Over the last twenty years, vegan or vegetarian residents and visitors have had to settle with the limited salad or side offerings available at eateries across Japan. As environmental awareness has influenced the number of non-meat and non-fish eaters abroad, however, the percentage of inbound visitors seeking alternative meals to Japan’s typical fare of Sushi, Ramen, Tonkatsu and Yakiniku is also increasing. There is currently no data on the eating habits or dietary diversity of inbound visitors to Japan, but a look at the country of origin of inbound visitors and the percentages of veganism and vegetarian in those countries gives us an indication that at least 5-10% of international visitors to Japan do not eat meat or fish. Of the 30 million international visitors to Japan in 2018, this would be between 1.5 to 3 million annual vegan or vegetarian visitors coming to Japan. Add to this the higher percentage of meat eaters who occasionally choose plant-based options and demand is even higher.
Carnivorous friends claim they could never give up meat because they ‘would miss the taste’, and confused by those seeking out meat-alternative products because they ‘love vegetables’. There may be a more complex web of underlying meaning here, but quite simply the reality of choosing to eat meat and fish meals at restaurants boils down to options. There is rarely any main entree option other than meat or fish.
The situation has steadily been changing in the last 3 years across Japan as there is a significant increase in the supply of plant-based mains in foods and services- an indicator that market mechanisms are in place and businesses are making efforts to supply this rise in demand.
The capital is far ahead of the curve offering high-quality options in almost every ward. Books, maps and online guides are now readily available to help travelers find a variety of fantastic eateries that cater to their needs. The Tokyo Vegan Guide is an excellent example. For those travelling beyond Tokyo, the Hiroshima & Western Honshu Vegan and Vegetarian guide is a useful starting reference.
A further market indicator is an upswing in vegan and vegetarian-friendly groceries available in Japan. Key suppliers of vegetarian and vegan foodstuffs for the international market are Alishan Tengu, Costco an, Amazon. Alishan Tengu has been supplying vegetarian goods and healthy alternative services to residents since 1988. The foundation Tengu has set has been built upon by retail giants Costco and Amazon which are taking the market to new levels.
Costco Japan penetrated the market about ten years ago as it offers a few imported vegetarian-friendly staples which had been previously hard to find in Japan: rennet-free Kirkland brand cheeses, Amy vegetarian brand entrees, peanut butter, soy & almond milk, baked beans and more. The Costco chain now has over 25 stores in Japan and has intentions to take on Amazon with its own e-commerce options in 2019. Japan Times says Costco has a plan to double the number of its outlets by 2050. Costco is a resource not only for residents, but more importantly an reliable supply source for restaurants, hotels, and eateries.
There are some dry vegan and vegetarian products that can be shipped from Amazon USA, but Amazon Japan now imports vegan cheeses and plant-based alternative meats as well as stocks Japan-made protein alternatives to shoppers this year. A significant change from the few Indian packet curries and dried beans available when searching ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ online as recently as the beginning of 2018.
Japanese manufacturers of meat-alternative products, which have supplied the underground health-food markets and cafes run by fans of macrobiotic and vegan living, are now in a strong position to tap into this Vegan Boom in Japan.
Some really good, high-quality Japan-made fish/meat-free products are Samurai Ramen and Spicy Soymilk Ramen among other vegan products by Sakurai Foods. The Western food requirement for ‘cheese’ can be filled by the tasty Vegan shredded cheese of Marin Foods or Marude Semi-Hard Cheese. The Japanese comfort food Curry & Rice can be easily made without the need for meat or fish stock to enhance flavor if Golden Curry Roux is used. Other vegan staple import products like Bob’s Egg replacer are also in stock.
Ohsawa Japan is another well-respected brand that has long featured a range of macrobiotic products and are well-known among health conscious consumers in Japan.
In 2018, Otsuka foods launched a new Zero-Meat line of products to rival some of the ‘soymeat’ products in Japan and perhaps to position itself as a rival for the Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger products likely to arrive in Japan in 2019.
It’s exciting to see many well-established, hard-core healthfood macrobiotic manufacturers in Japan get more attention alongside entrepreneurs and new entrants to the plant-based diet market as demand grows.
Restaurants and eateries which consistently offer regular plant-protein options are being sought out by inbound travelers. Globally-minded chains in Japan like Curry Ichibanya have already positioned themselves well as the only chain that reliably has a vegetarian/vegan menu of options at a majority of their stores across Japan.
Two years ago, the conceirge at an international luxury hotel chain said their chefs are skilled and flexible enough to create high-calibre meals for customers with any dietary requirement, whereas many standard and budget hotel staff I interviewed said they would only be able to prepare vegetarian/vegan meals with advanced notice.
At the beginning of 2018, Jill Ettinger at Live Kindly has written many articles on the rising demand for plant-based foods at hotels. In one article, Ettinger found that major global hotel chains, Hilton and Marriott, are positioning themselves to cater to increased demand for plant-based meals. According to Google maps, there are 16 Hiltons and 13 Marriott hotels across Japan. It is often said that Japanese businesses are slow to adopt international trends. If, however, these hotels are increasing their supply to cater to guests with plant-based diets, there’s a good chance that eateries and rivals are similarly experiencing a rise in demand for fish/meat-alternative options.
A recent visit to the excellent Vegan eatery Erbenmu in Setouchi-city, Okayama highlighted a rise in demand among Japanese guests as well as international travelers. The owner has now moved outside of the city of Okayama to establish his plant-based business online. He additionally offers a catered lunch service to businesses during the week, catering service for parties, as well as runs a restaurant out of a traditional Japanese country house on the weekends. It surprised me to discover that he had enough demand for plant-based meals in the rural area. Asked why he started a plant-based business he told me he was inspired by his travels around the world and the options for people like him who would rather not eat meat and fish.
In 2013, the Japan Times did a story of how many Japanese vegans and vegetarians live in the closet and often feel bullied to conform to mainstream practices to eat meat and fish when in groups. In addition to inbound tourism creating demand, these Japanese diners newly empowered by the availability and acceptance of meat-alternative options may be another significant driver in the sudden upturn in plant-based options taking hold across Japan.