Redefining Meat #2: Consumers’ Sound Bites

What do Japanese consumers have to say about plant-based meats? 

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In this third issue of Market Shake, we’re still riding the wave of the plant-based meat boom in the world and Japan. Before we sit down to eat, if you’ve skipped our previous Market Shake reports, you can quickly catch-up here: 

Our third issue is about understanding Japanese consumers’ views on plant-based meat alternatives. As we suggested in our previous newsletters, Japan presents some particularities that influence the market of plant-based meat alternatives. 

We’ve digested a couple of recent surveys to bring you some interesting numbers, but we also talked to actual people for insights you can’t find anywhere else. Are they riding the wave too? What do they think about these products and, more importantly, do they buy them? 

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Key takeaways in a nutshell

The plant-based revolution is reaching Japan, but not precisely for the same primary reasons as the rest of the world. Mainstream consumers aren’t familiar with the concept of substituting a product for another. However, they’re more likely to adopt a flexitarian diet—without labeling it—for health. They seek, above all, functional products with safe and natural ingredients that’ll come into their diet as a plus—not as an ‘alt’.

Summary of this edition

  • Japanese consumers traditionally consume more green than red but view a plant-based diet as a foreign concept.

  • Health and wellness trends carry the plant-based shift in Japan.

  • What do Japan’s latest consumer surveys say?

  • What speaks to the Japanese consumer in general? What is challenging? 

  • Consumer interviews

  • What do Japanese teens say about plant-based meat?

Let’s dig in!

Japanese consumers traditionally consume more green than red but view a plant-based diet as a foreign concept. 

One could say the situation in Japan is quite a paradox. Japanese traditional diet is plant-friendly, seasonal, with minimal animal products. Historically, Buddhism beliefs also led many religious Japanese to embrace the typical Buddhist cuisine, while most of the population wasn’t allowed to eat meat besides poultry and rabbit. Even if, since the 60s, animal product consumption has drastically increased, Japanese consumers still eat fewer animal products than in other countries. 

Yet, if asked, they do not view themselves as vegetarian, vegan, nor even particularly flexitarian. One reason vegan food industry experts pointed out is that the Japanese perceive these terms as foreign beliefs and philosophies brought from North America and Europe. This perception led the burgeoning Japanese plant-based industry to aim at the needs of foreign visitors mostly. Vegetarian and vegan products, which encompass plant-based meats, existed but stayed somewhat marginalized. 

Burger chain Mos Burger, a pioneer in the plant-based burger in Japan, explained the difficulties they had with convincing mainstream consumers that their soy-based patties weren’t just options limited to vegetarian customers. To make matters more challenging, Japanese people have strong stereotypes that vegan and vegetarian are activists, trying to impose some ethical superiority on others. 

Compared to North America and Europe, ethical and environmental concerns, which are critical drivers for vegan and vegetarian diets, are not (yet) top priorities for the majority of consumers in Japan. It isn’t saying Japanese people do not care for the Earth, but it doesn’t necessarily prioritize their diet. However, things might change with the millennial generation, more informed, which could show a mindset closer to global consumer’s concerns. While they could open the door to plant-based alternatives, a strong passion for the environment, animal cruelty, and sustainability remains to be seen in the long run.

Health and wellness trends carry the plant-based shift in Japan.

Japanese consumers are particularly health-conscious and choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for health concerns. They care for quality, nutritional values, as well as food safety. Their top concerns are pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in food. So when they turn themselves to plant-based meat alternatives, that’s primarily for health reasons. Japanese consumers are conscious that these products can help maintain weight, keep bad cholesterol at bay, and generally have a healthier diet.

Cancer is the first cause of death in Japan. Consumers are particularly aware that processed meats, which contain preservatives and additives, are suspected carcinogens. The government is increasingly focusing on health, hoping to tackle lifestyle diseases such as obesity and heart diseases. Through various programs, the Ministry of Health encourages the moderate consumption of certain types of meat in favor of more vegetables and fruit products.

The pandemic revealed these health tendencies at two different levels. First, the disruption in the meat production and distribution system, significant for Japan, imports most of its products and increases consumers’ concerns over meat products’ safety. An essential part of Japanese consumers is worried about meat plants using growth medicines on their cattle to increase production. They also acutely remember and fear the ‘mad cow’ disease and infectious diseases from cattle. Secondly, the stay-at-home lifestyle triggered concerns with weight control and the search for healthier food alternatives in general. Plant-based meats, lower in calories, seduced more consumers than ever before. 

