Kyoko Kashiwari picked up a Washington-grown apple, slowly turned it over in her hand and smelled it.
The red Delicious apple was part of the first shipment of Washington apples that debuted on store shelves in Japan this week, ending that nation’s 23-year ban on the U.S. fruit.
While large American flags drew attention to the apples at large grocery stores, a small white price sign was enough to catch Kashiwari’s attention: 120 yen each (about $1.20).
“I was wondering why these apples were so cheap” compared with Japanese apples, she said while shopping at the Mitsukoshi department store, which charged about 40 yen more than the grocery stores.
The mere curiosity shown by shoppers such as Kashiwari is a promising sign for the Washington Apple Commission, which is spending $250,000 to promote the food as an everyday snack item.
In the ritzy Ginza district, Mitsukoshi shoppers buy beautifully wrapped apples, melons and even lemons as gifts. A package of two muskmelons goes for up to $300. A package of four Fuji apples is on sale for about $10.
Selling Washington apples in this atmosphere is roughly the cultural equivalent of Kmart’s recent decision to put a store in Manhattan.
Kashiwari never had eaten an American apple and wondered how they would taste.
She said that the deep red color looked good, but she was concerned about whether the apples had been treated with chemicals or if they had too much wax on them - a worry bred by years of propaganda against U.S. apples.
“You hear about Americans just wiping off the apples on their shirts and eating them,” she said.
Brent Evans, the Washington Apple Commission’s Asia marketing director, said Japanese growers have perpetuated a negative image of imported food.
“Japanese consumers have been told for years and years that food products from overseas are not up to Japanese snuff and have pesticides,” he said.
Because of those concerns, U.S. apples must pass stringent inspections in the fields of Washington and once they arrive in Japan.
“If we can convince people that they’re safe to eat,” Evans said, “if we get that far, we’ll have a successful market there.”
Leaving little to chance, the commission also is tackling less-obvious cultural issues to try to ensure acceptance of Washington apples.
Although most Japanese peel their fruit before eating it, the commission hopes that the practice of picking up an apple and biting into it will catch on.
Instead of using the Japanese word for apple, ringo, the commission chose to market the fruit with the Japanese pronunciation closest to apple.
“We want to make sure that people know our apples are different,” said apple commission spokesman Jim Thomas.
The commission is trying to avoid competing head-on with huge, perfectly round Fuji apples bought as gifts and dessert.
Japanese apple growers are concerned that lifting the ban will invite a flood of cheap apples.
Only time will tell whether the apple commission’s marketing campaign is successful, but a flurry of promotional events surrounding the first shipments drew large crowds of shoppers, curiosity seekers and reporters.
At an outside Ginza promotional event Thursday, young women in red jackets and short white skirts handed out fliers to passers-by, calling for them to sample the Washington apples.
On stage, groups of volunteers tried to outdo one another with big bites in an apple-biting contest.
Some Japanese waited in line for more than half an hour to get a free bag of three red Delicious apples.
Although most grabbed the samples and left, some stuck around to try the fruit.
Tsuyoshi Ito said that the firm apple tasted good - better than he had expected - but was slightly less sweet than Japanese apples.
Which would he buy at a supermarket?
“I’m Japanese,” he said, “so I would probably go for the Japanese ones.”
But teenager Katsu Kashiro and his mother were so impressed that they said they regularly will buy the imported fruit. “It’s really delicious,” Kashiro said.
His mother said the apples are the perfect size to pack in lunches.
That’s exactly what the Washington Apple Commission is eager to hear.
“A lot of the younger consumers in Japan have no problem eating apples the way we do,” said Evans.
“The older consumers like to peel their fruit - they even peel grapes,” Evans said.
“We’re hopeful that apples will catch on with the older generation as well as with families as lunch box items for kids.”
He said the introduction of U.S. apples during Japan’s continued recession is good timing.
“Consumers are feeling the pinch,” Evans said. “There is a renewed interest in the concept of value” rather than expensive, namebrand quality.
MEMO: Editor’s note: Emi Endo is in Japan as part of a press tour arranged by the Washington Apple Commission. American Airlines provided air fare.
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