Beef and sheepmeat exporter ANZCO says sales in the Japanese frozen beef trade are recovering, thanks to tariff reductions for New Zealand produce under the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership that allows local producers to compete again in the lucrative markets against Australian beef farmers.
Since Australia signed a free trade agreement with Japan in 2015, ANZCO had seen tonnages of frozen beef to Japan halve to around 4,000 tonnes a year, ANZCO Japan president Makoto Kinjo told BusinessDesk on a visit to a Hokkaido sheep farm earlier this month.
But those volumes were now recovering and the company was aiming to get back to volumes of five years ago, at between 7,000 and 8,000 metric tonnes in annual frozen beef sales.
"With removal of the price gap (versus Australian beef), we can press for more volume because there's more margin to play with."
However, ANZCO's ambitions for an increased share of the higher-margin chilled beef market are being realised through the recent creation of deeper relationships with key consumer cooperatives, which control parts of Japan's highly fragmented retail supply chain, rather than through the opportunities created by the CPTPP, Kinjo said.
"CPTPP is useful in the sense that we are to regain lost volume. We are on a level playing field with Australia now, though ANZCO has been successful in keeping trade away from price-driven competition.
"Chilled beef is a different story," Kinjo said. "The trade is growing because of what we have done with cooperatives and other retailers."
The trade pact, which was assumed dead after newly inaugurated President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in January 2017, left 11 countries in the deal, of which Japan was by far the largest market for New Zealand producers.
In its National Interest Analysis on the hotly contested trade and investment agreement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimated savings on Japanese tariffs would amount to some $203.8 million once the CPTPP was fully implemented, comprising the lion's share of an estimated total tariff savings of $222.4m from all 10 other signatories to the deal.
New Zealand's primary interest in concluding the CPTPP was gaining improved trade access to both Japan and the US, but the US leg of the opportunity now awaits US appetite for negotiating such an agreement with New Zealand.
President Trump is in Japan this week pressing for a bi-lateral free trade agreement with Tokyo, which he hopes will offer better terms than the CPTPP, although Japan would be obliged to offer any such terms to other CPTPP signatories if a separate US-Japan deal were signed.
The CPTPP itself entered into force on December 30, 2018, after a concerted effort led by Japan and New Zealand saw the trade pact revived despite the US withdrawal.
Other major agricultural exporters to Japan - Fonterra and Zespri - told BusinessDesk in Tokyo that the CPTPP was not having a major impact on its activities as tariffs were relatively low to start with on their imports and that other factors in the Japanese and international markets were more significant influences on performance.
For Fonterra, Japan was "very much a high value" market where tailoring product to customer demand is the key to the Japanese arm of the dairy cooperative producing outsized profits relative to other markets.
However, CPTPP tariff reductions on relatively low-value commodities such as butter and skim milk powder might see some volume and revenue increases, said Fonterra Japan president Yasuhiro Saito.
The trade pact's effect was "very, very positive for our business" but was not the be all and end all for developing the Japanese market. Both Australia and the European Union now had FTAs with Japan, which were putting them on the same competitive footing as Fonterra, and Saito noted Irish interest in entering the Japanese market was "becoming very aggressive".
"Competition is always coming. The Europeans are very strong. We can never relax," he said.
For Zespri, Japan is the largest single country market, taking 20 per cent of current kiwifruit exports. While sales to the European Union account for 45 per cent of total sales by volume, country manager Hamish Robison says the Japanese operation "punches above its weight", with "something like 30 to 40 per cent in profit coming from Japan".
Like Fonterra, distribution relationships and tight control on the pricing and quality of its fruit remain the keys to its success in the Japanese market.
The single desk marketer is able to set a fixed seasonal price for New Zealand kiwifruit, avoiding the haggling that dominates most of the rest of the fresh produce market.
However, pre-CPTPP tariffs on kiwifruit were under 10 per cent, so the impact of their removal was "always nice", it was of less moment than tariffs in non-CPTPP countries like South Korea, where tariffs close to 50 per cent prevail.
"The good thing is that it was ratified before the season began," said Robison.
One company expecting a big leg-up in its Japanese market aspirations from CPTPP is Canterbury cookie-maker, Cookie Time, which has had a retail presence in downtown Tokyo for six years and has started making inroads into retail outlets through the high-end Lawson's Natural retail chain - a subset of Lawson's, which runs the Japanese equivalent of 4 Square or 7-Eleven stores.
Tariffs on cookie dough imported from Japan are falling from 23.5 per cent to zero, with no quota, over the next five years.
"That's a game-changer for us," said managing director Guy Pope-Mayell. "It gives us pricing options. We can compete more strongly."
While just $1.5m of Cookie Time's $50m annual turnover comes from Japan at present, the company is targeting Japan to be as much as 25 per cent of total sales over time and is the only export market the company is pursuing.
The acting New Zealand ambassador in Tokyo, Peter Kell, says the CPTPP's impact includes stimulating interest among exporters not yet operating in the traditionally highly protected Japanese market for food and beverages.
"There are some marked tariff cuts. A lot of New Zealand companies are interested in how to use that," he said. "And people know that New Zealand goods and services are on the table and people start looking more actively. It's a mindset change."
The trade pact was also a key element in wider efforts to improve trade access and relationships between Japanese and New Zealand interests as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had sought to open up Japanese agriculture to international competition.
Japan is one of five countries that MFAT is targeting for so-called 'lift' strategies to enhance relationships across the diplomatic, political and economic spectrum. The other four are: Singapore, Germany, Indonesia, and India.
"This and the previous (New Zealand) government have given us permission to crowbar that relationship open," he said, with current examples including a multi-pronged strategy on the northern island of Hokkaido - a 'foodbasket' area for Japan whose farming lobby has traditionally regarded New Zealand agriculture as a threat - involving dairy and sheep farming technology transfers and creating links with Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu people, drawing on Maori tourism and business development strategies.
Disclosure - Pattrick Smellie travelled to Japan at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.