TOKYO -- Prices for Chinese-made ingredients that are essential in cooking ramen -- a hugely popular dish in Japan -- have continued to rise in recent years as production declines.
Among these essential ingredients are menma, bean sprouts and garlic. Many Chinese farmers are switching from these to other crops.
Japan's food-makers and food service industry heavily rely on cheaper foodstuffs imported from China. Menma, which is made by drying Chinese bamboo shoots, is a good example. China supplies more than 90% of the menma consumed in Japan.
China's annual menma production has tumbled 30% in the past five years, from 5,000 tons to 3,500 tons, with farmers switching to oranges and bananas, which are easier to cultivate, according to a menma producer and seller in Tokyo.
There is another factor behind Japan's menma shortage -- a Japanese food boom in the U.S. and Europe has diverted a lot of what is left of China's bamboo shoot-based food exports from Japan.
No wonder, then, that Takase Bussan, a restaurant supplier based in Tokyo, has raised its menma prices by about 15% in the past two years.
Wakaba -- a ramen shop located in the Tsukiji Outer Market, known as Jogai Shijo in Japanese, in Tokyo -- removed what was its signature menma ramen from its menu four years ago, when prices began to climb.
Many Chinese growers of mung beans, a raw material for bean sprouts, have also switched to more profitable crops, like corn, resulting in sharply higher mung bean prices.
According to Japanese trade statistics, import prices for Chinese mung beans soared 30% in 2015, hitting the highest level on record.
For a year now, Japanese bean sprout producers have been asking domestic supermarkets and other retailers to accept price increases of between 10% and 20%.
Prices for China-grown garlic, meanwhile, have been rising due to unusually bad weather and a shrinking population of growers in the country.
In addition, prices for onions and other foods that come from China have been on the rise. Onions are usually imported into Japan from China after being skinned. A worker shortage in China means fewer skinners and higher prices.