Strawberries make for a colorful display at supermarkets and produce shops during the season in Japan, enticing customers with their multiple fragrant varieties.

It is no wonder as, according to the agriculture ministry, the country has some 300 varieties of strawberries, with some experts claiming that more than half of the world's breeds have their roots in Japan.

Strawberry harvests and the acreage used for growing the fruit have been declining steadily due to aging growers and a lack of successors. Despite this, there is a growing rivalry between producers looking to improve their own crops, leading to an explosion of new varieties as they seek to gain an edge in national markets.

Some have dubbed the current situation as one of "Warring Strawberry States," a humorous comparison to the Sengoku ("Warring States") period -- a time in Japanese history characterized by civil wars and social unrest in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Shinichiro Matsuda, a senior official at the Shiga Prefectural Agricultural Technology Promotion Center, is pictured on March 6, 2024, with "Mioshizuku" strawberries being grown at the center in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. (For editorial use only)(Kyodo)

"This is very juicy, and when you put it in your mouth, the juice just drips out," boasted Shinichiro Matsuda, a senior official at the Shiga Prefectural Agricultural Technology Promotion Center as he described the textures of the "Mioshizuku" strawberry, the first original breed of the fruit to be harvested in the western prefecture near Kyoto, which took five years to develop.

Beginning the breeding in 2016, the new variety was born out of a selection process from approximately 1,600 candidates, using a cross between "Kaorino," a strawberry with moderate acidity and a strong aroma, and "Akihime," which is very sweet.

Kaorino was developed in the neighboring prefecture of Mie, while Akihime originated from Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan.

Photo taken March 6, 2024, shows "Mioshizuku" strawberries at the Shiga Prefectural Agricultural Technology Promotion Center in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. (Kyodo)

Full-scale sales of Mioshizuku began in Shiga Prefecture and the Tokyo metropolitan area in December. Shiga is not known as a primary strawberry production area, and strawberry farmers there had previously engaged almost exclusively in direct sales.

Matsuda emphasized the significance of the shift that resulted from the new breed.

"There would always be unsold products if direct sales by farmers continued, and they would not be able to make a living," he said. "We decided to supply our original variety to the market through new sales channels. This was also at the farmers' request."

"It's not like becoming Tochigi or Fukuoka (the two top strawberry-producing prefectures)...first, we are striving to boost awareness among locals and let them know how tasty it (the new breed) is," Matsuda said.

Despite his modesty, Matsuda says the Shiga prefectural government has set its sights on exporting the new brand overseas in the future.

Tochigi has been the country's largest strawberry producer for over half a century since 1968, proclaiming itself the "Strawberry Kingdom."

Its original "Tochiotome" brand has long been recognized across the country, becoming the main variety produced across many regions in eastern Japan both in and outside the prefecture, located north of Tokyo.

Even Tochigi, however, has had to keep itself at high readiness and avoid resting on its laurels -- such as was the case during the Sengoku period that saw a superior power experience sudden decline and become supplanted by a subordinate one.

Photo taken on March 12, 2024, shows a "Strawberry Kingdom" introduction booth at the Strawberry Research Institute of the Tochigi Prefectural Agriculture Experiment Station in the city of Tochigi. (Kyodo)

As in many other strawberry-growing areas, harvests and farming acreage have been declining in Tochigi, leading to the development of the new "Tochiaika" breed, which is considered a more resilient, competitive successor to Tochiotome.

In fact, Tochiotome has already lost its top ranking to Tochiaika in terms of total crop acreage in the prefecture, according to a survey conducted last year by a local agriculture cooperative.

Tochiaika was developed by the Strawberry Research Institute of the Tochigi Prefectural Agriculture Experiment Station in 2018 and has been shipped outside Tochigi since the fall of 2021.

Photo taken on March 5, 2024, shows a sign in front of the prefectural office promoting strawberries grown in Tochigi Prefecture. (Kyodo)

The prefectural government will step up its marketing for Tochiaika under a plan to expand its acreage to 80 percent of the total land area for strawberry cultivation in 2027. It stood at 55 percent in the local survey.

Tochiaika was born after seven years of development. It is resistant to chlorosis, a disease that causes leaves to turn yellow and shrivel, and is larger and sweeter than Tochiotome. In addition, the yield of Tochiaika is 1.3 times that of Tochiotome per unit area.

Its surface is more resistant to damage, meaning it can withstand long-distance transportation, and is suitable for exports.

According to Akitsugu Hatakeyama, a strawberry researcher at the Tochigi institute, another distinct feature of Tochiaika is that it can be shipped in mid-October, roughly a month earlier than Tochiotome. A high unit price in the early season leads to increased revenues, which has gained the support of farmers, he says.

In Tochigi, growers harvest their main strawberry varieties until May or June. But Hatakeyama said studies are underway to develop breeds for longer cropping periods.

It is difficult for strawberry plants to bear fruit and grow large under high temperatures in the summer. But some experts say a breed good enough to eat year-round may be developed sooner or later.

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