A Mecca of Opportunity – Food Market Entry into Japan

Tokyo has always been a food Mecca. Today, Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world. But what really sets Tokyo apart is the diversity it offers.  While this seems to spell opportunity for an easy market entry into the food market in Japan, local consumers’ standards are high.

Japan’s broad food industry spell opportunity for market entry

With 55 Michelin starred French restaurants, 15 starred Italian, and 70 starred Japanese, it’s clear that the Japanese take food very seriously. If you want to enter the Japanese food market, take a close look at what the Japanese favour. For residents of Tokyo, the question isn’t where can I find good food, the question is what kind of food do I want? Tokyo will introduce you to food fusion that you can’t get anywhere else on the planet. Top restaurants in Tokyo offer more than traditional Japanese fare. From Kaiseki and world-class sushi masters to fusion Italian and French cuisine, Tokyo is a place for foodies and has plenty of room for new ventures as the Japanese embrace novelty.

Entry into the food market in Japan

It may actually be impossible to list all of the food genres Tokyo has to offer, as new chains and businesses open daily. Let’s take a look at some popular Tokyo fare, both Japanese and foreign to give you an overview of what excites the Tokyoites and what components are necessary for a successful entry into the Japanese food market.

The very traditional: washoku and kaiseki cuisine

JMRN has already discussed the permanence of Washoku. But what is Kaiseki? Kaiseki — haute cuisine from the Land of the Rising Sun — is the traditional multi-course dining experience that brings the philosophy of wabi-sabi to life. The art of Kaiseki has its roots in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony or “chakaiseki” – “cha” for “tea”, and “kaiseki” meaning “meeting place.” Imagine samurai meeting to discuss important matters of the day over a simple meal designed to complement the tea ceremony. Dishes were served one by one rather than all at once. Kaiseki then evolved from its focus on tea to sake. Soup and rice, originally the main dishes of kaiseki, later moved to the end of the meal. Today’s kaiseki is a fusion of maximizing local seasonal ingredients with an emphasis on high-level omotenashi — impeccable service with humility and mindfulness. The variety of kaiseki interpretations in Tokyo is plentiful. The experience of a high-end kaiseki meal will help you to comprehend the attention to detail necessary to capture the hearts of Japanese consumers, especially when it comes to presentation. This extends beyond what is arranged on a plate to how processed and fresh foods are presented on retail shelves, too.

Casual dining: izakaya

The saving grace for all hard workers, Izakaya, a Japanese pub or tavern, is completely Japanese. Izakaya offers an easy way to meet your coworkers and friends for a cold beer and a wide variety of delicious Japanese side dishes. Whether you’re starving and want ten sticks of yakitori, skewered chicken, or on a diet and would prefer some salad and agedofu, fried tofu, Izakaya offers something for everyone. The abundance of 270 and 290 yen chains (offering most of their items at just that price) that fill up quickly after working hours is a testament to izakaya’s popularity amongst the working culture of Japan. However, izakaya doesn’t necessarily mean budget, you can find high-end Izakaya venues in Tokyo that raise your Izakaya dining experience to an art form. Izakaya menus intrigue through the duality of always offering a set of staples that guests can rely on, yet with ever-changing twists that are a testament to Japan’s insatiable appetite for novelty.

The Japanese way of fast food: Ramen

Easily a global household word, the most common flavors of Ramen are shoyu (soya sauce), tonkotsu (pork broth), sio (salt) and miso. But even if you think you have tried them all, chances are the unique varieties that ramen chefs innovate will be one step ahead of you. In Tokyo, the variety of unique interpretations of this simple dish can extend from lamb, shrimp, Asian hard clam, and duck to tomato, cheese, basil and pizza flavors. And this is just a shortlist. The ramen market has plenty of room for more and is only limited by the imagination of its ramen chefs and demands of its consumers for the aforementioned novelty.

Experience economy dining: Teppanyaki

A relative newcomer compared to traditional Japanese favorites, teppanyaki took off in Japan after World War 2.  The name teppanyaki is a combination of teppan (metal plate) and yaki (grilled.) While often associated with Wagyu and Kobe beef, lobster and abalone, the sky’s the limit in terms of what ingredients teppanyaki cuisine might offer. From seafood, meat, and veggies to okonomiyaki, the beauty of the Teppanyaki experience lies in the performance of the chef, grilling your choice of delicacy in front of your eyes. This is a perfect example of how the experience economy has made its way into Japanese customers’ hearts and stomachs and is one of the main approaches to ensure repeat patronage.

Foreign influences are welcome: Tempura

While certainly considered a traditional Japanese cooking style, roots of tempura actually date back to Portugal and the Catholic church of the 1600s. The word itself is actually derived from the Latin term tempora (“The Ember Days” — quattuor anni tempora) which referred to a time period when Catholics would refrain from eating meat. Even the process of batter frying was borrowed from the Portuguese. Today’s tempura extends beyond the seasonal choices of vegetables and shrimp available to include any kind of seafood, either as an entree or with your soba, the combination of what kind of tempura you want and how you want it served are is up to you. Tempura shows the Japanese art of taking a foreign influence and molding it to serve their tastebuds and culture. This a metamorphosis that many food products will have to go through to succeed in the Japanese market. While your original product might hit the taste of the Japanese, small adjustments in sizing, packaging, and presentation might be necessary to really make it successful in this competitive market.

