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Economy

Heat wave burns Japan's pocketbooks as produce prices soar

Sweltering temperatures and drought hurting cabbage and cucumber growers

The price of cabbage has doubled on the year at some supermarkets. (Photo by Maho Obata)

TOKYO -- Japan's deadly, record-breaking heat wave has as much as doubled the price of summer vegetables and is now weighing on waterworks, threatening further damage to livelihoods.

Temperatures topped 35 C in 170 locations across the country on Wednesday. From July 1 through last Tuesday, average temperatures in the region surrounding Tokyo have been the highest on record, 3.3 degrees higher than normal. A town outside the capital logged 41.1 C on Monday, a new record for Japan. As of Monday, more than 40 people had died from heat-related conditions.

Strong heat, coupled with poor rainfall over much of the country, has hurt yields for summer crops such as cabbages and cucumbers, sending prices soaring since the start of this week. At a supermarket in Nerima, outside central Tokyo, cabbages are going for double their price at this time last year, while the price of lettuce has risen 60%. A supermarket in the Osaka region is selling napa cabbage for 40% more than a year ago.

Gunma Prefecture's agricultural cooperative reports that cabbage shipments have dropped 30% on the year due to decreased yields. In Fukushima Prefecture, a center of cucumber production, farmers' shipments are down more than 10%.

Consumers have cut back in response. Tokyo-based supermarket chain Inageya reports that sales of cabbage and lettuce are down 10% and 3% on the year, respectively, over the past two weeks in volume terms. A shopper in her 50s in central Tokyo said "summer vegetables in general are expensive," in many cases too costly to purchase, adding that she had stopped making a seasonal noodle dish that uses cucumbers.

"For many vegetables, shipments are not recovering, and prices could climb further" if drought and heat persist, said Hiromichi Akiba, president of the Akidai supermarket chain in Tokyo.

"It would not be a surprise if days over 35 C continue," according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. "The danger of heatstroke is unchanged."

"If price hikes spread beyond vegetables to animal and marine products, the impact on consumption will be too large to ignore," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

The lack of rainfall also is weighing on waterworks in eastern Japan. As of 12 a.m. Wednesday, water levels stood at 79% of normal in reservoirs along a major river system that supplies six prefectures, including Tokyo. Water withdrawals from two rivers feeding that system have been restricted by 10%, one since the end of June and the other since July 10.

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