TOKYO -- Currencies can swing up and down, affecting the relative value of the dollar to the Japanese yen or Chinese yuan. But currency swings aren’t as important to dairy exports as the fundamentals of working with customers and meeting their needs.

That was the underlying message when a U.S. dairy trade delegation visited Japan in November 2011.  

“There are quite a few advantages of U.S. products, and people are starting to see the advantages of these products as time goes by,” Steve Shnitzler, director of the Agricultural Trade Office for the U.S. embassy in Japan, told the group. 

Indeed, a huge success story is unfolding with regard to U.S. cheese exports to Japan.

Between 1995 and 2010, there was more than a five-fold increase in the amount of U.S. cheese exported to Japan. In 2011, cheese exports were up considerably from 2010, amounting to 22,882 metric tons.

New Zealand and Austrailia remain the largest suppliers of cheese to Japan. But the Japanese want to diversify and include more suppliers from a risk-management standpoint, and that has benefitted the U.S., points out Jeff McNeill, director of the Japan office for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Kurt James, senior vice president of the product and supply chain division for McDonalds in Japan, told a story that illustrates the importance of having good working relationships.

McDonald’s in Japan had been buying cheese mainly from Australia and New Zealand until approached by McNeill and others representing the U.S. After discussions in which McDonalds made it clear they wanted a reliable supplier who could work with them over the long-run to reduce price volatility, McNeill paired them up with a California cheese company that was open-minded on the risk-management issue, and McDonalds started doing business with them.

“We are actively buying and doubled what we did last year,” James said.

While price is important —and surely the weaker U.S. dollar against Asian currencies has made American products more attractive — a good working relationship and quality products can make the critical difference.  

As narrated in the above video, it’s important to get to know the Japanese customers on a personal level and understand their needs.  

“The U.S. is seen (by the Japanese) as a very high-quality supplier of food,” Shnitzler said.  Based on consumer surveys he has seen over the years, Shnitzler said the Japanese tend to rate the United States and Australia as two of the highest when it comes to quality.

“The image of the U.S. is very strong here,” he said. That image was reinforced last year when more than 19,000 U.S. servicemen in Japan participated in the Operation Tomodachi relief effort following a devastating earthquake in March 2011.