Pioneering businessman Thanasis Fragkis was the very first person to introduce olive oil and other traditional Greek products to Japan more than a decade ago.
Olive oil, wine, feta cheese and Greek yogurt, relatively unknown food items to this Far Eastern country, are now being enjoyed as the great gourmet delicacies they are.
Speaking to Greek Reporter from his home in the town of Mito, around 120 km (76 miles) north of Tokyo, Fragkis was justifiably proud of his achievement.
“We have taught the Japanese to eat olive oil, cheeses, including feta, yogurt that were not part of their diet. They hardly knew of olive oil,” he says in wonderment.
Originally from the town of Kymi on the island of Evia, Fragkis emigrated to England, where he met his future wife, who is Japanese.
“When we got married we thought ‘you are Japanese, I am Greek, what is the point of living in England?’. Greece was a difficult place to start a business in at the time, so we settled in Japan,” the entrepreneur explains.
When the young couple settled in Mito, Fragkis realized that there were no Greek foods whatsoever in the market where they shopped for groceries.
“I was regarded as a fool in Japan”
The businessman recalled at the time that he “thought it was a good idea to introduce Greek products there.”
Although his business partners advised him against it, Fragkis persisted.
“I was regarded as a fool when I told them my intention. I was told the Japanese diet is focused on fish and vegetables and that dairy products and olive oil have no chance to be successful,” he relates.
When Fragkis eventually launched nostimia.com, an e-shop selling Greek products, he was the sole importer of Greek foodstuffs to Japan.
“When we started, the average consumption of cheese per person was about 900 grams (2 pounds) per year. Now it’s at least 3.2 kg (7.05 pounds) per year,” he notes.
“Of course this rise is not exclusively of our doing. French cheeses, Italian and Spanish wines and olive oils are becoming more widespread. The Japanese are also making now their own cheeses, some of which are very interesting,” he adds.
Promoting Greek products in Japan
Fragkis imports Greek products by both sea and air, depending on the product. Olive oil and wine are shipped from his Greek suppliers, while less durable goods, including cheese and yogurt, are flown over to Japan.
In the last 4 to 5 years there has been an effort stemming from Athens to promote Greek products in Japan, he tells Greek Reporter.
“Wine in particular has made a significant increase in sales, by about 15 percent every year, over the last years. Although Greek wines constitute a small percentage of the market, the increase is significant,” Fragkis explains.
A similar story is occurring with cheeses due to the EU-Japan trade agreement, which calls for a gradual elimination of tariffs. “This is helping the promotion of feta which is recognized as a Greek cheese — and it has a monopoly,” he notes.
Fragkis is one among the estimated 350 Greeks who are permanent residents of Japan. But in his hometown of Mito, he is the one and only Greek citizen.
“I don’t really feel isolated in my city,” he says. “I often visit Tokyo and meet other Greeks, members of the Greek-Japanese Chamber of Commerce and diplomats at the Greek Embassy.”
He says that the Japanese beyond the academic circles actually know little about Greece. When we first arrived, the main question I was asked was how many seasons Greece has. This is a classic Japanese question. They are fascinated about seasons! They also wanted to find out more about my language and my religion,” he recalls.
Fragkis, who left Greece when he was 27 years of age, initially for the United Kingdom and then Japan, admits that he is nostalgic for Greece.
“I think all Greeks of the diaspora are nostalgic, especially the first generation Greeks,” he tells Greek Reporter wistfully.