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!
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?
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?
Even the golden triangle isn’t an oasis for vegan folks. Foodservice—cafes, restaurants offering vegan options tend to concentrate in certain urban areas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second barrier, perhaps the most important one, is psychological.
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.
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.
The vegan label comes from an individual initiative aiming to raise awareness in Japan. There isn’t an official certification in Japan today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Curious about veganism in Japan and sustainable and food diversity tourism in Japan? Stay in touch with Gizem!
Website: Foodie Japan
Facebook: Foodie Adventure Japan
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.
Made with ❤️ by GourmetPro - Food & Beverage experts in Japan. Reach out for questions and comments!