U.S. Bids for Slice of Japan Apple Market

TOKYO -- Few things are considered more gauche in Japan than eating something while walking down the sidewalk. And apples, a luxury food item here, are always peeled and sliced before being eaten.

So it was a victory for American culture, as well as for U.S. apple growers, when pedestrians in downtown Tokyo last week started biting boldly into Red Delicious apples handed out free as part of a weeklong hoopla publicizing the latest opening of Japan to a foreign product.

"Wonderful!'' exclaimed Brent Evans, Asia marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission, when he spotted two young women heading off while still munching shiny red apples. "They're eating and walking away. They said that would never happen.'

Apples from the state of Washington have sold briskly across Japan since first hitting the supermarket shelves last Monday.

Japanese media have given heavy coverage to the arrival of the fruit. Sales so far, however, have been driven largely by curiosity, and consumer doubts about American apples remain strong.

"American apples are cheaper than Japanese, so if they suit our taste, it will be good for consumers,'' said Ayako Toshimasu, 45, as she waited in line for a free bag of apples at a noontime "apple-biting contest'' sponsored by the Washington Apple Commission.

But Toshimasu had worries too. "When I saw them on TV, they looked over-waxed, so I wonder if we had better peel the skins thicker than for Japanese apples,'' she said. "Japanese tend to be concerned about chemicals.''

Apples are produced here with great care. Growers usually pluck away leaves near each apple while the fruit is still on the tree to ensure that it receives balanced sunlight. Then the apples are protected by individual bags several weeks before harvesting. But Japanese apples are more pink and green than red. Many

Japanese think the U.S. fruit looks unnatural, and some even say the shiny red apples call to mind the beautiful but poisoned apple in "Snow White.''

Japan ostensibly opened its apple market to imports in 1971.

With the exception of occasional imports from South Korea, however, no other apples were allowed into the country until last year, when some began to arrive from New Zealand.

The ban was justified on grounds that foreign apples might carry pests or diseases that could spread to Japan's orchards. Foreign critics, however, said the real purpose of the tight restrictions was to protect Japanese apple growers. The issue joined the list of chronic U.S.-Japan trade disputes.

With the arrival last week of U.S. apples -- which must undergo rigid controls and inspections before shipment here -- Japan's overall apple market may begin to see major change. About 250,000 boxes of Red and Golden Delicious apples have arrived in Japan, Evans said. A total of 15,000 tons is due by the end of March.

The U.S. Embassy predicts annual sales of American apples may eventually reach $100 million.

The average Japanese consumes only about 15 pounds of apples a year, compared to 33 pounds in the United States and 48 pounds in Europe.