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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tokyo food shortages are not what they first seem

Special to The Japan Times

The proprietor at the neighborhood tofu shop made a face when asked about business since the earthquake last week.

"The supermarket . . ." she said. "Everybody just goes to the supermarket."

Though kaidame (hoarding) has been in full swing for the past week, the effects tend to be relative. People react predictably to any crisis. They go to the store and stand in line for supplies, invariably causing shortages of certain essentials.

The Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry is reporting that sales of bottled water have increased 10 times over since the earthquake. Rice sales have risen 60 percent and canned goods threefold. Milk and bread are being diverted to tsunami-stricken areas, so consumers buy more of each if they can find it. Natto (fermented soy beans) has flown off the shelves at three times the normal speed, since the natto sold in Tokyo is from a region closer to the disaster area and is now mostly being sent to those areas.

Once people get in kaidame frame of mind they buy anything that's cheap, not to mention easy. Foods that can be stored and require the least amount of preparation are most in demand, which means canned tuna, retort curry, pasta and instant ramen are as difficult to find as batteries and cooler boxes.

But as the agriculture ministry said a few days ago, Japan has lots of food. There's plenty of produce and fresh fish, either in the supermarket or at the neighborhood greengrocer and fishmonger. Of course, these items require almost immediate attention, and such a contingency goes against the idea of hoarding, which implies saving something for the future. But you have to eat today, too.

As for the power outages, none are scheduled to last more than three hours at a time, and as long as you have gas or cassette-type cooking appliances, you can always make a meal.

Almost all Japanese supermarkets offer ready-made foods that are prepared right on the premises. These foods are also being snapped up more quickly as the crisis continues, but since the supermarkets don't have to contend with distribution networks the way convenience stores do, they can replenish their stocks almost immediately as long as the ingredients are available.

Based on observations at my own local supermarket, these in-house caterers are handling the emergency like true capitalists, providing a never-ending supply of croquettes, fried chicken and sushi. The same goes for bakeries. There's a shortage of bread at large retailers, but the bakery near my station is just churning the stuff out.

In any case, if you're lazy, it seems that the hoarding impulse doesn't extend to junk food. That stuff lasts forever.

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