By Samuel Arnold-Parra
In this article, Samuel Arnold-Parra discusses Japan’s preserved foods market, particularly canned options. He gives an overview of the sector’s history and trends while highlighting some of the key areas foreign brands can consider when thinking about expanding into Japan.
The Position of Canned and Preserved Foods in Japan
Preserved foods have a long history in Japan. Though canning as a method of preservation was not adopted until the late 19th Century, early in Japan’s industrial Meiji period, the use of fermentation and salting or drying by the Japanese in order to preserve food stretches back at least as far as the Nara period between 710 – 794 AD. One more recent food preservation technology which tends to be more popular among consumers in Japan than those in countries like the United States or the United Kingdom is retort pouches. Many Japanese food manufacturers opt to use retort pouches for the sale of soups, sauces and seasonings which can be enjoyed quickly.
Like in many other countries, convenience is a large part of why people buy canned goods in Japan. Unlike many European countries, where a single larger meal is served, many Japanese households serve a variety of smaller dishes at meal times (referred to as okazu). Canned foods and similar products are well-suited to this style of meal, given their typically small size and ease of preparation. Preserved foods also have utility in Japan as a safe and reliable source of nourishment in the aftermath of earthquakes and other disaster situations.
The Preserved Foods Market: Outline and Trends
Japan’s preserved foods market is large and diverse. Looking at canned foods alone, there are over 800 varieties circulating in the market. Seafood products account for the majority of canned food production, with over 93,000 tons of canned seafood products manufactured in 2020.
One notable trend which has recurred in Japan’s canned seafood sub sector over the last 10 years is the so-called “mackerel boom”. The first mackerel boom occurred in 2013 after attention grew towards the product as a health food; demand grew so high that some supermarkets in Tokyo limited sales to one can per customer. A second boom occurred in 2018, driven partly by the emergence of high-end canned mackerel products. A third boom began in early 2021 owing partly to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on consumer shopping habits, which grew to favour foods with long shelf lives like canned goods.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated more than just the sale of mackerel in Japan. After the Japanese government announced the first COVID-19 related State of Emergency in April 2020, sales of preserved foods increased across the board. Canned fish and vegetable sales grew by approximately 30%, while tinned desserts and meat products saw upturns of 42% and 53% respectively.
It is probable that heightened demand for preserved foods will continue over the medium term owing to lingering uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and survey results indicating a trend within Japan towards stocking up on food.
The development of high grade and novelty preserved food products is another apparent trend which has received growing publicity in Japan in recent years. The firm arguably leading this trend is Kokubu Group, which developed a range of high end canned snacks and meals under the “K&K Kantsuma” label in 2010. Owing to positive consumer reception, Kokubu’s range has expanded to over 70 different products and other companies have released their own competing lines.
The popularisation of more expensive, high-end canned food products is also likely to continue due to a COVID-driven shift towards drinking at home rather than going out. In conjunction with this shift, demand has grown for convenient products and services which can approximate a restaurant experience at home; brands like the Kantsuma range are poised to be able to capitalize on this shift.
Noteworthy Canned and Preserved Foods in Japan
Toyo Foods’ tinned cheesecake, sold as part of its “Totteoki Foods” line of products, is a good example of some of the more unconventional canned foods available in the Japanese market. Toyo Foods began research and development for the product after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, when the firm noted a lack of dessert products suited to disaster situations. The product has also garnered appeal as being ideal for camping trips or a quick snack. Consequently, Toyo Foods has created new products in its tinned dessert range, such as an assortment of canned cupcakes introduced in 2017.
Canned yakitori (grilled chicken) provides an example of a convenient, ready-to-eat preserved food product which is perfect for the recent trend towards drinking at home. It goes perfectly with beer, and can easily be incorporated into another recipe or simply be enhanced with the addition of cheese and other toppings for a satisfying meal. One company, Hotei, began selling a 1.75kg can of yakitori in 2013, ideal for larger gatherings. Other Japanese foods available in tins include takoyaki and okonomiyaki, underlining the variety of preserved food products in the Japanese market.
If you’d like to be featured on the Tokyoesque blog, either in the form of an interview or by writing a guest article related to the Japanese market, please get in touch.