Focus On: Veganism, What's Boiling Up in Japan?

An insight on vegan trends in Japan with Gizem Sakamaki, the creative mind behind Foodie Adventure Japan, an agency dedicated to sustainable tourism and food diversity.

Hello Market Shakers! 

After two complete cycles dedicated to the most significant categories in the plant-based market (Redefining Meat, Beyond Milk), let’s take a break and talk about veganism in Japan. 

In our previous issues, we alluded to the relatively nascent popularity of veganism in Japan as a possible factor in the increasing demand for plant-based food. Far from being a key driver, veganism is floating around, still in its developing stage. The majority of the population is not embracing this diet. Vegewel, an e-commerce and news media company dedicated to all dietary restrictions in Japan, estimated that only 4% of the population is vegetarian and a mere 1% vegan.

In a Vegconomist article published in September 2020, Haruko Kawano, representative of the VegeProject Japan, sums up how Japanese people perceived veganism as a foreign concept until recently. This perception led companies and the food industry to develop options to cater to tourists in priority. 

However, over the past few months, Japanese consumers, whom we talked with for our Consumers’ Sound Bites here and there, mentioned pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan diets. Some changed their eating habits. Others simply said knowing about these food trends and being curious about them. All signs that a shift is happening in people’s minds, whether for ethical, environmental, or health reasons!

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Veganism: what’s boiling up in Japan?

Curious to dig the matter further, we sat down with Gizem Sakamaki, the creative mind behind Foodie Adventure Japan, an agency dedicated to sustainable tourism and food diversity.

Gizem helps vegan, vegetarian, halal, and gluten-free travelers get the best experience navigating Japan’s food scene. Her experience developing food tours has given her a good understanding of what’s happening in Japan, particularly with the foodservice industry. 

Let’s dig in! 

What’s the general feel of the current veganism trend in Japan?

Is veganism progressing in the foodservice industry and retail?

In general, veganism isn’t very well supported here in Japan. The further you go out of urban areas, what I call the “golden triangle,” which consists of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, the less you find suitable foods for vegans.” 

Even the golden triangle isn’t an oasis for vegan folks. Foodservice—cafes, restaurants offering vegan options tend to concentrate in certain urban areas.

You can find vegan restaurants, but they’re not widely spread.I think there’s a lack of knowledge about veganism, which comes from a lack of needs. If there’s no market, it can’t develop. The concentration in the golden triangle coincides with areas where you have the highest number of foreign residents and large tourism growth. I believe this is a specific demand which helped the sector snowball on key locations.” 

The densely populated Tokyo and the greater Tokyo area stand as an exception, with several vegan-friendly neighborhoods where consumers with dietary restrictions are not short of options anymore. Fashion hubs Shibuya and Shimokitazawa, with their fancy youth-focused cafes and the international Minato ward, catering to expatriate communities, are some prominent examples in central Tokyo. 

Food products used to be scarce, too. But with the ongoing plant-based revolution, more options are coming into stores.

This past year [2020], supermarket chains like Aeon and Ito Yokado have opened up to a small shelf selection of soy meat and vegan products, such as vegan bolognese. I live in a bed town, close to central Tokyo, and that’s a perfect place to measure the penetration of these trends in Japanese daily life. The market is still niche, but it’s visibly growing.” 

Like with organic, vegan food was —still is— hard to find outside of specialized stores and upscale international supermarkets in big cities. But large food manufacturers and retailers’ interest in plant-based could give a push to a greener diet. The current drawback is that Japanese companies are not focusing specifically on 100% vegan food products. Many launched healthy, good-for-you ‘green’ products with traces of animal derivated ingredients. 

Nonetheless, the arrival of vegan and not-so-vegan products into the suburbs, particularly in cities along Japan’s megalopolis, is cause for hope for vegans. Today, consumers in Japan can find, limitedly, products that cater to their food restrictions in regular supermarkets. 

Social media is the key to keep an eye on vegan food options. 

Gizem does much groundwork to assist her clients in finding places that cater to their needs. But “it gets very thin outside of the golden triangle.” The vegan boom Japan experienced a couple of years before 2020 is tied with the perspective of the Olympic Games and a tourism increase. Projections had approximately 2 million vegan or vegetarian visitors for the year 2020. The pandemic significantly disrupted the tourism industry, and the vegan restaurant industry lost its momentum for a minute. 

I think the trend will pick up again after the inbound tourism restarts. I believe, or more like, would like to believe that there’s going to be a boom of off-the-beaten-track Japan that’ll develop around these niche food restrictions.

Gizem tracks vegan restaurants (and more!) on a map and does many searches online, using websites such as Happy Cow. However, reliable sources are scarce and not regularly updated.

I’d rather rely on social media and personal recommendations. These platforms are more fresh and reliable. Also, as appreciative as the vegan community is for these listing websites, their references sometimes end up being incorrect with menu or opening hour errors.

The foodservice scene is fluid and can evolve pretty quickly. Teams managing these websites can hardly keep up. Finding restaurants is only half the battle. Teaming up with them is another matter.

I think these places are very niche, and there are few of them. They serve a uniformed community and are very specific in the way they want to do things. One of those is that they don’t necessarily want to form other partnerships with businesses. When I reach out, they don’t necessarily see the merit in tying up with us to reach wider audiences.

