work with machines and we have to do it by hand one by one. In addition, the use of this double paper can have the effect of creating a brilliant color on the skin for each fruit right once we tear off the outer paper.
When the harvest season gets closer, we spread silver reflecting sheets on the ground under the fruit trees all over the farm. With these silver sheets, the fruit can absorb lots of sunshine from the suns reflection off the ground. The use of this silver sheet can provide a lot more sunshine from the ground and can accelerate making the fruit more mature while providing them with more brilliant color on their skins.
Finally, about a week before the harvest, we tear off the outer paper that covers over each peach. The inner part of outer paper is all black in order to keep the inside completely dark. Yet, the inner paper is completely transparent in both sides. That is because the peaches have to get enough sunshine after taking the outer papers away.
There is also another reason why we use a double paper instead of just a single one. The skin of fruit can be very delicate. After they come out of the paper, in order to let the skin of the fruit get used to sunshine slowly, we use the double papers. This use of double papers for growing fruit is very creative and innovative. As long as the peaches can be grown in a completely dark space, they turn out to have a whiter color on their skin when they come out of the paper later.
The peaches or even other fruit can get sun-burnt right after they come out of the papers since they are very delicate. In order to protect fruit from sun-burning, we use the double papers instead of single ones.
Generally speaking, there are three important elements for farming. They are soil, water and sunshine. First of all, you need to know if the soil is suitable for growing whatever you are going to plant. It has been said that the soil of this area in Minami Alps City is very suitable for growing various kinds of fruit. The soil has lots of gravels and dark color in this area and therefore it is very good for drainage. This way, the water can go inside the soil slowly and deeper to the roots of the trees. The gravels work as a filter when it rains.
Secondly, you need to know if you can bring in enough water to your farm. Luckily, we have a good irrigation system with a huge number of waterways. Actually, about 350 years ago, a very well- known canal called “Tokushima Canal” was created in this area where farmers can bring water through a lot of waterways. This canal is 18km length from the Midai River. Rice farmers had a very hard time until the canal was created because of water shortages during summer almost every year. This area has been known for having very little rain all year round. That’s part of the reason why many farmers grow cherries. The water shortage can be helpful for growing some fruit including cherries, but it is very negative for growing rice.
Now, along this canal, we have a little walkway with a huge number of Japanese cherry blossom trees and it has been designated as one of the top 500 most beautiful walkways in Japan.
Finally, you need to be able to provide enough sunshine to make sweet and tasty fruit. Even the trees on the mountains can die because of the lack of enough space and sunshine when branches are not well trimmed. As well as other trees, fruit trees need to bring in enough sunshine among the branches in order to produce tasty fruit. Trees tend to be grown upright with crowded branches if they are grown naturally. In that case, you will find there is not enough space among the branches.
Therefore, we intentionally pull down many branches to a 45-degree angle with strong strings and stakes up to a year or sometimes. After a year, when you release the strings, the branches will naturally grow sideways. This way, the sunshine can go inside each branch deeply even among thin branches.
For growing many kinds of fruit such as cherries, apples, grapes, peaches and more others as well, we need to have a great difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures during day and night and also between winter and summer.
Yamanashi is located in the inland area of Kanto and Chubu Region that is a central part of Japan and surrounded by lots of high mountains causing a drastic change in temperature and making it suitable for growing many kinds of fruit except citrus and tropical fruit. It may be surprising but, there are only a few hours when it is really hot in the day during summer. That is usually between 12:00 noon until 2:00 or 2:30 p.m. Any time after 3:00 p.m., a very cool breeze usually blows to this area from Yatsugateke Range that is located in the north between Nagano and Yamanashi Prefectures. It works effectively as a natural air-conditioner.
