When the All Blacks wallop the Wallabies at Tokyo's National Stadium at the end of this month, Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki will be there, cheering loudly for the Kiwis.

The chief economist for one of Japan's biggest trading companies, Yoshizaki fits the profile of a typical Japanese rugby supporter: he is a wealthy professional, at the top of his own game.

Rugby is mostly an elite sport in Japan, yet it still has the fourth highest number of rugby players in the world, by dint of its huge population. Hence its successful bid to host the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and the decision by Tourism New Zealand to erect its giant rugby ball beneath the Tokyo Tower as part of a Kiwi business blitz on the nation's capital to coincide with the Bledisloe Cup game on October 31.

Ironically, one of the ideas behind the giant rugby ball is to showcase New Zealand's many other strengths, including our food, wine, business, education and immigration opportunities. But by the same token, trade officials admit it's not easy trying to persuade Kiwi exporters that there is more to Japan than kites and kimonos.

It might be experiencing some tough economic times, but it's still the world's second-biggest economy - for a little while longer, anyway - and there is still plenty of potential for those who are prepared to put in some hard work, they say.

For those wanting to surf the economic wave that has led to Japan becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world, there is no longer a shortage of advice on how to do it without drowning. New Zealand Trade & Enterprise has identified Japan as one of our most neglected export markets, and insists that within its limited resources it is eager to help anyone who believes they've got a surfboard that is up to the task.

Like many other expats who have lived in Japan for some time, Tokyo-based trade commissioner Ben Wilson is convinced there are finally some signs that the worst in Japan may be over. While that refrain has been heard many times before, it is almost irrelevant whether it is true, says Wilson, as New Zealand has actually managed to increase its food and beverage sales to Japan in recent years.

Japan's food market is worth more than US$500 billion ($679 billion) - or three times New Zealand's entire GDP. Needless to say, entering the market requires a fair bit of research - there are at least 70 supermarket chains, for example, which among them have more than 8000 outlets.

Fortunately, the concept of "food miles" has not yet taken off in Japan, and officials are reasonably confident they can persuade Japanese consumers, who are highly environmentally aware, that carbon footprints are far more important anyway.

The biotech market is estimated to be worth another US$120 billion, with a heavy emphasis on food technology, but also pharmaceutical and diagnostic devices, and chemical products. Agricultural biotech is also considered to have potential. Other promising markets identified by NZTE include software solutions for Japan's 1.2 million small and medium-sized businesses; aquaculture; and IT (particularly for the health industry).

NextWindow, a Kiwi company that has developed touch screen technology, is currently targeting Japanese notebook manufacturers after successfully cracking the United States.

"New Zealand companies have a tendency to go to the UK, Canada and the US, but the high-tech industry in Japan is actually very open and accessible," says Wilson. "There's a language problem, but it's easily overcome."

Services such as pilot training, technology licensing and carbon trading are also in demand in Japan, he says, as well as help for overseas aid projects such as contracts for engineers and technical consultancy firms.

Jason Hill knows of several Kiwis who have started successful tourism businesses in Japan.

"There's 127 million people here and that's quite small compared to China or India, but it's 127 million people with a very high average income," he notes. "There aren't many peasants. There's the odd homeless person, but it's a wealthy and relatively stable economy that has been in slumber for coming up 20 years now, and I think it's about to start coming right."

One of New Zealand's most high-profile successes in Japan is Zespri. That has spilled over to other sectors, such as the contract Auckland company Compac Sorting Equipment announced this week with a kiwifruit packhouse in Fukuoka province. Compac has been trying for years to gain a foothold in Japan.

For our other primary producers, Japan has often been a struggle because of its protectionist policies which include tariffs of up to 200 per cent on some agricultural items.

New Zealand began exporting dairy products to Japan in 1932, but even now Fonterra is only able to sell ingredients, rather than its own branded products, because of high tariffs.

For more than half a century Fonterra has operated a joint venture with Nissei Kyoeki, a large trading company that, among other things, makes chemicals and building materials. Each year Fonterra imports more than 100,000 tonnes of products worth more than $1 billion into Japan. While it is still a hugely significant market, turnover has barely changed over the past decade, even though it has 65 staff on the ground.