What are the barriers for the Japanese foodservice industry to embrace vegan options?

Living in Japan as a vegan is getting easier. But a question remains. What makes it so difficult for local restaurants and cafes to serve 100% plant-based options? One barrier is technical and stems from Japanese condiments. 

From a service provider perspective, the difficulties lie with Japanese condiments like dashi (soup stock). Being the base of Japanese cuisine, unless you go out of your way to find a vegetable base like kelp, you will always find dashi with bonito. I think the difficult part. Ironically, soy products in the land of soy, is also not always vegan. Condiments can be non-vegan which already start all misery.

If you want to be a plant-based business, you have to start planning with non-animal ingredient condiments and then look at ingredients with a critical eye. In the best case, asking for assistance for experts.

The second barrier, perhaps the most important one, is psychological. 

Japanese cuisine has a long history. There’s pride in food preparation here. There’s a cultural obstacle, in that cooks are unwilling to get out of their comfort to cater to a special clientele. They have mastered and perfected their dishes, in some cases after years, elevating their dishes to art, and they’re not willing to make any changes.

Could Japanese traditional shoji cuisine be a bridge to veganism?

In The Plant-Based Revolution in Japan, we briefly mentioned that traditional Japanese cuisine fosters a favorable environment for pushing plant-based options. The country’s land scarcity favored micro-farming, and Buddhism’s introduction made many embrace a vegetarian diet. Shojin ryori refers to the traditional Buddhist cuisine, with no meat or fish and seasonal ingredients. However, the Westernization of the Japanese diet, from the early 20th century, and Japan’s post-war economic growth put more animal products on people’s bowls.

Shojin ryori is an art that somewhat faded away after the American occupation. Meat consumption has increased and gained popularity. But today, shojin ryori is going through a renaissance. Some newly opened restaurants offer this type of cuisine, and already well-established restaurants gained huge popularity in recent years. They offer a high-class vegan food experience, which is quite interesting. At present, there are only a small number of places that offer this, but they’re positioned in the high price range.

Our next Market Shake cycle is dedicated to confectionery in Japan.

What’s the feeling on treats, in particular local product souvenirs?

Two years ago, the JR East led an initiative to develop vegan cookies targeting the inbound market. 

 “Last year, the brands “Tokyo Banana, Tokyo Campanella, Gateaux de Voyage”, offered very typical Japanese omiyage cookie type snacks, but vegan! Of course, there are traditional rice-based snacks suitable for vegans, but they don’t have any labels. These new omiyage snacks are limited in number but at least have official vegan labels.

The vegan label comes from an individual initiative aiming to raise awareness in Japan. There isn’t an official certification in Japan today.

It is very slowly spreading in Japan, but you can notice the change. Online, newly certified vegan products are coming to the market.

Unfortunately for the JR East initiative, the abrupt stop to international tourism forced two out of the three food manufacturers to retreat. They ended the production of their vegan line-up, except for Gateaux de Voyage, who firmly believes there’s an opportunity for healthy plant-based treats.  

It makes sense. There’s no demand because there are close to no travelers. Once the inbound tourism resumes, however, I think they’ll repurpose or rethink their products because there is a need. All they need is proof that it can be sold.

Could they have reoriented their sales strategy and aimed at the local market? The timing and required investment probably made this operation too challenging to consider. 

This is merely an assumption, but I would say given the timing, the manufacturers got only two years under their belt. One year was spent experiencing and preparing the launch on the Japanese market, and the second year went by with zero sales as there was no movement. It is hard to shift your sales strategy if you have limited sales points and a very niche target market.”

The shortcut to thinking the domestic market isn’t worth a shot for plant-based confectionery is easy to make. But it might not be entirely correct. The way food manufacturers present products to Japanese consumers matters. 

“Ultimately, one option could be pivoting towards different keywords like “healthy,” as is often the case with Vegan foods, focusing and promoting a healthy way of eating, rather than the ethical or environmental components.

We approached Japanese consumers about plant-based and vegan sweet treats but picked up little interest. Most of the time, they didn’t even know about the existence of vegan cookies or plant-based candy. 

You can look at the vegan and overall plant-based market from two perspectives—a normal consumer perspective and a vegan consumer perspective. For me, going dairy-free was a matter of need, as I’m lactose intolerant, but I also choose to be a conscious consumer. We are a dairy-free household, incorporating many plant based alternatives (eg. non-dairy butter, soy meat products)  whenever possible for environmental reasons.

A conscious or vegan consumer will happily support whatever made-in-Japan product is offering plant-based products. They’ll get out of their way to purchase and demonstrate there’s a need. I think it comes down to daily necessity at the moment, confectionery isn’t of the highest priority at the moment.” 

It will time to wow consumers and push them a little closer to plant-based treats. Picking their curiosity with novelty is one good way to go. 

Japanese consumers are curious. Develop limited edition, with special flavor plant-based product, advertise that it tastes amazing, and you can appeal to the domestic market.

Curious about veganism in Japan and sustainable and food diversity tourism in Japan? Stay in touch with Gizem!

That’s all, folks!

Next week, we will talk about plant-based confectionery trends in our brand new cycle, Caring Confectionery. We have a lot of in store for you, including an interview with a Japanese cake manufacturer and insights on the current Japanese market.

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