Serving Customers Leads To Success: Q&A With USGC Japan Director Hamamoto

Tommy Hamamoto, USGC Director in Japan
Tommy Hamamoto, USGC Director in Japan
A Japanese bioethanol media team took a firsthand look at the U.S. corn crop this month.
A Japanese bioethanol media team took a firsthand look at the U.S. corn crop this month.

Japan is one of the largest and most loyal markets for U.S. feed grains, often the top purchaser of U.S. corn as well as an important buyer of U.S. sorghum, barley and distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS). Since opening an office there in 1961 - just one year after the organization’s founding - the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) has worked closely with Japanese grain buyers and end-users to develop their industry to serve increasing demand for meat, milk and eggs. Today, that work is led by Tommy Hamamoto, who discusses the priorities for his office here. 

Tell us in brief about what your office does day-to-day.

The Japan office is in charge of the now-second largest international market for U.S. corn. We serve as the first point of contact for the loyal Japanese corn customers to provide information on corn production, supply and demand through seminars, bringing corn farmer visitors to Japan, and also corn quality information meetings like one that happened in Washington, D.C., last week with Japanese feed manufacturers. 

What is important about this information to the Japanese customer?

It strengthens our credibility through transparency on U.S. corn. There are times we have quality challenges and times we have problems that are weather-related, logistics-related - anything can happen that is beyond our control. Still, they want something from us on what is happening and, by knowing it as quickly as possible or beforehand, they will be prepared. Sometimes they will switch to other sources - that’s not something we want to happen - but they will come back when such things are solved. Transparency is a strength of us, the U.S. corn industry. 

Japan is known for doing business based on relationships. Tell us a bit about how that works. 

 


It may be a part of Asian culture, and it is probably true in the United States and other parts of the world, that the Japanese value personal relationships, meeting face to face. They are not just looking at the corn; they want to know who produces it and know how the corn got to their plants and their hands. A typical business practice is to show the farmer’s face at the supermarket. We want them to realize there are farmers producing corn and thinking about their customers. 

Why is quality always top-of-mind for the Japanese customer? 

If you travel to Japan and visit their feed mills, you will notice their plants are very clean, sophisticated and efficient. They really calibrate everything and set up everything for the best product possible. Their expectation of quality is very high. In particular, they have been using U.S. corn for decades, and they take it for granted that they can get high-quality U.S. corn. 

From time to time, sometimes they are concerned about BCFM (broken corn and foreign material), sometimes moisture, sometime protein content. I feel that the difference between the expectation of U.S. users, including livestock feeders, and the Japanese manufacturers is protein. Japanese feed millers expect higher protein content corn and also, of course, less dust. 

Sometimes they appear to complain to us, but it is an honest emotion for them. They are trusting us, so they ask, "Why are you giving us low-quality corn?" They are not saying, no more U.S. corn. They really rely on U.S. corn, and they trust the quality of U.S. corn, which is why they give us their take on quality issues.

What is being done to address those concerns? 

I have been giving them that information through our newsletters, corn progress reports, corn quality reports and more. One of the most valuable things we do is to have U.S. corn farmers come and talk to them directly. Everybody loves it. 

What would you tell U.S. farmers about quality and its importance to your customers? 

U.S. farmers may hear something they do not want to hear about quality because it is probably the same everywhere in the world - the customer is king. They are telling me to keep supplying high-quality U.S. corn to us. To me, I feel that there is a very good appreciation of the corn quality; they would only speak to us when there is a problem, but they are really satisfied with the production and quality and supply of U.S corn.

What is the competitive landscape like right now in Japan? 

There is tougher competition from South American corn and corn from South Africa and East Europe. One of the reasons is that they have started to produce more corn at a competitive price, but we have an advantage of having Japanese investment in the United States and very well established relationships between the two countries so that the Japanese rely on the United States as a stable supplier. However, when there is more corn, they will look at other sources, too, depending on price. In the long term, when we do our business in an honest, transparent way, they will always value us as a stable supplier of quality corn. 

How has it been seen in Japan that the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which also included Japan? 

It was kind of a surprise to most of the Japanese. The Japanese government realized that Japan has to be more trade-oriented, so TPP was one of their tools to realize that. So now the Japanese government is looking at TPP-11 and a free trade agreement with the European Union. Still, the United States is one of the largest trading partners with Japan, and so they are still expecting the U.S. to be part of TPP. For the Japanese agriculture sector, TPP was a threat and also the trigger for them to think about their future. Now, it is temporarily gone, but still they have had their experience of thinking about the future, which is still beneficial for them. 

What is the attitude about trade in general? Japan seems to be moving forward.

In the Japanese general public, people know they need healthy trade. In terms of agricultural products and food, still some people are worried about low self-sufficiency and supply of food. Generally speaking though, they are really positive about trade. 

A fun one: what are some things you do in your job that you don’t think people realize you do? 

When I talk about the customers, they are feed millers. Those people know U.S. corn very well. That is not necessarily true for the general public and even some people who are using U.S. corn, like livestock producers. One of the things I am doing is going to livestock producers, colleges, high schools and industry organizations to give them an overview and general information on corn. I always ask people first what they think about corn and often find they do not know the difference between corn for animal feed and sweet corn. It is really something people are not aware of, but I think is very important to raise the awareness of general consumers and even some industry-related people. 

What do you want grain farmers and exporters to know about what you do? 

Japanese customers using U.S. corn want updates concerning the corn they are using every day. I would like to ask U.S. farmers and the U.S. corn industry to provide us with this information so that we can pass it on to our customers. The weekly update of U.S. corn progress is really well accepted by the Japanese customers. I really appreciate the U.S. corn farmers and related industry people’s willingness to serve the Japanese customers.

Learn more about the Council's work in Japan here.