Experience economy dining part II: Nabe

The ultimate communal dining experience, nabe, can be as simple as a few veggies and some pork or as complex as fugu (pufferfish) which only certified chefs can handle.  The word nabe means hot pot, and the act of cooking nabe is usually done by the diners themselves — each choosing their ingredients, entering them into the pot, and removing them when they are cooked to the diners’ satisfaction. Nabe is traditionally a winter food, best enjoyed to ward off the cold and gather around the community hot pot. But there are no seasonal limits to finding nabe in Tokyo. From sukiyaki, where ingredients are dipped in raw egg after cooking, to Fugu Nabe which can only be found in specialized restaurants, there are tons of different nabe styles in Tokyo. Nabe is even available at your local convenience store in the form of oden, a variety of boiled food items. Nabe will never be a closed market and is another example of how the Japanese crave the ‘eatertainment’ sub-genre of the experience economy to take them out of their mundane lives into readily available, fun experiences.

Healthy fast food: Soba noodles

Like its cousins, ramen, and udon, soba is thought to have come to Japan from China over a thousand years ago. Made from the nutritious grain buckwheat, soba noodles can be eaten hot or cold. You can order them on the side to dip into the broth, or as a soup. Everyone has their own favorite style of eating soba which can change with the season. You can also choose the manner in which your soba is served. If you are pressed for time, you don’t need to worry about skipping out on a healthy buckwheat meal. You can hop into any number of tachigui (stand up noodle shops,) or you can choose to eat your soba as part of a kaiseki-style high-end cuisine experience with tempura and fresh wasabi that you grate yourself. It’s totally up to you and your pocketbook.

More fast food noodles: Udon

Udon noodles are made from thick wheat flour and come in different varieties of thickness and firmness that differ between local regions. For example, kishimen and hoto are flat and wide noodles. While the variation known as somen is very thin and delicate. The actual origin story of how Udon came to Japan has many versions and no one is really sure which myth is true. Like soba and ramen, udon can be eaten hot or cold, in a soup or on the side. The udon market is huge in Tokyo you would probably never be able to try them all in Tokyo. Soba and udon illustrate the strong standing that fast food has in the Japanese market, especially if made from healthy and natural ingredients.

The Japanese embrace foreign influence: Italian cuisine

The plethora of Italian restaurants in Japan proves that Italian food is one of the most favorite foreign food choices of the Japanese.  It is said that there are so many Italian restaurants in Tokyo that no one has ever been able to count the actual number. We’re talking around 20,000 or more. From trattorias to top-notch Michelin starred refined Italian venues, you don’t have to search very far to find delicious Italian fare in Tokyo. Whether you are after traditional Italian cuisine or Italian food with a Japanese fusion spin, you have tons of options and the market has room for more.

A staple foreign cuisine: French

Tokyo might not come to mind immediately when discussing French cuisine, but it should. French cuisine in Tokyo can be purely French or mixed creatively with Japanese traditional dishes depending on the availability of fresh seasonal ingredients. Whether you are into contemporary or traditional French cuisine, Tokyo offers top-notch Michelin starred dining experiences with famous chefs who put their own unique spin on their art form.

Asian cuisine: Chinese

The variety of Chinese restaurants in Tokyo mirrors the variety of food in Tokyo. The only thing you have to do is decide whether you want Dimsum, Cantonese, Peking or Shanghai cuisine. And then decide on your budget. From quick dining favorites to Michelin starred cuisine, Tokyo can handle any request for Chinese food, with room in the market for more.

Spicy, but not too spicy: Indian cuisine

The number of Indian restaurants in Tokyo takes Indian food beyond its own borders. As Japanese traditionally don’t care for the super fiery heat that comes with Indian spices, you’ll find many restaurants who have toned down their curries and have added a sweeter base to adjust to Japanese tastes. That doesn’t mean you can’t find authentic Indian menus that offer more than just curry and rice or naan. You certainly can. From budget Indian restaurants to Nepalese cuisine, the choices are only limited by your taste buds. The vast array of foreign cuisine present in Tokyo’s culinary market represents Japan’s continues appetite for outside influence. Yet, keep in mind that the meals might require slight adjustments to the Japanese market, which can range from the level of spiciness to portion sizing.

The newcomer: Vegan and other health food cuisine

You’d have been hard-pressed to find many vegan restaurants in Tokyo ten years ago. But today, the space has been growing with several new organic, vegan and gluten-free cafes and restaurants which have been blossoming all around Tokyo recently. The patronage is dominated by female and younger customers. Offering fare from organic veggies to gluten-free desserts, the variety of delicious vegan dining interpretations today in various genres inclusive of both international and Japanese fusion is an open market with plenty of room for new ventures. If you want to enter or dominate the vegan and health-food market in Japan, again, you have to keep the particularities of Japanese food culture in mind. Presentation and image are key to win the hearts of these fickle consumers with plenty of choices at their fingertips.

Market Entry for Food Businesses in Japan

Living in Tokyo comes with privileges for its residents and access to some of the best food in the world is one of them. Food and its presentation will always be an art form in Japan. As Tokyo grows and becomes more diverse, it’s inevitable that its food market will as well. The diversity of Tokyo’s food space is proof that the Japanese will continue to embrace culinary innovation from any global origin creating an inviting marketplace for all types of new culinary ventures. Yet, sheer novelty will not gain you the trust of Japanese consumers. You will need to gain their trust with high-quality ingredients and testimonials that speak for you, product presentation that lives up to their high standards, and portion and flavour adjustments to the local food culture. An ethnographic survey to unmask what these standards are can help with a successful launch in Japan to turn your food business into a long-term success in this competitive market.


Sushiyoushi SavorJapan JapanForward
Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

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