Once a mainstay in winter in almost every Japanese home, the humble "mikan," or Japanese mandarin orange, is being squeezed out by other fruits and tasty desserts.
But in Mikkabi in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where the majority of the prefecture's mikans are grown, JA Mikkabi, the local Japan Agricultural Cooperatives organization, is trying to reinvent and promote the local fruit.
On July 20, JA Mikkabi began conducting a public relations campaign in Singapore with the aim of exporting a processed mikan for the first time.
“Kori Mikan,” or iced mikan, is a newly developed frozen treat. Each slice slowly fills the mouth with a refreshingly cool sweetness. The product is sold already peeled and bagged.
Technology is used to freeze the mikan without breaking down the cells to prevent the stickiness and stiff texture usually associated with frozen mikans.
Each iced mikan sells for 300 yen ($3.85). An employee, 36, from the JA Mikkabi's agricultural support division, grins as he says, “Our competition is frozen ice cream like Haagen-Dazs. It’s a 100 percent natural, high-quality treat.”
The idea was hatched to change people’s perception of frozen mikans and encourage them to eat Mikkabi mikans even in the summer.
Last winter, 5,000 were prepared for domestic sales and were distributed in May to places including local A-COOP supermarkets and city hotels. Already sales have exceeded expectations with 4,000 sold.
The iced mikans are on sale in Singapore from July 20 through July 29. JA Mikkabi is setting up shop at the regional products fair for Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures to be held in Singaporean department stores to promote the Kori Mikan. A total of 5,000 units have been arranged for overseas sales.
Although Japan exports fresh mikans to Canada and Hong Kong, this is the first attempt to enter the global market with a processed product.
“I used to think that if farmers produce good foods they would sell, but times have changed," said mikan grower and JA Mikkabi's representative director, Yoshikazu Goto, 56. "The world is full of good-tasting foods. We need a marketing strategy.”
According to the agriculture ministry, Shizuoka Prefecture had the third highest yield of mikans last year at 14 percent, behind Wakayama, 20 percent, and Ehime, 16 percent. Mikkabi ships the most mikans in Shizuoka Prefecture and accounts for about 3 percent of nationwide shipments.
There are approximately 2,800 members of the JA Mikkabi cooperative, and the majority of the approximately 9 billion yen ($115 million) in annual sales stems from mikans.
Thus, Goto has worked hard on product planning and sales promotion since taking his post in 2008.
The efforts have resulted in, for example, a class that teaches new ways to peel mikans.
Goto discovered on Twitter that there is an extremely popular children’s book illustrating how to peel mikan skin into animal shapes. He negotiated with the publisher, Shogakukan Inc., and the author, Yoshihiro Okada, on a collaboration.
The popular class targets staff from welfare services for the elderly and educational institutions. Participants say that it is a great way to spark communication with others. In the class for elementary school children, the talk even turned to mikan farming, nutrition and dietary education.
JA Mikkabi has also worked with Suntory to offer the “Mikkabi Mikan highball” at approximately 1,200 establishments in the prefecture. The aim is to utilize brands such as Shogakukan and Suntory, and there are a growing number of products that use Mikkabi mikans, including puddings and roll cakes.
JA Mikkabi has also come up with the idea of mikans for the office.
Mikans are made available in offices to replace the sweets that workers traditionally snack on. The key is to have them on hand by leaving a bowl of them out. The concept will be promoted by vegetable sommeliers, who are certified by the Vegetable and Fruit Meister Association as experts of fruits and vegetables, as a way to combat excessive weight gain. Last winter, the tactic was utilized by approximately 20 companies in Tokyo, and this winter sales will begin in earnest.
Those efforts are hoped to help reverse the trend of Japanese consuming fewer mikans. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in fiscal 1998, 4.1 kilograms of mikans were consumed by each Japanese, which is about one-fifth of the peak amount in fiscal 1975.
“It’s JA’s mission to sell the foods that the farmers work so hard to produce, so it’s important that consumers take an interest in Mikkabi mikans,” Goto says.
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