What do Japan’s latest consumer surveys say?

In 2019, the Japan Meat Service Information Center conducted a nation-wide survey on consumer’s awareness about meat products, which included a section dedicated to plant-based alternatives. The results revealed that at least 51.3% of Japanese consumers were aware of plant-based meat substitutes, though only 3.9% considered themselves well informed on the matter. From awareness to experience, numbers dropped quite considerably. Only 38.5% of respondents had tried eating plant-based meat products. Interestingly, some did so abroad, with 5.3% in the United States and 2.6% in Australia. When asked about their perception of plant-based meat substitutes, Japanese consumers were 33% to view them as healthier, with fewer calories, and 16.8% would consider eating less meat in favor of plant proteins. 

A recent survey conducted during summer 2020, and focused on soy-based meat alternatives, revealed that at least 70% of respondents knew such products exist. What’s more, one out of four respondents had tried soy-based meat alternatives. The survey further showed that consumers would choose soy-based products for health reasons (59.6%) and less caloric (46%). More interestingly, the primary place of consumption is at home (70%), followed by restaurants and cafes (48.2%). The stay-at-home lifestyle encouraged people to cook more, and that increased their interest in healthier options.

Consumers who ate soy-based meat at home bought products they needed to cook (44%), ready-to-eat products (42.4%), and products such as hams and sausages (35%). Among respondents who believe that soy-based products’ consumption would increase in the future (42.4%), 63% thought that it would be because these products are healthier and low in calories (54%). Only 31% of Japanese consider it will increase because it’s best for the environment. 

Overall, these two surveys and other smaller research studies conducted by the media stayed on the surface. GourmetPro’s team went out and asked different profiles of consumers about their preferences and thoughts. 

We hope you’re hungry for consumers’ sound bites! 

What speaks to the Japanese consumer in general? What is challenging? 

Novelty, originality, functionality. Japanese consumers are curious about new products coming into stores, especially foreign products. They are enthusiastic about products that bring in a story and a whole experience. 

On the other hand, they have high expectations—perhaps more than what foreign operators are used to with their customer base. They care about the quality and the origin, the freshness, and pay attention to what’s written on packages.

Japanese consumers are also price-sensitive, and if older generations are generally highly educated with a good disposable income, younger generations are spending less on food. The overall spending fell in the last few years. 

Finally, Japan’s seismic demographic shift has increased the need for ready-to-eat or easy-to-cook food as well as frozen meals. Japan is a super-aging society, with the countryside dying as people move to urban areas for work. More and more Japanese people are flying solo too, and there’s a notable increase in single-person households. In parallel, women entering the workforce also had an impact on diet habits. 

Consumer interviews

Japanese consumers in their 60-70s

Akimi, 74, Married

Akimi cares very much about maintaining a healthy diet. She heard about soy-based meat, but her first impression is that they do not look tasty. She also intensely worries about potentially harmful additives and preservatives

After her interview, Akimi contacted us again to let us know she tried a Yamato Foods Tofu Salisbury steak found at an organic store. She felt it contained too many spices. 

“I enjoy food samples at supermarkets. If it’s written ‘No additives, no preservatives and ‘organic’ with big letters on the package, I’d be happy to give the product a try!”. 

Yutaro, 65, Married

Yutaro is very familiar with the concept of plant-based meat and vegetarian trends in Europe. He tried a locally made bean-based burger ten years ago at home. He is not concerned about additives and feels these products are healthy. He’s curious about trying more plant-based burger patties and sausages. He would be ready to pay about 200/300 yen for a pack of 100-200 grams. 

“If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have said meat tastes better. But today, I think there’s almost no distinction. I think plant-based meats are attractive options,  and I would like to try more variations.”

Japanese consumers in their late 40-50s

Kaori, 55, Married

Kaori perceives plant-based meats as products catering to the needs of vegan, religious, or health-conscious consumers. 

Health-conscious herself, she enjoys the authentic taste of food and prefers actual meat. She is concerned about additives and not getting all the nutrients (proteins) as with animal products. However, plant-based meats are convenient and easy to cook, though she needs to mix many ingredients to hide the taste

“My mother (75) accidentally bought soy-based meat because it was right next to the vegetable section. She cooked it with vegetables and spices and didn’t realize it was soy-based meat. When she took a bite, shocked with the bad taste, she looked at the package and realized it’s not real meat.”

