Editor’s blog

How snack tastes have been changing in traditional Japan

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
Tastes are changing fast in Japan, where younger consumers are adopting more Western foods, traditional dishes are fusing with Spanish ingredients and snacking is on the rise.

This is according to Canadian business network BizVibe, which monitors some 7m companies across more than 700 segments.

Its research also found that older people still prefer Japanese dishes, and acknowledged a growing emphasis on healthy foods and easy meals. But more than anything, the rise in foreign foods among the young stands out in a mainly traditional market.

Though Japan is largely insular, and is not nearly as exposed to Western culture as as other Asian countries, it still relies heavily on huge quantities of foreign imports for its food supply. Natural disasters and adverse weather have compounded this imbalance in recent years. 

Its combined food-retail and foodservice market is still sizeable, with a value estimated to have reached US$600bn last year. This appears to be on the wane, though, largely due to a shrinking and ageing population.

Consumer food spending has fallen by 32.6% from 2012-15, in line with a comparable decrease in overall consumer spending. Food imports—whereby fish, meat and cereals account for the lion’s share of activity—now exceed exports by a factor of 10.

This import-export deficit—Japan’s domestic food supply accounted for just 39% of produce in 2013—has prompted the government to made a goal of raising the homegrown share to 45% by 2025. 

Long known as an innovative market, Japan’s food and beverage industry continues to experiment with flavours and form. Consumers have come to expect strange and creative takes on traditional items, giving rise to items such as eel-flavoured ice cream and curry donuts. 

BizVibe’s report has highlighted several new and interesting food trends currently taking root in Japan. Among them are Ibérico ​tonkatsu, a luxurious type of Spanish pork, breaded and deep-fried; sake jelly, either shaken and drunk from a can, or eaten with a spoon; and the practice of adding sake to instant noodles. 

Though snacking has traditionally not been as popular in the country as it is in the West, this is now beginning to change thanks to a combination of evolving pro-Western habits and marketing strategies by Japanese snack companies. The country now has a diverse array of snack foods, both savoury and sweet. 

Some manufacturers have identified that growing numbers of consumers are saving money by drinking at home, instead of at bars. They believe this has been leading to greater demand for snacks to accompany alcohol.

Moreover, snack companies have been working hard to improve the public perception of snacks in Japan’s health-conscious society. In this regard, consumers are more likely to purchase snacks if they view them as being healthy.

Incidentally, potato chips prices have been surging, with one mainstream brand attracting bids of around JPY1,250 (US$11.15) per pack through online auctions after snack company Calbee halted the sale of its most popular lines.

Calbee, which controls around three-quarters of Japan’s potato chip market, and whose crisps would normally retail for around JPY200, has been hit by a potato shortage following a bad crop and a record number of typhoons last year.

"We're doing everything we can to resume sales again​," said a spokeswoman for the Tokyo-based snack group.

The so-called “potato crisis​” is expected to spread to other segments, including fast-food restaurants, where Japanese portions are among the most sizeable in the world.

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