By Melissa Francis
With ‘Veganuary’ in full swing, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the Japan vegan food sector.
Overview of the Japan vegan food sector
In 2018, 600,000 people in the UK said they were vegan which represents around 1.2% of the population. Interestingly, Japan, has a similar level at 1%. Given that Japan’s population is twice the size of the UK’s, this amounts to 1.3 million people.
Rather than being on specific gluten-free, dairy-free or plant-based diets, Japanese tend to watch their sugar intake or the number of calories in their food. There is a strong focus on achieving nutritional balance through a varied diet that includes meat and fish. This, coupled with a comparatively low level of political concern around food-based crises is keeping the number of vegetarians and vegans small.
On the other hand, Shojin ryori, the staple diet of Buddhist monks, is vegan by nature and there are a number of restaurants across the country that serve this type of cuisine, although it tends to be more on the premium side in terms of cost and presentation, much like kaiseki ryori (a multi-course dinner made with key Japanese ingredients).
According to research conducted in September 2019 by Rakuten Insight, 53% have tried plant-based foods citing health concerns as the motivator. Superior taste is a much less important factor, however, with just 12% stating that they had tried plant-based alternatives for this reason. Plant-based milks, including soy and oat were most commonly consumed (61%), while a quarter stated they had tried plant-based sweets or desserts. In terms of gender split, the share of those who had previously eaten plant-based alternatives to products containing animal ingredients was roughly a third for both male and female respondents (37% vs. 34% respectively).
What vegan options have recently become available in Japan?
While it’s more common to find speciality restaurants catering towards vegan cuisine, only 2,100 establishments were recorded as of January 2020, compared with the 40,000 plus available in Europe and America. There’s also a growing number of eat-at-home products available online, at supermarkets and in convenience stores. As some vegans have noted while travelling in Japan, a lot of the food is ‘accidentally vegan’ by default. HUKU Corp. created an interactive map of restaurants for vegetarians and vegans travelling within Japan called ‘Vegemap’. You can access it here.
VEGAN STORE Asakusa
At the beginning of December 2019, VEGAN STORE was opened near Tsukuba Express Asakusa Station in Tokyo. Originally the convenience store was intended to appeal to foreign visitors, but the owner says that there are many people coming from Okinawa and Aomori prefectures in particular. There are a range of hot snacks and options like soft serve vegan ice-cream available alongside bread, vegan cheese, nut milks and noodles made fresh in store. Global Meets, the company behind VEGAN STORE wants to expand the concept nationwide and create menus that anybody can eat, regardless of age.
From Summer 2020, they will also be able to manufacture products in-house from their factory which will enable them to broaden their range of offerings. The overall aim is to make the Japan vegan food market just another type of everyday cuisine in the same vein as French, Italian or Chinese.
Carob Kitchen BANJO Bear Bars
This Australian brand of vegan carob-focused snacks has been in existence for more than twenty years, but the bars have only just been introduced to Japan in January 2020. They are distributed by Alishan Organics, a Saitama-based company run by husband and wife team Jack and Fey. Alishan specialises in the import of vegan, organic and sustainable foods to the Japanese market and they have an online shop called Tengu Natural Foods. The process of the BANJO Bear production and the story behind the brand is especially highlighted for Japanese audiences.
MIZUBASHO Pure Sake
In July 2019, Nagai Sake Brewery in Gunma prefecture’s MIZUBASHO Pure range became the second sake producer in Japan to gain official vegan certification. Although the alcoholic beverage is primarily made from rice-derived ingredients, in many cases gelatine is also added to aid starch removal. The move to certify sake is partly because it’s such a popular export and point of interest for visitors to the country that they want to make it accessible to all. A luncheon was held in Osaka shortly afterwards to celebrate the different vegan menus that could be paired with the drinks. This helped chefs to devise new dishes that could be served at various ryokan across Japan.
Ito-Yokado Meat-free Corner Trial
At the end of October 2019, a Yokohama branch of shopping centre Ito-Yokado started trialling displays of soybean meat in its own corner next to the butcher. This has enabled customers to become more aware of these products that they might not have tried before and it appealed especially to health-conscious shoppers. Options in this section include the ‘Zero-Meat’ series from Otsuka Foods, and Marukome’s ‘Soybean Meat’ series. These brands have a strong reputation in the growing sector, with customers feeling surprised that the products are not made from meat and returning for repeat purchases.
The corner has been most popular among those aged 40 or over. The store manager, Matsushima-san, noted that his sales goal is for the meat-free hamburgers to comprise 10% of total hamburger sales.
What’s next for the Japan vegan food sector?
The provision of vegan and alternative options is under discussion, especially in light of the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In 2018, 5% of the 31.2 million visitors to Japan were either following a vegetarian or vegan diet, which represents a significant market value of 46.8 billion JPY ($427 million USD). Since approximately 40 million people are set to visit Japan throughout this year, catering to the varying requirements will be important to ensure greater satisfaction and hospitality. This also extends to free-from in all its forms as well as other dietary concerns tied to culture, such as the provision of Halal meat for Muslim visitors.
With a ‘Vege Council’ having been launched in November 2019 to further promote initiatives relating to plant-based diets, there is an emphasis on officially certifying more products as vegan, as well as introducing a clear product labelling system to ensure that complications due to allergies and intolerances can be avoided.
If you want to read more about the Japanese food market, take a look at this post we did on ramen in Japan.