There really is a butter shortage in Japan


I've been in Japan for the last couple of months, visiting family and so on. Whenever I'm here my I get a lot of requests to bake things, since I am known as the family baker for some reason. Early on my Aunt Satsuki, who is a great cook, warned me to stock up on butter. When I asked her why, she said that there was a severe shortage. At first I didn't believe her -- a butter shortages? In this day and age, in a wealthy country like Japan? But I quickly realized that she was right. There really is a butter shortage, and butter is actually being rationed at supermarkets and by other sellers to one block per customer, at least in the Tokyo area. I've never experienced this kind of ongoing non-emergency period rationing before, so it feels very strange.

The reason for this butter shortage is complicated, but it basically comes down to a lack of supply. In the short term, the severly hot summers of the last couple of years apparently exhausted the dairy cows and caused them to produce less milk. But there seem to be more serious long-term reasons too. Japan is made up of 4 big islands and thousands of small islands; of those big islands, the northernmost one, Hokkaido, has the type of climate and geography that's most suited to dairy farming. Ever since cattle started to be farmed for food in the late 19th century (prior to that the only cows around were working ones), Hokkaido has been the dairy of the nation. However, since it's a bit far away from most of the big population centers, most of its milk production has traditionally gone to making butter and skim milk. Fresh milk has been mostly produced at farms closer to the big cities. However, it seems that for several years now dairy farming in Hokkaido has been declining, along with the production of butter and skim milk. Dairy farming nationwide has been declining too as the population ages and the farming population continues to dwindle. (Other reasons have been cited too, such as the rise in the price of imported feed due to the dropping yenIronically this decline on the supply side has come at a time when the interest in home baking has been growing, not to mention the increasing westernization of the Japanese diet. Butter is being consumed than before, but domestic production is not keeping up.

The Abe government has imported "emergency shipments" of butter twice already this year. But unless it can also do something about domestic dairy production, butter may be in short supply for some time. (One indication of the realness of the shortage is this: the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) has a long information page (Japanese) for concerned consumers. Another indication is the price of butter - 200g of a mass-produced brand of regular salted butter costs 400-500 yen.)

Despite reports floating around about "butter refugees" and the like, the rationing situation is not really at a wartime level or anything. The limitation that some stores are placing on purchases is one block per type of butter per customer, so you could theoretically buy a block each of all the butter brands the store carries. What seems to be happening to some extent is that some people are hording butter, causing some stores to run out of stock quickly. The everyday butter my mother buys to spread on toast has always been available at the store she usually gets it from.

I've discovered that I need to scramble a bit to get enough butter to keep up with the demand for pound cakes and panettones though. I've been ordering them from baking supply stores in 500 gram blocks -- they too have a 1 block per customer limit, but again I can order 1 block of several brands and types of butter (you can usually get unsalted, salted and cultured butter). It's made me try different brands of butter, which is interesting. But again, just having a limitation on a basic food ingredient is a new and unsettling experience for me. And the thought that at least two of the reasons for this may be 1. climate change (= severely hot summers) and 2. the aging population (the decline in farming) is very sobering.

(If you don't have a butter shortage in your area, check out my recipe for poundcake with brandy soaked raisins.)

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I have a somewhat related question. I'm German (with Japanese heritage) and work in the medical field. Everybody here assumes that I'm lactose-intolerant because of being "Asian". And everyone teaching about lactose intolerance tells me that "all" Japanese are lactose intolerant, and that because of that, you can't buy cheese or milk in Japan. This is from people who are supposed to be scientist (backing up "stories" with data). All people in my family love to drink milk with no problems, but this post about dairy farming made me wonder again: Are really so many Japanese intolerant to Lactose?
And does this have to do with lower numbers of dairy farming in general?

Dairy products in Germany are such a basic staple for most people living here (consumed in HUGE quantities each day) that a butter shortage would probably make lots of Germans very angry^^

First of all, lactose intolerence has absolutely nothing to do with the dairy farming situation, which is influenced by economic conditions and the aging population in rural areas.