Nakazo, 42, Married

Nakazo became pescatarian out of concerns for the environment in 2019. He also cares about his physical health. He cooks vegan recipes such as tofu steak or vegan dumplings. At first, he had difficulties adjusting to the taste and textures of plant-based meats and the lack of satiety, but overall now feels in better health. He is careful and chooses products that are natural and without additives

“I think a plant-based diet should be linked with the traditional Japanese diet 50 years ago when meat was scarce, and fish was available in small amounts. Focusing on the words "vegan" and "vegetarian" alienate Japanese people and sound like extreme Western words.

Japanese consumers in their 30s

Kosuke, 32, Single

Kosuke doesn’t particularly see plant-based meats as an alternative to animal products. It’s just a separate category of foods. While he occasionally eats tofu Salisbury steak, he isn’t too enthusiastic about the experience. Health concerns motivate him to buy plant-based products in general, but he doesn’t feel satiety. 

“I eat plant-based products after eating or drinking too much the day before, for instance, at a grill meat restaurant. I feel guilty and want to compensate with healthier options.”

Ayana, 30, Married

Ayana is a pescatarian and, at home, cooks mostly plant-based—while not having given a try to alternative meats for she feels them too costly. Eating out is challenging with her diet. Japan has limited vegan options at typical restaurants, so she purposefully selects fish restaurants not to feel awkward with her friends. Ayana chooses her diet out of concerns for animal welfare and sustainability. But she feels explaining her diet is challenging because of the overall lack of awareness on these matters.  

"My hobby now is to visit as many restaurants that offer plant-based meat as possible. I tried a plant-based burger at Burger King, and I loved it. It tasted like meat for me. My husband, who is a meat-eater at heart, gave it a try and liked the taste. He would be open to trying more options in the future.” 

Japanese consumers in their 20s 

Yukari, 25, Single

Yukari knows only about soy-based meat and isn’t aware of plant-based meats in general. She is trying to switch to a healthier lifestyle after a stay in the Netherlands, where she learned more about vegetarianism. She is concerned about the environment but also health, having heard eating animal products increase cancer risks. She added that involving celebrities in TV commercials and taking a health-specific approach could help make plant-based meat more prevalent among Japanese people.

“I bought soy-based meat only once, a large 1kg pack from Amazon. I had never tasted something like that before, it stank, and I didn’t like it. But I may buy once again if it’s available at a reasonable price in my local supermarket.” 

Yuri, 29, Single (living with her parents)

Yuri has been following news about sustainability and water usage for meat production.  She's aware of what plant-based meat is and why it is good for the planet. Yuri is interested in trying, but currently, her mom is making the meals, so Yuri doesn't choose. In the future, she would love to eat more sustainably and try to switch to plant-based products. Yuri explains that plant-based meat is not available at the supermarket, so that's one reason she hasn't tried it yet. Many of her international friends are vegan or vegetarian, but not her Japanese friends.

“I feel the image of plant-based meat is artificial. Talking about substitute meat means it’s not the central part of your diet. In Japan, people are not familiar with the concept of substitution. People do not eat tofu because it's healthier than cheese but because it's part of the diet. Why would we substitute meat, although we (in Japan) eat less meat than in America anyway? 

What do Japanese teens say about plant-based meat?

When it comes to Japanese under 20 years old, there’s little data specifically regarding plant-based meats. However, in the past year, Japanese media outlets picked up stories about veganism trending among teens. Nikkei Business Daily wrote in spring 2019 that while the market remained small in Japan, young Japanese were more eager to embrace the plant-based meat revolution coming from the United States. 

In October 2020, Fuji News Network dedicated an episode of their series ‘Hit!’ on plant-based meat’s rising popularity. The episode explained that it was particularly trendy with young female consumers and teenage girls. “It almost tastes like meat” while “not being too fat.” Overall, the high protein ratio and the low-calorie count make plant-based meat an attractive choice for dieting and body-conscious Japanese women across all age groups. 

That’s all, folks!

Now that we’ve had a broad overview of the market trends, and got into consumers’ heads, let’s move on to what you can find on the market in Japan. Stay tuned for our shelf sweep coming in your inbox next week. 

This publication was brought to you by GourmetPro - Food & Beverage experts in Japan.

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