Slow Food’s Secured Market in Japan

The Japanese are continuously obsessed with food–turn on the TV at any time of the day and it’s a safe bet the show will have something to do with cooking or dining. Food is an integral part of Japanese culture and will always remain so. So it is no surprise that the market for slow food in Japan is likely secured in the long run.

Japan’s festivals focus on its famous four seasons and its dances are all descriptive of how to get food and how to behave when you both eat and serve food. The adoption of foreign food has only magnified rather than threatened this. Today in Japan, food choices are endless and the market is ripe for even more.

But what is really fascinating is the current trend from fast food to slow food recently, offering new angles to food market entry in Japan.

What is the Slow Food Movement?

Slow food is a grassroots movement that was
born in Italy in 1986. An Italian journalist, Carlo
Petrini, was outraged when McDonald’s opened its first outlet in Rome. He was
worried about how the rise of fast food might threaten local food traditions.
He wanted people to pay attention to how the food they eat was grown, where it
came from, and how important it was to preserve local traditions from farm to

Petrini led a protest
against the global industrialization of food which culminated in the slow food
movement. From Rome, the movement is now a worldwide phenomenon. Japan
officially jumped on via the government much later after a few serious food

Chinese supply scandals in the fast-food industry

In 2008, dumplings imported from China were
poisoned by a worker who injected insecticide into them because he was
frustrated about his wages and working conditions. At least ten Japanese
consumers fell ill.

In 2014, the Chinese media reported that a Shanghai-based food processor, the “Yum!” brand, part of Husi Shanghai—owned by an American investment firm, the OSI group—had tampered with expiry dates and handled meat in an unsanitary manner. The meat was thereafter supplied to  foreign-brand fast-food chains in China and Japan, including McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Papa John’s, Domino’s Pizza, and Subway as well as restaurants in the Shanghai area.

This had actually followed a previous scandal in 2012, when Yum! was caught pumping its chickens full of excess antibiotics which started a bird flu scare, and a 2013 incident wherein US-owned Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer at the time, was sold to a Chinese company a few months after 16,000 dead pigs washed up in a Shanghai river—most likely dumped by Chinese pig farmers.

Food scares unsettle the Japanese deeply

Hundreds of Chinese food supplier scandals arose in the media thereafter. Accusations of rat and fox meat being passed off as beef and mutton were only part of it.

Yet, China and Japan handled these scandals very differently. China pointed its fingers at US and Japan pointed its fingers at China but the overall outcome was the same. People began paying attention to where their food came from. While the slow food movement had been bubbling in Japan since the 90s, it was bubbling in underground circles only. But the Japanese government brought it to the limelight with the creation of Food Action Nippon.

Japanese government creates Food Action Nippon

As early as 2008, the Japanese Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries released public awareness videos regarding
Japan’s high dependency on food imports. At the time, they were focused on seikatsu shûkan-byô  (lifestyle-related illnesses such as obesity,
diabetes, and high blood pressure.)

But the Japanese government was also concerned about the loss of traditional Japanese food. They blamed the rise of food-related health problems in Japan on the globalization of food—in particular, the rise in popularity of Western foods, especially meat consumption and fatty foods.

Food Action Nippon, the government’s initiative, has two different motives. The first was to raise awareness of the effects of globalization on the food industry following the initial dumpling scandals of 2008. Food Action Nippon also wants to try to increase Japan’s domestic food production to 50% by 2020.

Now, the Japanese focus on homegrown produce

In 2013, UNESCO listed washoku as an intangible cultural world heritage. But by 2017, Japan’s food production was only at 38%. Shinzo Abe’s new domestic production goal is a bit more realistic. Now, he wants 45% food self-sufficiency by 2025.

Of course, Japan will, for the foreseeable future, always have to depend on outside sources due to a variety of reasons. For one, landmass is limited. Secondly, the small farming industry, outside of new grassroots’ movements, is waning alongside the elders who maintain it as the youth all flee to the urban areas for work.

Nevertheless, Japan has been maintaining a
certain level of its food supply capacity with domestic agricultural production
that is within the national sovereignty. And it has a long, long history of
mitigating damages caused by trade issues involving disrupted imports or restricted
exports by trading partners.

For example, in 1973, after the “soybean
crisis” was provoked by an embargo on soybean exports imposed by the United
States, the Japanese government implemented emergency measures to stabilize the
domestic soybean market and secure stable imports of soybeans and other farm
commodities from different sources. Japan always turns food challenges around.

Slow food in Japan today

Today, companies that understand the close relationship Japan has with food can do very well here. Japan can turn anything into a thing. Ume Sake Kit Kats? No problem.

The new, the innovative and the well-marketed will soar. We know this already. But how does this translate to new slow foodie ideas today that want to enter the Japanese market? Regardless of venue, Japan has enduring food principles that successful restaurants pay attention to.

The enduring principles of food in Japan

Japan takes its food very seriously and there are a number of enduring principles, rooted in tradition, which shape many aspects of food culture today.