What Fonterra lacks in branding it tries to make up for by keeping ahead of consumer trends, such as the Japanese obsession with healthy eating.

"A big differentiator in Japan is the high degree of functional foods on offer," says its technical and business development manager, Paul Cook. "It is not so much about filling the hole in Japan, as experiencing food."

Fonterra also promotes the complete control it claims to have over its supply chain. It's obviously a touchy subject after its San Lu experience in China, and particularly in a market like Japan, which is acutely sensitive to food safety issues.

In recent months there have been several scandals that have made the Japanese particularly wary of imported food, including Chinese dumplings supposedly tainted with rat poison, and rice being sold to the public that was not intended for human consumption.

The New Zealand embassy in Tokyo admits the first it heard about the problems at San Lu was through the media, but it says prompt action by Fonterra and officials protected New Zealand's reputation.

"There was a little bit of panic for a while," says the head of Fonterra Japan, Mark Kennerley. "But as long as you can produce the assurances, and procedures are in place, then it's fine. We put ourselves on the front foot. We took 20 products that were already on the market and had them independently tested. We could take that to our customers and say to them: 'Here's the products that you're actually purchasing'. So from that perspective, the impact was reasonably minimal."

That said, others confirm that the tests required by the Japanese in the wake of the melamine scandal were far more stringent than those required by other countries.

But it is a demanding market at the best of times. No matter what you're trying to sell in Japan, it had better be of the highest possible quality, say those who have been-there-done-that.

Japanese culture is all about attention to detail, and the old samurai mantra that "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing properly" applies to every facet of production.

"The quality here is extremely high," says Kennerley. "It is certainly well above most countries. Our customers expect that when goods arrive here that the packaging is fully intact with no dents on the cardboard box, and no tears on the outer packaging."

And thanks to nearly two decades of deflation, there is almost no flexibility on price. When the price of milk went up recently by about 10 per cent, there was a huge consumer backlash, and sales dropped by 4 to 5 per cent.

"With dairy commodity prices going up as high as they did this last year, that broke through what was the glass ceiling in Japan," says Kennerley. "Some food sectors are having to put price increases on their products - in some areas for the first time since the 1970s."

Cook notes that Japan's distribution channels are enormously complex and costly, but also remarkably effective. Retailers won't tolerate any supply problems, and they also enforce a high turnover.

"Depending on the sector you're in, it could be as high as 70 per cent of your portfolio has got to be continually turned over. There are new products on the shelves constantly. They don't have a high tolerance [of low sales]. If there's not many units moving off the shelves - you've got two weeks, and if it doesn't perform, that's it."

The extremely high cost of above-the-line advertising in Japan rules it out for almost any New Zealand company.

"There are high hurdles here, and if you get it right there are rewards," says Kennerley. "But most people tend to underestimate what it takes to get in here. Like any operating environment you need to talk to local lawyers and specialists.

"I think most people need to be clear about whether they have a competitive advantage for the market, otherwise you're just part of the noise. There is so much on offer to consumers in Japan across a number of sectors. And if things go wrong, you can lose money very quickly."

Like Fonterra, Meat and Wool New Zealand is frustrated at how hard it has had to work to crack the Japanese meat market, which is dominated by the US and Australia. But at least one meat company sees enormous potential - if only New Zealand's producers could get their act together.

Anzco Foods founder Graeme Harrison could see that Japan was taking advantage of our surplus mutton stocks for years, and has slowly turned around the market to ensure the value is added in New Zealand, rather than in Japan.

Anzco's Japan president, Makoto Kinjo, says unlike most meat companies, Anzco has its own marketing structure in Japan and has slowly built up a vertically integrated business - albeit in reverse - to the point where it now owns its own farms.

"Volume-wise the market has not grown, but when you look inside the business it has changed completely from commodity manufacturing to high-value-added differentiated lamb or beef products."

To help market New Zealand lamb, Meat and Wool New Zealand has emphasised research that shows lamb contains a nutrient called carnitine, which helps turn fat into energy. The campaign, mostly through magazines, has proved hugely successful, says Kinjo.

Competing against Australian and American beef has proved harder. One of the problems Anzco has had to overcome is that the Japanese are used to consuming highly marbled, grain-fed meat. Japan is, after all, the home of Wagyu beef.

