Bananas are now ubiquitous in Japan, but not so long ago, they were difficult to find and very expensive. My husband remembers a time in the mid-1950s when one piece of banana cost 40 yen. The average monthly salary of new college graduates then was 5,000 yen.
Just as Filipinos once dreamed of eating apples because they were exotic, so did Japanese like my husband yearn for bananas (his mother, however, said: “maybe next time”). Even now, some bananas are sold in single, carefully wrapped pieces at 285 -350 yen each, far more than the 35-45 pesos that they would cost per bunch in the Philippines. There are Hello Kitty bananas that sell for 115 yen each, if bought in batches of ten pieces.
In May 9, 2015, the Takashimaya Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo carried 59 limited-edition Dole premium bananas. Developed out of a hybrid of 100 bananas and grown at 500 meters above sea level, this Gokusen variety was supposed to be 36.5% sweeter, 33.4% more fragrant, and 40% better-textured (don’t ask me how Dole’s R&D arrived at these stats!). Each banana, weighing 200 grams, was packed in a special box and sold for 590 yen.
Bananas are still the top fruit import for Japan in terms of volume and value. In 2015, Japanese imported 959,000 tons of bananas, a decline from the peak import of 1.079 million tons at the height of the banana craze in 2008-2009. (The latest national craze is for kiwifruit.)
Until the 1970s, Japan had to get its bananas from Taiwan and Latin America, of which Ecuador remains the leading exporter. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly 90% of the bananas consumed in Japan came from the Philippines, even though the Philippine share of the global market for bananas was only 10%. But typhoons have wreaked havoc on plantations, and the price of bananas has increased over the past year. Because China’s emergence as a leading importer of Philippine bananas has made it difficult for Japanese importers to secure steady supplies, companies like Royal (based in Kyoto) are now looking to source their bananas from other countries such as Vietnam and Mozambique.
The bananas one finds in Japanese supermarkets—prominently branded as Philippine –are almost always the Cavendish sort. “Señorita”-type petite bananas like Ladyfingers and Orito appear once in a while and are targeted at children, but Cavendish lords it over all the imported fruit in Japan. More recently, “Midio” bananas from the Philippines–medium-sized Cavendish—have come into the market.
Banana is eaten with yogurt, blended into shakes, and used in cakes. Tokyo Banana (東京ばな奈, the company’s name a pun) sells 4 billion yen’s worth of steamed sponge cakes filled with banana custard every year.
Filipinos who are used to eating latundan, lakatan, and saba back home find the Cavendish variety rather bland. A recent essay in Nikkei Shimbun quoted an American commodities trader as saying “A banana is a banana,” meaning all bananas taste alike. The Japanese writer then went on to argue that while this may be true of bananas, Japanese can and do distinguish melons by their quality and price them accordingly.
The essayist is wrong. A banana is not just a banana, for there are many kinds, and taste does matter with bananas as much as melons. My friend Jojo Abinales tells me that the banana farmers who work next to the Dole plantation in southern Mindanao are puzzled by the Japanese preference for Cavendish. When told that the Japanese like this kind of banana for its large size, its uniform yellow color, and its relatively unblemished skin, the farmers ask: “Why eat Cavendish when it has no taste?” Cavendish bananas are what they feed their carabaos and pigs.
Japanese importers have been trying to find and sell bananas that bruise less easily because the Japanese consumer will settle for nothing less than goods without physical “flaws.” But in fact, the black or brown “blemishes” are “sugar spots” (Pinoys call them “kalawang”, lit., rust) that appear in the final stage of the ripening of the banana, and are much prized in the Philippines. The plump, creamy, pale- and thin-skinned latundan (apple banana or silk banana) can only be eaten once it is completely ripe, and the black spots indicate the sweetness of the fruit. The yellow-orange, long-fingered lakatan—pisang berangan in Malaysia and Indonesia and kluai hom maew and kluai ngang phaya in Thailand–is rich in vitamin B-carotene. Saba, a plantain and therefore starchier and less sugary, is best served boiled or else rolled in brown sugar or wrapped lumpia-style with a sliver of langka (jackfruit) and fried.
Variety, price, and availability all season make the banana the most common fruit eaten in the Philippines. Nutritionists say that bananas are rich in vitamins, more so than apples, but this scientific information, for me, is less impressive than the fact that Elvis Presley’s favorite snack was peanut butter and banana sandwich–mashed ripe banana and peanut butter between a couple of layers of bread, toasted under the grill. Elvis ate four or five of them at a time when he was posted in the American base in Germany. Talk about comfort food!
In May 2015, latundan could be found in supermarkets like Fresco under the brand name “Banapple” and the slogan “The black spots tell you the banana is good to eat”. The sad thing, though, is that it’s harder and harder to find latundan in Philippine supermarkets these days.
Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in “Letters to Narcissus”