Photo/IllutrationIngredients that arrived from a food plant fill 10 or so 500-liter containers at 4 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Japan Food Ecology Center Inc.’s recycling plant in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. They were likely designated for use in making “Eho-maki” sushi rolls. (Kazuyo Nakamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Tucking into a “lucky direction” sushi roll for the annual Setsubun festival is believed to bring good fortune, but the tradition does not mean good news all round.

Called “Eho-maki” in Japanese, the long sushi roll is consumed on the last day of winter according to the traditional calendar. Its recently established status as a seasonal product, however, has led to some controversy due to the way leftovers are being wasted in bulk, partly due to unreasonably aggressive marketing.

OVERCOOKED

Large quantities of food, likely intended for Eho-maki, were seen being carried into Japan Food Ecology Center Inc.’s recycling plant in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, on the afternoon of Feb. 3, the date of this year’s Setsubun festival. The amount was about twice that of rice-based food materials that J.FEC receives on a typical day.

The volume of incoming waste food products related to Eho-maki surges on and around Setsubun every year, according to J.FEC officials.

J.FEC recycles these and other waste foodstuffs into pig feed. Many of the products arrive directly from food plants without even being laid out in storefronts first, J.FEC President Koichi Takahashi said.

Convenience store chains and other retailers take account of sales trends when placing their orders, but an enormous surplus still arises, apparently because plants have to produce extra to avoid possible shortages, Takahashi explained.

Eho-maki is associated with Setsubun because it is believed that eating up a thick sushi roll in silence on that day while looking toward the “lucky direction,” which varies from year to year, brings good luck. The practice, which originated in the Kansai region of western Japan, is believed to have spread further afield after one major convenience store chain began marketing Eho-maki across the nation in the latter half of the 1990s.

When Setsubun is over, however, demand evaporates. And unlike Valentine’s Day chocolates and other seasonal products, Eho-maki go bad quickly, so there is no choice but to throw away any unsold product, sources said.

RETAILER’S RETHINK

One retail chain has moved to review the way Eho-maki are sold.

“Let’s put an end (to waste),” declared an advert issued Feb. 1 by Yamada Store, which operates eight supermarkets in Hyogo Prefecture.

“We will be making only as many Eho-maki rolls as we sold last year. Excuse us in case the stock runs out,” the company, based in Taishi in the prefecture, announced in the brochure.

The news of Eho-maki bulk-binning has gone viral on social media, and some employees have raised questions about the status quo, said Atsushi Nakano, Yamada Store’s head of shop management.

“It is common sense for supermarkets that you have to make more than you did last year,” Nakano said. “But there is probably a limit to endless growth in this age of depopulation.”

Yamada Store discarded significantly fewer Eho-maki rolls this year, with all products on the storefront sold out at five of its outlets. The company heard no particular complaints about stock running out, and received, on the contrary, numerous phone calls and e-mails of encouragement, Nakano added.

PERSONNEL UNDER PRESSURE

Questions have also been raised about the way Eho-maki rolls are marketed.

One convenience store in western Japan was assigned a “target” of selling 1,000 rolls.

“The chain’s head office has never used the word ‘quota,’ but a paper notice was put up in the store about the number of reservations made,” said one 20-something employee who works for the store. “And the quantity sold is used in assessments.”

The employee added that only about 40 percent of the target volume was sold by the night of Feb. 3, and so they purchased 40 rolls at their own expense.

Officials of Seven-Eleven Japan Co., FamilyMart Co. and Lawson Inc.--all operators of major convenience store chains--all denied, when interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun, that they have any “quotas.”

“Selling several hundred rolls would only amount to proceeds of several tens of thousands of yen (several hundred dollars), so there is no point in selling just as many of them at the cost of pushing extra burdens on employees,” said Yuji Namiki, a professor of distribution management with the Hosei Business School of Innovation Management, who previously worked for a major convenience store chain operator. The purchase at an employee’s own expense “probably represents a rare case,” Namiki said.

However, the leader of one labor union for part-time workers, which has received similar complaints, disagrees.

Workers are not necessarily instructed to buy up products, but the implication is clear when they are sometimes told things like, “We are short of the target. What do you think you should do?” according to Hiroto Watanabe, a Black Arbeit Union representative.

Rumi Ide, who is studying the issue of food waste, pointed out the broader context behind the issues being raised about the way Eho-maki rolls are sold and scrapped.

“A shortage of supply means a lost opportunity for a sale, so retailers are under pressure to place surplus orders, and plants have no choice but to make allowances for leftovers in manufacturing products,” Ide said. “It is probably high time that we reviewed the practice of excess production.”

(This article was written by Kazuyo Nakamura and Satsuki Fujita.)