There is a widespread perception in Japan that New Zealand's grass-fed animals produce meat that is tough and smelly - a perception Anzco is slowly changing by getting consumers to try the product for themselves and see that it isn't true, says Kinjo.

However one of the problems with grass-fed animals is that supply is seasonal.

"At the time of year when New Zealand is cold, Japan is going into the season where there is more barbecuing and more beef eating, and we don't have supply. Unless that problem gets fixed, there is no point spending more money trying to promote it."

At present New Zealand only has about 1 per cent of the market.

"What I cannot stress enough is the fact that Anzco recognised the value of this market and we have a strategy, but the New Zealand market as a whole needs to, too, because we alone cannot change the perception that Japanese have of New Zealand meat.

"To be able to capture the opportunity and value here, I think there needs to be an industry-wide approach. That will include the farmers. Just relying on seasonality will not go too far. New Zealand farmers need to realise they are sitting on an enormous natural advantage, and take this and turn it into a value-added opportunity. It is possible."

Former trade commissioner John Hundleby couldn't agree more. Hundleby, who now works for Meat and Wool New Zealand, says he is constantly amazed that New Zealand companies continue to compete with each other in Japan.

"More companies have become more export savvy, but I think we need to realise that in terms of global trade, New Zealand is still a very small player ... We need to have all our companies in particular industries offshore pull together, and be on the same wavelength and sell the same message."

A lower turnover of personnel dealing with the Japanese market would also help, he suggests.

Co-operation is a sensitive subject with Bay of Plenty honey exporter Comvita, given the rifts within the honey industry over the marketing of manuka honey's special properties.

Comvita is persisting with the Japanese market but its Tokyo-based representative, James Milne, admits it hasn't been easy since the global financial crisis.

Unlike most New Zealand companies, Comvita has set up its own office in Japan, and is determined to promote its own premium brand. Milne acknowledges the high costs but believes the strategy is worth it.

"There are people out there who say: 'Let's sell manuka honey in big drums to people who can package it under their own brand'. I think that's very short-sighted. If Comvita can build a good Kiwi brand then that can actually help other Kiwi companies who want to come into Japan - in terms of strengthening the idea of New Zealand not just as clean and green, but as something else."

However Milne is sceptical about our chances of changing that stereotype any time soon. "I know that NZTE has been trying to push New Zealand's image into a more high-tech, Switzerland of the Pacific Without The Watches - I'm just not quite sure whether we're there yet. The Japanese don't change their perceptions very easily, and to be honest the amount of money NZTE has in Japan is nothing compared to Austrade, the US, and Canada."

Milne is also sceptical about NZTE's insistence that New Zealand only needs to capture 1 per cent of the market to do well.

"It's a very, very competitive market, and the Japanese in particular fight for market share. They view it as a battleground. They may not take risks to expand their market share, but they will protect their market share, and they have very deep pockets."

That said, there is no point in waiting till things get better, he believes. "It takes time to build relationships and you need to do your homework, so you might as well start now. And let's be honest - the exchange rate is not that bad at the moment."

Another Tokyo-based businessman doubts whether NZTE itself is up to the task.

Expat millionaire Terrie Lloyd (see p16) admits he has a "somewhat difficult history" with the organisation. "I have been pushing them for so many years to let me help them get into the Japanese market but they hate the idea that there might be someone they can't control being involved in the process," says Lloyd. "It makes my blood boil to see them lay on people, and do nothing with it. I understand they need to focus on the big stuff, but at least they could set up a channel for the little stuff as well, and then their money would go a lot further."

Back at Fonterra's Tokyo office, its Kiwi executives are certainly hoping for a breakthrough at a political level, but no one is holding their breath.

Ironically, says Kennerley, Japan's farmers are not happy with the current situation either. "They've got some of the highest milk prices in the globe and they're not able to make money out of it. The sentiment is there, but the mechanism hasn't really served anyone very well."

Cook acknowledges that a breakthrough wouldn't necessarily give an immediate benefit to Fonterra, and therefore to the rest of New Zealand. "But I think from a business perspective if Japan could recognise New Zealand as the breadbasket that it is, then that would help the political framework that we've got going - or rather haven't got going - at the moment."

Karyn Scherer travelled to Japan with the help of the Asia NZ Foundation.