Food Waste a World Problem of Concern to Japan


During the past two weeks, Barbara and I have been traveling in Japan reviewing supermarkets, interacting with consumers, scanning English-language newspapers and absorbing the ethos of a culture that in many respects is very different to our own.  There are however some similarities and common issues including protection of the environment and sustainability that need to be addressed among all economically advanced nations. 


The May 19th edition of the Japan Times featured a front-page article on initiatives to reduce food waste.  The United Nations Food and Culture Organization estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food was wasted in 2018.  Japan estimates that six million tons of edible product is discarded annually by a population of 128 million. 


To resolve any problem it is necessary to understand the metrics and contributory factors.  The retail sector in Japan was responsible for 0.6 million tons of wastage in 2017.  Food manufacturing and the restaurant sectors each contributed 1.35 million tons with households responsible for 40 percent or close to 3 million tons of discarded food.  In the context of Japan it is important to recognize that “freshness” is an important attribute in the motivation to purchase, consume or discard food.  The problem of indiscriminate wastage was emphasized by a directive from the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Government of Japan who stated, “Reducing food loss means less waste of natural resources and it is also important from a standpoint of easing burdens on companies and households.”  The Government will coordinate the activities of various ministries to “deal with a challenge”. 


Sadanobu Takemasu, president of Lawson Station, a major retail chain stated, “Food loss is a big problem domestically and globally so convenience stores also need to confront the issue.”  He estimates that ten percent of his company’s rice balls and lunch boxes, popular in Japan are discarded as waste.  Traditional mores in Japan will have to be changed to resolve problems inherent to their society.  Although portions served in restaurants are relatively small compared to the U.S. the concept of doggie bags is completely unknown in Japan.   A representative of a restaurant group stated, “It’s up to the customers whether or not they finish their meals.”


The Government of Japan has set a target to reduce waste by 50 percent from a 2000 base over the next ten years.  This will require changes in attitude by consumers at the household level. Improvements in food distribution are required to provide longer shelf-life and freshness of produce and especially fish which comprises a disproportionately higher contribution to the Japanese diet than in the U.S. 


It is possible that new food processing technology could reduce organoleptic deterioration while maintaining nutritional quality and extending shelf life. The simple expedient of lowering prices near to expiry dates has reduced the volume of food discarded by the Lawson Station chain and presumably followed by major competitor 7-Eleven Holdings. Since the population of Japan is far less individualistic than in the U.S. and recognizes common societal needs, effective leadership and publicity will result in concerted efforts to resolve the problem for the common good.


Recognizing problems such as food wastage and analyzing its causes are important precursors to developing appropriate solutions.  Comparison among nations leads to innovative approaches and contributes to alleviating poverty and starvation which affect one-tenth of the world’s population.