With these methods, the size of Japanese peaches can be 5-6 times bigger and some varieties can possibly be 10 times bigger. Usually, the late varieties can be bigger and also tastier. They can be harvested in late July and August. When foreign customers come to our farm, they are very surprised and pleased by the size and taste of our peaches. Even Japanese grapes are much tastier and bigger. There is a clear distinction between growing grapes in Japan and that of other nations. In overseas countries, they grow grapes for mostly making wine. Possibly 98% of their grapes go for wine. Yet, here in Japan, 98% of grapes go for eating instead of making wine. When you make wine, you don’t need to spend much time growing grapes. Yet, here in Japan, as well as the case of the peaches, we trim them by over 90% when they are very tiny. We also cover each bunch of grapes one by one and put nylon sheet umbrellas on top to protect them from the rain.
Even in the case of growing cherries, we Japanese farmers use a very creative method that you can’t see overseas. We grow cherries under a greenhouse called “Side-less”. It has been common for Japanese fruit farmers to grow cherries under these dorm-style green houses with an arch on the top since the 1980’s. They are about 5 meters’ in height. This style of green house was originally created to protect cherries from rain and birds during the harvest season.
When the cherry season comes, only the top part of the arch style roof is covered by strong, transparent plastic sheets and the whole house is covered by plastic nets to protect the fruit from birds. Also, with this green house, we can move the transparent plastic sheets both upward and downward by using the steel chains while staying on the ground. When it is raining, we have to cover the house with plastic sheets, but we can roll them up onto the top of the arch when it is not raining. This way, the whole house is covered by the net but not totally covered by plastic sheets and that’s the reason why we call it “Side-less” for this style of green house in Japanese English.
The side way of the house is not covered with plastic sheets, because this house is not the type that uses petroleum to warm the inside up to accelerate the blooming of the flowers in order to sell the fruit earlier and receive the higher market price. It has been common for us, fruit farmers to grow cherries inside this type of green house since the 1980’s in Japan, as I mentioned earlier. Yet, we see this type of greenhouse only in Japan and not anywhere else in the world.
Talking about the harvesting of cherries, people use machines in the U.S. or other countries. The machines can shake the whole trunk of the tree or with some other types of machines, people just press the button and they can provide a very strong blow of wind artificially from the bottom upward and forcibly let the all cherries drop on the conveyor belt to carry them into a metallic box automatically. I have seen some of these types of scenes on videos. Yet, that way, it can obviously cause lots of damages to the fruit.
Here, in Japan, we, fruit farmers carefully pick them one by one by hand in order to preserve the quality of the fruit. Here, just by looking at the difference of harvesting cherries, we can see the clear distinction of national characters between Japanese and westerners. You have to be very patient in order to pick cherries by hand. This is the same for lots of our other manual works such as thinning buds, pollinating, and covering each fruit with special double papers and so on.
Besides this way, there is another way in which we put up a pretty thick and strong steel pole in the middle of the peach tree right next to the trunk and try to pull thick branches from all over toward the central direction of the steel pole by using strong wires. This steel pole can play a role as the mast of a boat. The idea might have been copied out of the effect of the mast.
A peach for 2,000 to 3,000 yen can be extraordinarily expensive even for Japanese. Yet, the price includes shipping cost and other expenses, too. We hear that Japanese super-expensive fruit are very popular among some wealthy people. The number of the wealthy people has been sharply increasing in many South East Asian countries as well as China in the past 20 years.
As the number of people of the wealthy group increase, they tend to start seeking better quality products. When the economy grows in any society, a part of social group of wealthy people can be larger and those people tend to change their life styles to purchase more expensive and higher quality products.
I believe that only Japanese farmers do this kind of work. We spend a lot more time, creative ideas, costs, patience and continuous work and our ethic and commitment for growing fruit that you can’t find in any other foreign country. It has been known that Japanese tend to seek only high quality products in our daily lives. That is, in a way, part of our nationality. Only Japanese can work this way and produce the high quality products. That’s because Japanese have a sense of diligence, patience, creativeness and preciseness.
Japanese engineers have been well known for their splendid talents overseas for a long time. Yet, even in other fields, we can see great achievements that Japanese have made including successful farming. We Japanese fruit farmers produce very high quality products through lots of creative and original ideas that you simply do not see elsewhere.
Co-owner of Nakagomi Orchard