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Imports of bananas up, tapioca down as coronavirus sways trade in Japan

Bananas, whose imports reached record highs due to stay-at-home consumption amid the coronavirus pandemic, are seen in Tokyo on Jan. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Kiyohiro Akama)

TOKYO -- The spread of coronavirus infections has significantly swayed trade in Japan, with imports of bananas and training goods up, while tapioca, the starch used in bubble tea, has taken a dive, analysis of 2020 trade statistics shows.

    Overall, Japan's exports in 2020 were down 11.1% from the previous year, while imports fell by 13.8%. A stagnated domestic economy, along with a recession in foreign economies amid the coronavirus pandemic, have damaged various areas of trade. Exports of vehicles, Japan's flagship product, fell by 20%, while there was a 41.7% decline in imports of crude oil -- Japan's primary import.

    Despite the harsh economic impact of the pandemic, trade of some products grew. Imports of textile products including nonwoven fabric masks, in particular, were 3.8 times higher than during the previous year. Naturally, imported goods used to prevent infections saw a similar trend.

    At the same time, there were also products seemingly unrelated to the pandemic at first glance that saw increased trade. One representative item was bananas. Their imports in 2020 reached 105.1 billion yen (about $1 billion), breaking the record of 104.2 billion yen set in 2019. According to the Japan Banana Importers Association, imports began to increase in March 2020, when the spread of infections became serious in Japan. From May, when the country was under its first state of emergency, imports topped 10 billion yen for three months in a row.

    The key phrase in understanding the increase is "stay-at-home consumption." With people adopting stay-at-home lifestyles due to the state of emergency and other factors, food and other products that people can enjoy at home were popular.

    "Bananas can be eaten just by peeling them, which is hygienic, and they are high in nutrients," said association representative Eiji Akashi. "People took a renewed look at the advantages of bananas, which even older people and children could eat easily amid the pandemic." Though the government issued another state of emergency in the capital and other regions in January, Akashi noted that imports of bananas "have been steady."

    Frozen foods, which can be stored for a long time, are convenient for "stay-at-home consumption," but the capacities of household refrigerators are limited. Maybe for that reason, imports of household freezers increased by 1.6 times compared to the previous year. As major home appliances associated with stay-at-home lifestyles, such as freezers, sold well, exports of plastics to China -- a production center for such goods -- grew 8.7%.

    Apparent interest in fitness equipment to offset the lack of exercise caused by stay-at-home lifestyles saw imports of workout items such as barbells, punching balls and jump ropes rise 10% by value and 44% by volume compared to 2019. The increases suggest people overcame inactivity and battled stress partly by training themselves at home.

    Stay-at-home consumption was not seen in the Japanese economy alone, but worldwide. One product whose exports were apparently boosted by stay-at-home lifestyles was instant coffee. Annual exports had hovered around 3 billion yen until 2019, but in 2020, they rapidly rose 2.6 times in value and three times in volume compared to the previous year.

    Nagoya Customs in central Japan, which monitors Shimizu Port in Shizuoka Prefecture -- a base for instant coffee exports -- was reportedly told by one exporter, "Household demand for coffee has increased abroad, too, due to stay-at-home consumption amid the coronavirus pandemic, and exports to mainly the United States and Russia have grown."

    While amount of instant coffee exported from Japan is still small compared to the amount imported, the All Japan Coffee Association hopes for more growth, with a representative commenting, "We'd like to keep carefully watching whether the increase in exports was an anomaly that happened only in 2020 or whether the trend will continue in the future."

    Meanwhile, there were other products that suffered amid the pandemic. One was wine, whose imports dropped 9% in value compared to the previous year. According to one beverage maker, household demand remained steady due to stay-at-home consumption, but a downturn at restaurants that had to shorten their business hours under the state of emergency contributed to a nationwide drop in consumption.

    Trade in tapioca, which enjoyed a boom in Japan before the pandemic due to the popularity of bubble tea, was dealt a severe blow in 2020. Previously, Japan saw imports of tapioca rise by 35% in 2017 compared to the previous year, then by 78% in 2018, and by 720% in 2019, but imports plunged in 2020 to a third of the figure seen in the previous year. The fall was apparently due to the closure of the many tapioca parlors that had been set up as people refrained from going out, causing the chewy starch products to lose out to the pandemic.

    (Japanese original by Kiyohiro Akama, Business News Department)

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