Japan's emerging halal food sector sees opportunities for growth
Over 1,000 companies have earned halal certification and almost a third of Japanese consumers are willing to try halal food, study finds.
Tokyo – Japan may become a significant market for the halal food sector in the future according to the Japan Halal Association, whose members are looking ahead to sustained growth once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Faslin Mohammed Lafir, head of halal certification and international relations at the Japan Halal Association (JHA), said the country’s Muslim population is around 120,000, with an estimated 10,000 Japanese converting to the religion every year, boosting potential halal sales.
Some 29% of Japan’s 125 million consumers are interested in trying halal food or beverages, according to a study by UK-based GlobalData, published in the third quarter of 2021. The appeal was particularly high among the 35-44 age range, where 41% are interested, the study said.
Popular halal brands in Japan include Maru and Sadia chicken from Brazil, Turkish Barabu brand dried pulses, cheeses from Turkey’s Sütaş, and chicken, lamb and beef from Lezita, HasTavuk and Koytur, who are also based in Turkey. Popular halal noodle brands include Indonesia’s Mie Sedaap and Turkey’s Filiz, and jams from Turkey's Koska and Gülsan. Meanwhile, Turkish firm Tadim exports halal snacks, including roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Desserts such as baklava are made by Beyzade, also from Turkey.
“This is a relatively new market for halal food, and it is still quite small at the moment. But it was certainly growing before the pandemic and I see no reason why it cannot grow again when the coronavirus is over,” said Faslin, who is originally from Sri Lanka but has lived in Japan for four years.
More than 1,000 companies have earned Japan halal certification in recent years, Faslin said, adding that the Japanese ministry of agriculture and fisheries has yet to release any reliable statistics on national halal food sales.
One significant growth factor has been Muslim tourists visiting Japan, especially from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, he said. Japanese restaurants are keen to let Muslim patrons know that they follow halal preparation guidelines for their dishes. “When Muslim travellers come to Japan, of course they want to try local food, so we are helping to certify restaurants that have Wagyu beef on their menu, for example, of high-quality soy sauce, green tea and other beef, chicken or mutton dishes,” he said.
Manufacturers of those products are also seeking certification to enable them to export to new markets. But with the travel sector badly affected by the ongoing pandemic, domestic halal firms are largely relying on local Muslim residents, some expatriates who have established small businesses and university students, Faslin said.
In a sign of confidence in Japan halal food sales, Padma Co. founder and president Ken Minowa went ahead with the opening of Bongo Bazar, a halal supermarket in the town of Misato, west of Tokyo, in March 2020, as the first COVID-19 pandemic wave took hold.
“Our company has been importing and wholesaling halal food for about 30 years now, so the obvious next step was to open a Japanese-style supermarket that met the needs of Muslim residents of Japan,” he said.
Minowa said he has been surprised at the response to the opening of Bongo Bazar, with Muslim residents of Tokyo travelling as far as 100 kilometres to shop there due to the difficulty of finding halal products in their local supermarkets. Yet some 75% of clients are Japanese, looking for products that they cannot find elsewhere.
Faslin is upbeat about the potential of the Japanese market: “The Muslim population is growing rapidly and young Muslims want cosmetics, medicines, tourism products and other services that are halal. Japan is turning itself into a halal-friendly destination and companies that are certified as being halal will be in a very good position when we can all return to normal.”
COVID-19 impacts halal sales during Olympics
Hinomoto Shokusan Co Ltd, Sanda, in central Japan, is a good example of a company fighting to succeed in halal’s early years in the country. It earned a halal kitchen certification from the JHA in September 2016, and it was already importing halal foodstuffs.
With Japan accreditation meeting the stringent halal standards of Malaysia's JAKIM, the company quickly expanded sales into in-flight meals for airlines, as well as university cafeterias. It invested Japanese yen JPY120 million ($1.06 million) the following year in a factory that produces halal food, the first of its kind in the country. By taking part at food exhibitions and proactively seeking new customers, Shokusan saw sales climb from JPY40 million ($351,740) in 2017 to JPY50 million ($439,675) the following year, before a spike to JPY80 million ($703,480) in the April-December period of 2019.
However, COVID-19 caused “immeasurable” damage to the fledgling business, said Shokusan president Hiroshige Mino. “In large part (this was) due to the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were meant to be held in the summer of 2020, as we were anticipating that sales of halal food over the course of the year to be a minimum of JPY150 million ($1.32 million) and possibly as high as JPY200 million ($1.76 million),” Mino told Salaam Gateway.
That figure, he said, would have covered the investment in the company’s new production plant. Instead, the Olympics were delayed for one year, and when they did finally go ahead in the summer of 2021, they were staged behind closed doors over COVID-19 concerns. As a result, the anticipated surge in demand for halal meals on flights to Japan and for spectators from Muslim countries never materialised, he said.
And while the company remains committed to the halal food sector, pandemic-related problems continue to grow, Mino said, with supplies of halal chicken from Thailand halted as local supplier struggle with lockdown rules imposed by the Thai authorities. Halal-approved processing plants used by the company in other countries have been shut down after clusters of the virus were reported among employees, he added.
There has also been a sharp increase in raw material prices. “I do not expect demand to recover for the foreseeable future, even if we try initiatives such as working with hotels that cater to Muslim visitors, but I am concerned at how long this situation will continue and whether there will be more pandemics in the future,” he said.
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