By Giulia Ferraro
There is a longstanding history of vegetarianism and veganism in Japan, stemming from Buddhist traditions that began to take root in the 6th Century AD. Among a recent wave of change, including vows by high-profile politicians to remove the “shackles” on the vegan food industry by establishing clear labelling guidelines, we look at the current landscape of vegetarian and vegan cuisine in Japan, and how a weak yen and a huge gap in the market means that foreign vegan products should be in Japan now.
Overview of Vegetarianism and Veganism in Japan
In the UK, Japanese food is often thought to be a healthy cuisine, and oftentimes UK-based Japanese chain restaurants extensively market themselves as vegetarian/vegan-friendly places. For example, half of Wagamama’s menu is now plant-based (including extensive vegan ramen options, capitalising on the dish‘s astronomical rise in global popularity), and in its manifesto Wagamama makes it clear that the company’s mission is closely aligned with health and sustainability.
Some people may therefore be surprised to learn that vegetarianism and veganism are not practised by the majority of Japanese people. While the exact numbers are unknown, a 2019 survey by Vegewel suggests that only 2.1% of the Japanese population are vegetarian/vegan. Japan does have a history of vegan cuisine from its Buddhist roots (called shojin ryouri), but these days most dishes contain fish stock, making practicing veganism in Japan a difficult venture for many.
Climate Change and Veganism
In recent years, the conversation surrounding climate change has picked up, and most people are aware that the meat industry is detrimental to the environment. Indeed, in the West, the decision to adopt a vegan diet is mostly driven by environmental issues. As a result, most restaurants, cafes and F&B products offer plant-based options, and many new vegan ventures have popped up. Conversely, veganism in Japan has yet to reach the mainstream, and there are still not many options available.
Compared to the 40,000+ vegan-friendly establishments in Europe and America, only 2,100 vegan establishments were recorded in Japan in January of 2020. Interestingly, in the years leading up to the 2020 Olympics, some restaurants in Tokyo were planning to incorporate vegan dishes into their menu to accommodate all the international vegetarians/vegans they expected to house during the Olympics.
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Japanese companies are aware of this new, vegan wave: Nissin, for example, has produced vegan ramen options in their international catalogue to appeal to this recent vegan demand. “Soy meat” (a meat alternative made from soybeans) is also gaining momentum in Japan: popular miso paste producer Marukome has recently launched their Soybean Laboratories, which features over 30 soy meat alternatives.
Want to learn more about market trends for veganism in Japan? Click here.
In such ways, Japanese companies are doing their best to match their products to the global appetite. Despite this, vegan and vegetarian options are not ubiquitous as they are in the UK. There is still a huge niche in the Japanese vegan market, and so, if you are a UK vegan company thinking about expanding to Japan, this is an incredibly opportune time.
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Growing Awareness of Vegan Food in Japan
Whilst it is true that vegetarians and vegans are still in the minority in Japan, it was shown in a 2019 survey conducted by Japan Meat Information Service Centre that 50% of the population are aware of meat-alternative products. Furthermore, nearly 60% of respondents stated that they were ready to turn to plant-based products for their health and for the planet. Despite this growing domestic demand, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has only listed 12 domestic plant-based meat makers (as of 2019). Indeed, one quick sweep of a Japanese supermarket would make it clear to anybody that the range of vegan products is not as diverse or as varied as it is in the UK.
Effectively, the growing awareness about the ethical, environmental and health consequences that the meat industry poses have encouraged Japanese consumers to be more open to a plant-based diet. But, as options are still limited on the shelves, Japanese consumers are not able to act on this newfound awareness. And so, if you are a UK company that specialises in vegan/vegetarian F&B products, make most of this timely opportunity and populate this gap in the Japanese vegan market with your products.
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