Olive Japan association and its olive oil sommelier school are located in a slightly dilapidated building in the posh area of Ginza, Tokyo. It’s here that, on a rainy early march day, we met Toshiya Tada, Japan’s olive oil mogul, who shared with us his inspired opinions about Quality.
In Olio Veritas – Tada-san, thank you for receiving us. Japan is famous around the world for its food and gastronomy heritage, so what has brought you to a foreign crop such as olives ?
Tada-san – In the 1990´s, I was a banker in New-York when I suddenly got fed up with it and decided to launch my own business in the food industry, that I found to be more concrete and inspirational. I first started by importing lemons to Japan from California, and then widened the range of products. However I quickly realized that consumers were completely lost and poorly informed for their purchases. Cocoa for instance : on the one hand, you have very limited and non-transparent informations about the products, while on the other hand the industry suffocate the consumers with marketing and advertising. At the end of the day, people just buy chocolates that are getting worse and worse. I just felt like I had a vocation to educate Japanese consumers about what they eat.
But what to begin with at first, among all the products involved ? Chocolate ? Fruits ? Wine ? Cheese ? I chose Olive oil of course ! It’s a not so common good in Japan, and it’s very hard for the average Joe to get and understand the informations about the quality. That’s why I founded the Olive Oil Sommeliers Association of Japan (OSAJ), a non-governmental and independent association gathering olive growers, importers, retailers and so on, in order to develop the market for high quality olive oil on the one hand, and to provide the right level of information to the consumers on the other hand. Nowadays, more than 1800 people are members of the association.
IOV – What are the main practical actions led by OSAJ ?
Tada-san – First of all, we organize every year in Tokyo an olive oil international competition : Olive Japan, whose seventh edition will take place this year from April 2nd to 5th, with 25 international judges amongst which Margaret Edwards, that you already know. This competition is quite particular as we prefer to judge an olive oil’s quality according to the sophistication and the harmony of its aromas, rather than the fitting with absolute and scientific criteria. Last year, I tested every single one of the 727 competing olive oils : I have to if I want to keep a well exercised palate.
Then we have our school for olive oil sommeliers in Japan. There are three distinct courses for which I had to create everything as there was no literature in japanese about olive oil and olives crop. Nowadays, we count more than 2000 graduated « Olive oil Sommelier », mostly restaurant chefs, and we would like that more and more professionals may follow this formation to get a better understanding of all the historical, cultural, production and distribution aspects required to recognize and handle a high quality olive oil.
Beyond these two activities, OSAJ also offers consulting solutions for olive oil brands or food fairs. And I personally take part at a few other competitions as a judge, in Australia for instance but also here in Japan, in Shōdoshima.
IOV – Shōdoshima precisely is the high spot for olive oil in Japan. Could you please tell us more about domestic production ?
Tada-san – Despite a 110 years history, olive oil production in Japan is still very low and covers a very small part of domestic consumption. There are roughly 100 producers in the whole country. About 40 of them are located in Shōdoshima, and the others are scattered in the country, in Shizuoka or in the north of Kyūshū for instance. This is not much and most of them are quite amateurs, as they often run larger business besides olive growing. I remember a grower in Shōdoshima who once tried to filter his oil with so thick cardboards that he lost his whole production as cardboard had drunk everything. If you add to this the very wet climate of Japan, you’ll understand that that the quality of domestic production can be quite hazardous.
IOV – The International Olive Oil Council (IOC) however announced that Japan might soon join the organization. Isn’t it a bit too early ?
Tada-san – It’s primarily fake news ! IOC would love to have Japan onboard indeed, so that our government pays the subscription and yearly membership fees. But I don’t think it will happen. It’s not worth it for now, as domestic production is still too small. Besides, Japan has very singular standards and rules for food, and aligning with IOC’s would be too big a project. Last, the « extra virgin » denomination is not well known by japanese consumers. They’re only interested in 3 things : the nature of the product – olive oil in this case – the brand and the price.
IOV – Who are the main consumers of olive oil in Japan ?
Tada-san – The most commonly used oil in Japan is Canola oil, a derivative from rape seed. But it’s not a very healthy oil as it is an industrial and refined product, often made with GMOs. More and more Japanese people, whatever their age and social class, are getting interested in olive oil especially for its health benefits. This trend is also carried on by a lot of professionals, and particularly by prestigious restaurants’ chefs. But as olive oil in Japan remains an expensive good with random quality, the households are often hesitating between health and budget.
IOV – How could Olive Japan help Japanese consumers to get better information ?
Tada-san – I’ve been thinking for a long time of developing an « Olive Japan » label for high quality extra virgin olive oil, that the consumers could trust. The main barrier though is that we do not have control over what happens between production and purchase, and especially the supply chain. Even with a quality label, a poorly stored and conveyed bottle can still turn rancid and bad, there’s nothing you can do about it !