Stakeholders of the Japanese plant-based food marketPlant-based foods are promoted by interest groups on different levels in Japan, including governmental departments, animal welfare organizations, industry players, and companies in the consumer market. Major advocates on the government level are the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) as well as the Ministry of Environment that voiced their support for plant-based alternatives as a sustainable and stable food source. The MAFF emphasized the importance of industry-academia-government collaborations in their Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas to develop new food technology and explore potential market segments. Established manufacturers of soy-based products are not the only enterprises profiting from the exposure. New business ventures in the Japanese startup ecosystem and existing food manufacturers are also joining the competition.
While the awareness of cultured meat as an alternative to conventional livestock production remains low in Japan, the plant-based segment has already logged successful market entries in the food services sector. Exclusively vegan menus used to be an aspect marketed by specialty food stores to set themselves apart from general establishments, but popular fast-food chains including Lotteria, MOS Burger, and Burger King are closing in on the trend through their respective meatless burger options. Additionally, following several quasi-states of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic, the demand shifted from a store-based to increasingly home-centered consumption. Paired with the demand for healthy food options at home, the soy meat-based processed foods of major meat companies like Nippon Ham, Itoham Yonekyu, and Starzen garnered consumer and media attention in 2020.
Healthy eating or sustainable consumption?Soy-based foods without animal-derived ingredients have long been staples in Japanese kitchens, with soy sauce, tofu, and soy milk being widely available at retailers. While tofu and soy milk can be considered substitutes to meat and cow's milk, respectively, the consumption is less regarded as a lifestyle centered on plant-based alternatives but a choice for a meal instead. As such, the Japanese meat substitutes market is characterized by the consumer impression of a healthy food option instead of a sustainable lifestyle addressing environmental and social issues.
However, the environmental impact is not a fully disregarded aspect in consumer habits. Amid growing awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) particularly among young people, the plant-based food market is presented with new opportunities to increase its visibility. While still low-key, Government departments and industry players have been promoting SDGs and the contribution of plant-based proteins to their achievement. Additionally, media exposure through TV programs and social media has made innovative food trends more accessible through serving suggestions for home-cooking, lowering the barriers to introduce soy-meats, egg substitutes, and other plant-based options on Japanese kitchen tables.