January 24, 2022
It’s official, Hiroshima loves bananas more than anywhere else in Japan.
Anyone familiar with Japan knows that the regions have great pride in their local food products, and when it comes to fruit, here in Hiroshima, much is made of mikan oranges and lemons grown on islands in the Inland Sea islands or Miyoshi’s oversized grapes. In the supermarket, however, Hiroshima folk are more likely to opt for a fruit that has come all the way from the tropics.
According to the 2020 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in 2020 Hiroshima city was the nation’s top consumer of bananas, peeling and putting away an average of 23.9kgs of bananas per household. According to the Ministry, Hiroshima was also number one in 2014 and 2018 in the top 5 every year since 2014.
Hiroshima City Banana Consumption Ranking* 2011-2020
*Among prefectural cities
Confused at how this could be when the city is not in a banana producing region, nor are there any famous local delicacies that feature the fruit, regional newspaper Chugoku Shimbun devoted two pieces over the weekend to getting to the bottom of Hiroshima’s love of bananas and what it might say about the city’s history and the character of its people.
Reporters started by visiting the banana section at a You Me Town supermarket in Minami-ku where 12 kinds of bananas, ranging from ¥200 to ¥600, were on display. Noting that a colleague from Tokyo was surprised by the quantity and variety of bananas on offer, it was clear that this needed to be investigated further.
The immigration theory
The newspaper asked major food producer Dole if they could shed any light on Hiroshima’s penchant for bananas. According to Dole, bananas were first imported to Japan from Taiwan, which was under Japanese rule, in 1903. After the war, they were also imported from Central and South America, including Ecuador and the Philippines.
A representative of the company’s marketing department conjectured that, “People in Hiroshima may have come to eat bananas more often because of their ties to foreign countries. For example, immigrants. Hiroshima Prefecture has sent more immigrants overseas than any other prefecture in Japan, about 110,000 people in total. One of the main destinations for immigrants was the banana-producing regions of Central and South America. Banana-eating culture may have taken root in Hiroshima after being introduced by immigrants and their relatives.”
The war theory
Others at Dole think it may have more to do with war than immigration. Hiroshima was the base of the Imperial Army’s 5th Division which was very active in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. As the division was deployed to the Malay Peninsula and other banana-producing regions, it is believed that the custom of eating bananas may have been brought back to Japan by demobilized soldiers.
A city of fruit connoisseurs?
The newspaper reports that local wholesalers have suggested that Hiroshima being “a production center for high-grade fruits” may explain the city’s affection for bananas. Although they point to examples such as Miyoshi Pione and the Ishiji oranges from Kure which are common gifts with a reputation for quality, it seems a bit of a stretch and something Japan’s many other fruit-producing regions would take issue with.
Love of a bargain?
In contrast to other fruits, bananas are rather affordable when compared to domestically grown fruits (I’m looking at you ¥500 apples and ¥3000 melons!). They are also available year-round, which may have helped them become a staple in the shopping basket. Chugoku Shimbun does report, however, that high-end bananas also sell well in Hiroshima.
Is it all about the supply chain?
A second article in the newspaper has a possible explanation that is more prosaic.
Hiroshima Banana, located in Nishi-ku, is said to handle 70 to 80% of the bananas sold in the city. Green bananas arrive from Kobe Port, are exposed to ethylene gas in a warehouse to ripen and are then distributed to retailers. Today, there are only three processing companies in Hiroshima, but the city used to be a major banana distribution center with many processing plants. Indeed, according to the secretary general of the Japan Banana Importers Association, who worked in banana sales in the region during the 1980s, Hiroshima was home to about 20 banana processing companies at that time.
A member of the Hiroshima Banana Sales Department tells the Chugoku Shimbun, the eight major banana import ports in Japan include Kobe and Moji. As Hiroshima is located roughly halfway between these two ports, bananas are delivered from both and distributed in large quantities.
The third generation president of Hiroshima Nishiyama Grocery which processes and sells cut fruit says that at his company’s peak after the war, they were shipping bananas all over the Chugoku and Shikoku regions. Bananas ripened in warehouses don’t have a long shelf life and, in the days before expressways, it took longer to transport them over long distances than today. So, he conjectures, it probably made sense to process them in Hiroshima, from where the rest of the Chugoku region could be accessed relatively easily.
Although the development of the expressway network and refrigeration technology led to a great reduction in the number of processing plants in Hiroshima, price competition due to plentiful supply during the postwar years may have led to sales promotions which resulted in a banana eating culture taking root in the region which continues today.
Something doesn’t quite add up
These theories are all very well, but taking a look at the ranking chart above, these theories don’t explain why the Hiroshima didn’t even appear in the Top 10 in 2011 and 2013 and was only 8th in 2012.
Just as with the origin story of the bunnies of Rabbit Island, it seems that the true reason for Hiroshima’s chart-topping banana consumption may remain a mystery. Whatever the reason, I’ll be happy as long as they keep on coming so I can get my 29kg. Now, perhaps we can start asking why the heck are they nearly always wrapped in plastic.