Redefining Meat #3: Shelf Sweep

What plant-based meat products are available in Japan?

Hello Market Shakers,

May the fourth Market Shake be with you— and tell you all about plant-based meat products available on the Japanese market. 

One thing you’ll notice right away is that we’ll speak a lot about soy-based products and very little about other alternatives (and we’ll come back to that later!). As we evoked in our previous issue, soy products are already part of the Japanese diet. So soy is a natural choice for Japanese food manufacturers.

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Summary of this edition

  • Who are the leading manufacturers in Japan?

  • What types of products can you find in Japan?

  • Where can you find plant-based meat products in Japan?

  • What’s missing?

Let’s dig in!


Who are the main manufacturers in Japan?

In a report published in 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture took a look back at the history of Japanese companies that started producing soy-based meat products. The document didn’t cover other types of alternatives, plant-based proteins.

Domestic pioneers are the macrobiotic food maker Ohsawa Japan, the vegetarian food maker Karuna, Saniku Foods, and Maisen Genmai, issued from an agricultural corporation. Until the mid-2010s, they were the reference in Japan for dried and canned plant-based meat alternatives.

Then came 2015. Mos Burger launched its soy-based patty and food maker Marukome, its “Soybean Lab” series. In 2017, Japan's No.1 brand of cup-type instant noodles Nissin, intrigues the public with a ‘mysterious meat’ made from animal ingredients and… soybeans. 

Things start to take off by the end of 2018, and 2020 was a boom year for the industry. The Ministry notes that many new players entered the market to increase consumer health awareness and the need to cater to the increasing inbound tourism. They range from small start-ups (See The Sun, though it seems that as of 2021, See The Sun isn’t selling plant-based meat products any longer) to large food manufacturers (Otsuka Foods, Yonekyu, Itoham, Nippon Ham) and frozen food manufacturers (Yayoi Sunfoods). 

In total, in early 2020, the Ministry counted 12 domestic manufacturers on the market. Since then, many more jumped on the trend, with Next Meat’s notable entry, whom we’ll be talking to in our next issue. 

What types of products can you find in Japan?

Dried and canned products used to be the main options. 

Plant-based meat products, at least those made from soybeans “大豆”, aren’t new in Japan. Japanese domestic manufacturers Maisen Genmai, Karuna, then Marukome has been selling dried soy-based meat products (sliced, mashed, or chunks) already for some years. Saniku Foods, one of the oldest Japanese food manufacturers, a strong advocate for additive-free and vegetarian-friendly products, has been selling canned plant-based sausages since the 80s. 

While these products existed, they were, however, not available in mainstream channels.

The development of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat plant-based products 

In the last couple of years, the wind turned. Marukome took the lead and started to diversify its products from dried to ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat. Other food manufacturers sniffed the potential, and in 2020, new product launches accelerated at a head-spinning pace.

Marukome’s “Soybean Lab” series jumped from 19 regular products in March 2019 to 27 early 2021 and more to come. On top of testing the water with new ready-to-cook classics such as curry and the popular Chinese mapo tofu dish, the food maker worked behind the scenes on renewing their oldest products, improving their texture and flavor. 

Saniku Foods too launched new products (notably meatballs and mapo tofu). The 120 years old company also announced a rebranding in early 2020. Their product series name went from 

‘plant-based protein food’ to soy meat. Saniku Foods explained that ‘soy’ is more catchy and straightforward for Japanese consumers. 

Otsuka Foods, Itoham, and Nippon Ham, three food manufacturers giants, jumped in with hams, sausages, and more frozen products. 

In November 2018, Otsuka Foods launched its Zero Meat brand, with three main products: Salisbury steak, sausages, and ham. Two years later, the company direction announced taking steps forward obtaining the newly created JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standard) label for soybean-based products. Japanese consumers are sensitive to labels, particularly domestic ones.

In its annual report of 2019/2020, Itoham announced the development of their ‘almost like meat’ product series (7 ready-to-eat products: meatballs, nuggets, fried and stir-fried meat-like products) and their ‘airmeat’ frozen food series (curry, mapo tofu, gyoza...), both soy-based. Itoham estimates that the domestic market for plant-based meat will double by 2030. On top of environmental concerns, the company cites the need to better cater to consumers’ needs with dietary restrictions (halal, vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian).

Right on time to jump on the trend, Nippon Ham also launched its ‘NatuMeat’ (standing for ‘natural meat’) series which, without surprise, covers the same types of products: Salisbury steak, sausages, ham, curry, and meatballs. 

Start-ups made their entry too. 

Japan-based startup NextMeats made some noise in late 2020 by launching their plant-based meat frozen products series, which revisit Japanese classics such as ‘yakiniku’ (boneless short rib, fried skirt steak) and ‘gyudon’ (beef bowl). They also started selling burger patties and their first chicken-type substitute meat.

To sum up, the following products exist on the Japanese market:

  • Dried: minced, sliced, chunks, or blocks, that need to be cooked and flavored. 

  • Ready-to-eat: typical Asian dishes (mapo tofu, curry, gapao), as well as Western classics (Salisbury steak, bolognese, meat sauce, etc.)