These principles were born from a  very culturally specific place, but they are not locked into an era. They thrive within the adoption of foreign influence. They roll with the times. Today they are alive and well and can be seen in the success of foreign-owned restaurants in the Japanese marketplace on a daily basis.

Japan’s rich food culture is rooted in a set
of guiding principles–with aesthetics, balance, purity, presentation, depth and
gender expectations all playing important roles in all food-related occasions

1) Aesthetics

Food will always be a very visual medium in
Japan. Color and placement are critical in the overall dining experience.
Shapes and texture are also a key factor in the experience and the perceived
nutritional value of food.  Understanding
food sources, albeit important, is not a sole indicator of value for buyers as
it might be in a Western market. Any business entering the Japanese food market
must understand this. But this is not meant to underplay the importance of food

2) Balance

While Japanese cuisine has absorbed a wide variety of cooking styles and ingredients, balance is the enduring principle that all successful foreign-based restaurants understand.

Preparation techniques aim to draw out the
natural flavors of ingredients rather than masking them in heavy sauces. This
comes from washoku [traditional
Japanese meal] which is based on the principle of ichi ju san sai, or the “one soup, three side dishes” meant to accompany
a bowl of steamed rice.

The “power of five” is a recurring theme in Japanese food rooted in Zen Buddhism. It can refer to the five senses, using five colors or five techniques in order to offer a sense of balance. Umami (the “fifth taste”, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter) is a Japanese expression of balance. It’s a full mouth experience rather than a mere flavor that seeks to enhance existing flavors and mouthfeel, rather than masking them with other ingredients.

3) Purity

The importance of purity has its roots in the
tradition of Shinto, Japan’s native religion.

Water remains an important aspect of this. Oshibori (hot hand towels served upon seating) are an example. The importance of purity in food underpins it as a key source of health.

Food and food occasions are treated as an extension of respect for health and for life itself.

4) Presentation

Presentation is as important as the actual
food items are in the dining experience and service. The approach to customer
care (omotenashi) in Japan has
incredibly high standards when compared to food service in the West.

reflects  that the concept of ichi-go 
ichi-e (
each encounter happens only once in a lifetime. We should
value all moments of our lives.) A food experience in Japan extends far beyond
what is simply on the plate.

5) Depth

As an island nation, Japan has always absorbed
and re-worked to build its own food culture—ramen, sushi and tempura are all
examples of “borrowed” food items. This has created an incredibly varied food
landscape. Japanese consumers are spoiled with an abundance of choices and take
full advantage of it.

This legacy of imported food culture is also
coupled with an acute interest in mastering the “process”. As a result, Tokyo
has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, and the
overall quality of food at all levels is very high.

6) Surprise! Gender

Gender plays a greater role in food than it
might in Western markets. Sweets and salads have traditionally been female,
while ramen and red meats are considered masculine. Separation is rooted in
historically assumed gender roles. While gender roles in society are starting
to change, they remain a key reference point within the food industry in Japan.
They should be taken into careful consideration when marketing to make sure
that real time trends are acknowledged and capitalized upon.

The trend towards slow food

Today the Japanese food service market is a 25 trillion yen market (approximately 230 billion USD) with restaurant businesses accounting for about 50%. Despite the aging demographic and population shrinkage, the food services industry is still growing with restaurants being the main driver.

Japanese consumers are spoiled for choice when it comes to food options–diners in Tokyo have access to 67,000 restaurants. In fact, since 2013 there has been a trend away from fast food as the number of visitors is decreasing. But the drop in fast food visitors has been absorbed by the increasing number of dinner restaurant visitors. Since 2013, there has been a shift from fast food to dinner restaurants, as well as from lower to higher-priced menu options.

Demand for premium experiences is increasing in Japan

The demand for premium experiences has been driving the greatest change. Restaurant visitors are showing a greater willingness towards spending more at restaurants. In response, even fast food venues are creating environments in which people want to be seen or spend time, rather than just grabbing a quick bite.

With the share of single-person households
increasing, most socializing today takes place outside of the home. Homes are a
private space while cafes, restaurants and bars allow everyone the freedom to
socialize. And this is a growing trend.

Although the population is getting older, people are living healthier and fuller lives and they have the money to do so. At the same time, younger generations are aware of their greater value to society and are able to be more discerning regarding their life and consumption choices.

Japan’s food industry is a stable and growing market

While Japan’s economy is not likely to grow
much further in nominal terms, it still remains enormously wealthy. Japan’s fuyu-so (those with financial assets of
above $1 million USD) represent 53% of those with assets above $1 million USD
in all of Asia.

Japan is a very stable, wealthy market, and
Japanese consumers are optimistic about the future. With the approach to the
2020 Tokyo Olympics placing increased focus on acceptance by the global
community, it is a great time to invest in food venues in Japan. The Japanese
slow food movement is currently very strong and shows no signs of slowing down.










Sophia University


Photo by Alva Pratt on Unsplash

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