You can certainly buy cheese, milk and other dairy products all over Japan. Milk is served as part of school lunches. I don't know where your acquaintances are getting their "information" from. As to the incidence of lactose intolerence, there seems to be some disagreement as to how prevalent it is in the general population, since different studies have come up with very different results. But again, that has nothing at all to do with the butter shortage. (And there are lots of dairy products available for people who have trouble digesting milk itself, e.g. yogurt and other cultured/fermented dairy products. The government has had a policy of encouraging dairy consumption as a way to consume calcium since late 19th century, and especially after WWII.)

Thank you for your answer.

Hello, I am A German who lived for a year in Japan and studied food science in Germany. During my studies several teachers cited studies that indicate most peoples in the world are "lactose-intolerant". It is the normal state of adult humans since only babies for who milk is the standard food were able to digest milk. It is simply normal nature that when people get older, the ability to digest milk declines.
Western countries were dairy farming were established the peoples adapted to the bigger amounts of dairy available over along time. So most of us produce long into the adult age the enzyme Lactase which breaks down lactose into smaller sugars although some have problems when they get older. The basic reason why Japanese people can digest milk although a lot are scientifically lactose-intolerant is the amount of dairy consumed.
German for example consume the most calories they eat a day through dairy (not very healthy btw.) So maybe milk, butter and yoghurt for breakfast, milk in coffee, cream in the pasta sauce, it all adds up. I know teenage boys here who drank up to 3 litres milk a day. So as long Japanese people consume "japanese amounts" of dairy their digestive system can keep up, but if they would try to drink 2 litres a day it would cause most of them severe discomfort. The prices in Japan for dairy usually keeps people from consuming unhealthy amounts of lactose :-) I hope that cleared things up.

As a westerner living in Tokyo the butter shortage is an often talked about topic over lunches or FB chats. We recently had an international food sale at our winter festival and the butter shortage was very obvious. Add to that holiday baking and westerners are ringing our hands over lack of butter. Remedies include walking from grocery store to home and stopping at every market and combini along the way to buy a single stick from each place. Multiple family members entering the store to each buy a stick of butter and being at the shop when the door opens to be able to buy your single stick of butter each of salted and unsalted before everyone else descends to buy their one stick and the butter sells out. For the international stores that cater to foreigners the butter is very hard to come by but at my local markets butter always seems to be available so if I buy one stick a day for a week then I've usually amassed enough butter to bake various cakes and pies. I guess I could just bake less but baking at the holidays is as much a tradition of Christmas for my family as is the twinkling lights and gifts.

Hope you're well these days and enjoying your stay in Japan. Happy holidays and Happy Baking!

I live in a rural part of Hokkaido that's known for its milk and dairy products. There's even a milk&cheese museum nearby where you can try making your own cheese! But I'm also lactose-intolerant AND vegan (not a great combination here that's for sure!), so I haven't really been walking down the dairy isle in a long long time ^^;;
Maybe this weekend I'll check out the butter situation when I go to the local supermarket and report back!

I live in Colorado Springs, CO, USA -- normally during the holidays butter and all baking supplies are well stocked and on sale, and it's when I buy the bulk of what I need for the year. Last year, a well named Butter cost about $1.50 on sake and with coupons. This year, you're lucky to get the Store Brand Generic for $1.99 per pound. I was hoping to stock up (12-15 pounds frozen) but it looks like I may have to wait and see what happens at Easter.

I suppose the problem here is that feed for animals is so expensive. We put corn in our gas tanks, taking away from food and food production supplies. Hotter summers burn up and dry our the farm areas that aren't flooded. It's been a precarious couple of years for the American farmer and rancher, so many cutting back heards and planting. We can only hope 2015 is better for everyone, consumer and producer alike.

This is really surprising, Maki! Maybe they need more cows to supply their dairy products. Does Japanese love to indulge with butter?

Can't you just use margarine? I never buy butter as it's so expensive (both in Japan and in my country).

Margarine is bad for your health. My friend used to work in a margarine factory and said if you saw how it was made, you would never eat it. It comes out as a grey muck which they then colour to a nice gold colour.
There is nothing healthy in
margarine, even those that say it is made with olive oil. I have been told that on a molecular basis that it is very close to plastic.

Butter is full of vitamins especially very important K2, but butter produced from grass fed cows is the healthiest.