  • Canned: sausages, minced or blocks of meat substitutes

  • Frozen: typical Asian dishes (mapo tofu, curry, gyoza, fried meat), and Western classics (Salisbury steak, bolognese, etc.)

Spices, spices, spices

It’s not a surprise that Japanese domestic manufacturers are all launching dishes such as mapo tofu, curry, or gapao rice. While it’s true that the public is particularly fond of these recipes, they are also typically spicy and salty. Most companies still struggle to develop tasty products with soy-based ingredients, which taste and smell pungent. 

Where can you find plant-based meat products in Japan?

A decade ago, when the consumer base was very narrow and limited to informed customers with a vegetarian diet, you needed to go to specialized or/and organic stores. Some brands, such as Maisen Genmai and Marukome, had mail-order catalogs. But when it came to the local supermarkets, finding meat alternatives was challenging, even in big cities. Today, leading brands (Marukome, Maisen Genmai, Saniku, to name a few) are sold a little bit everywhere. However, depending on the retailer, the choice of brands and types is still limited. 

We found it very easy to find dried soy-based meat products at various regional and upscale supermarkets, but a little bit more challenging to put our hands on ready-to-eat products  (mapo tofu, curry, Salisbury steak, nuggets, etc.), except for convenience stores. Newer products such as ham, sausages, and frozen products, are more challenging to find—but it’s a matter of time.

The battle for store space

Consumers can find dried meat products in dried food sections for cooking—very often, not too far from traditional soy-based products used for soups. Major retailer Aeon has plant-based meat products (both dried and ready-to-cook mixes) displayed next to its organic section and near products for food allergy.

Refrigerated ready-to-eat products are displayed closer to the fresh sections, often mixed up among meat products they imitate. While the space allocated to these products is still relatively 

Limited and small promotional displays are popping up recently. One of the Japanese largest supermarket chains, Ito Yokado, now has a dedicated “soy-based meat” section between ham and chicken products. 

Retail stores

  • GMS

    • Aeon, Ito Yokado, Life, Summit, Seiyu

  • International upscale supermarkets

    • Kaldi, Jupiter, Bio C’Bon, Seijo Ishi, Miyuraya,  Queen’s Isetan

  • Department stores

    • Mitsukoshi Isetan

  • Discount Stores

    • Don Quijote 

  • Cash and Carry  

    • Gyoumu Super, Costco 

  • Variety stores

    • Tokyu Hands

E-commerce

Most of the largest brands—Marukome, Maisen Genmai, have online stores with broader access to all their products. Start-ups such as See The Sun and NextMeat are solely offering their products online, at least for now. 

Platforms such as Amazon and Rakuten are also the go-to place for informed customers looking for more choices and foreign brands. 

The notable case of convenience stores

Japan counts over 56,800 convenience stores, and as more Japanese than ever embrace the busy urban lifestyle, the demand for ready-to-eat (but healthy) products is increasing. Major convenience store chains launched new products—either temporarily (as a try) or permanently. 

7-Eleven

In 2020, convenience store giant 7-Eleven released a series of premium ready-to-eat classics (penne bolognese, taco meat, Salisbury steak) with soy-based meat. 

However, it’s worth mentioning that these dishes are not advertised as vegans and may contain animal products. That’s, in particular, the case with their Salisbury steak, which still has beef. 

Family Mart 

Family Mart, Japan’s second convenience store chain, is also introducing more plant-based meat products in their ready-to-eat section. In summer 2020, they communicated on the nutritional benefit of soy-based meat in their campaign promoting how convenience stores can bring healthy products. 

Later on, in October, they launched new products with plant-based meat (nuggets, steam meat buns...), certified by the Japan Vegetarian Society, Japan’s oldest and largest NPO dedicated to vegetarianism. 

Lawson

In July 2020, Japan’s third convenience store chain Lawson released four new products with soy-based meat. In their announcement, the chain declared that between 2017 and 2019, the number of soy-based meat products had almost doubled. They further added that they’d develop more plant-based products in the future. Here again, while plant-based, these products are not vegan or vegetarian friendly. 

Apparel and household goods retail company Muji launched four plant-based meat items.

Muji, known globally for its functional and minimalist design, sells food products (10% of their sales), and the company is betting on expanding in the food category. In November 2020, they launched four ready-to-eat soy-based meat products: sliced and minced meat, meatballs, and burger patty. 

What’s missing?

Almost all the products sold on the Japanese market exclusively derive from soybeans. Whereas in North America, Europe, or Australia, meat alternatives are developed from various sources such as peas, mung beans, mushrooms, hemp, Japan is focusing on what’s traditionally part of its consumer base diet: soybean. 

That’s all, folks!

You now have a good idea of what’s on the shelves and freezers in Japan and who are the current leading players. 

Next week, we’ll get to the juicy part—the insight you cannot find anywhere else. We’ll share our interview about the market with Yuya Makino of NextMeats and share our professional feedback on what’s need to be done for a successful entry into the Japanese market. 


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

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