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Japan Is in a State of Butter Emergency

The island nation is facing a poorly-timed butter shortage, leaving businesses and home bakers anxious about their holiday pastry output.
Photo via Flickr user Taryn

It's almost Christmastime, and that means that in kitchens across the world, home cooks will soon be confecting the sweet cakes, cookies and treats that all rely on the same rich, milky ingredient: butter. But Japan—a country whose cuisine is known for its sushi and miso soup, but which is also fond of Western-style desserts—might be facing a holiday season that's depressingly low in pastry output.


According to a spate of reports in both the Japanese and American media, Japan is currently experiencing an epic butter shortage as a result of a too-hot summer that reduced milk outputs of the country's dairy cows. Under hot weather conditions, dairy cows experience heat stroke that causes their milk production to drop (among other effects like a pronounced drop in libido).

To deal with its low-lipid crisis, Japan is urging its dairy farmers to pump up production. Four major makers have agreed to produce an extra 500 tons this month, and the country is also upping imports of the good greasy stuff, shipping in 7,000 tons to keep holiday bakers well-supplied this December.

But those pounds of delicious, flaky-pastry-producing butter come at a steep price. In order to protect domestic producers, Japan limits its imports of dairy products to 137,000 tons per year, and when importing above that level must pay steep tariffs—as is this case this holiday season. And Japanese shoppers are feeling the pinch.

"Butter prices have been increasing recently. I think the croissants and other pastries that use a lot of butter in bakeries have either gotten more expensive, or the sizes have become smaller," Satoko Maeda, a homemaker living near Tokyo, told The Wall Street Journal.

Some Japanese grocery stores are even rationing butter sales to one block per customer, impelling one Twitter user, @justastarter1, to call herself a "butter refugee" after shopping around and failing to find enough butter for her needs.

Once Japan gets through the particularly high-need holiday season, its butter levels should get back on track, Tetsuo Ishihara, managing director of the Japan Dairy Association, told The Wall Street Journal.

Overindulgence in rich, fatty foods is proving to be a problem for Japan this month. Because of labor disputes at ports on the US's west coast, shipments of American French fries to Japan have been disrupted and delayed since May, when new dockworker contracts were met with disapproval. One fast-food company, Skylark Co., announced that it would fly in an emergency supply of 200 tons of fries to meet customer demand.

By all indications, Japanese junk food-seekers are having a rough go of it this month. But hey—maybe a leaner December will help this nation of 128 million people avoid holiday weight gain, and enter the new year fit, trim, and ready to attack pastries and deep-fried foods with a newfound sense of appreciation.