It was three decades ago, but Kazuhiko Ochiai still remembers his first taste of cheese when he visited France, a palate pleaser that inspired the former researcher to start producing his own variety in Japan. But he now frets that a massive EU-Japan trade deal could spark a flood of cheap cheese imported from Europe that could take a generous slice out of his own business. Ochiai makes five kinds of cheese, including brie and a variety similar to comte.
Business has boomed with sales of 20 million yen ($177,500) this year, up from just two million yen when he started a decade ago.
"We cannot keep up with the demand," said the 74-year-old, who employs just a handful of staff.
But he acknowledged concern about the impact of the free-trade deal, which will eliminate the hefty 29.8-percent tariff currently imposed on imported cheese.
"I'm worried for the long term," Ochiai told Agence France-Presse (AFP) at his small factory in the mountainous city of Nasushiobara, north of Tokyo.
"I think the price competition will be fierce. It's hard for us to lower the price because it takes time and effort for small cheese makers," he said, adding that milk is much cheaper in Europe than in Japan. The deal signed in July - the largest ever negotiated by the EU - creates a huge free-trade area covering nearly one-third of global GDP, eliminating tariffs for everything from Japanese cars to French cheese.
Japanese consumption of cheese is increasing, from 279,000 tons in 2007 to 338,000 tons a decade later. But there is plenty of room for growth. Per capita, annual consumption is a scant 2.66 kilograms (5.86 pounds) compared to 27.2 kilograms in France, 24.7 kilograms in Germany. Around three-quarters of the cheese consumed is imported, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Hundreds of kilometers to the north, on the island of Hokkaido where most Japanese dairy products are made, cattle farmers are also watching trade developments with unease. "We're concerned that demand for cheese made in Japan might be lost," the Japan Agricultural Co-operative in Hokkaido told AFP.