Japan’s greatly changing food consumption in the 1990s

Food consumption in Japan increased steadily throughout the high economic growth period after the war but has been decreasing since the 1990s.

According to MAFF data based on the Family Income and Expenditure Survey, MIC, the index of food consumption levels in households with two or more members decreased from 100 in 1981 to 86 in 2011.

In particular, rice consumption has fallen. Around 1960, when the high economic growth began, annual rice consumption per person was about 120 kg. It can be calculated that one person ate 10 kg every month.

However, annual rice consumption per person has decreased to about 54 kg or less than half over the past 60 years.

In addition, the consumption of perishable foods, including vegetables and fish, has decreased significantly.

There are several factors for this. One is that the consumption population has been decreasing and elderly people who eat less have been increasing, owing to the rapidly aging population and declining birthrate.

Another factor is that the bursting of the bubble economy has brought about a decline in household incomes and an increase in consumers who prefer lower prices, such as those who eat fast-food meals.

Moreover, the increased opportunities for women to work have made it difficult for women to cook at home, which used to be their responsibility, so the consumption of rice, fish, and vegetables would have fallen.

On the other hand, imports of foreign meat, which can be cooked just by roasting, have increased, and meat has become cheaper and easier to buy than fish and vegetables. Meat also goes well with bread, which has replaced rice as a staple food, so consumption has not fallen.

In other words, changes in economic factors and social structure that began after the bursting of the bubble economy have had a major impact on food consumption behavior.

Food is directly related to safety, security and health. It’s not a good thing to eat fast food all the time for financial reasons, or to avoid perishable foods, which require a lot of cooking time.

Added value of health, which was reviewed together with safety and security

The period of high economic growth was, so to speak, an era in which any produced products could sell. This is called “product out”. On the other hand, it is called “market in” when products produced with insight into those which are wanted by consumers, are put in the market.

So, could any processed food that is cheap and does not require much cooking sell? Actually, no! Diversification of consumer preferences can also be seen in food.

For example, some consumers prefer or have no choice but to consume low-priced foods, while others select domestic products or safe and secure foods to consume, even if expensive. In other words, out of disparities caused by economic factors, differentiated food markets have been formed.

There are also diversified tastes and trends toward Japanese, Western or Chinese food, and spicy or light tasting food.

It is difficult for food companies to respond to these various preferences and tastes of consumers. Obsession with “market in” could lead to being at the mercy of consumers. But without doing it, products cannot sell. Such navigating has become very difficult.

However, the 2020 coronavirus crisis may be another trigger for change.

For example, the consumption of food, including rice, has increased rapidly owing to the increase in voluntary restraint. This would be because the frequency of home cooking has increased as a result of staying at home.

At the same time, food safety and security have been reviewed again. Many people would have realized that domestic products, such as face masks, are safer than imported ones.

For example, in the early 2000s, there was a ban on U.S. beef imports due to the BSE problem and various problems with domestic products continued, such as falsifying the origin of food products, food ingredients fraud, and reselling expired food products, which eventually raised consumer awareness of food safety and security.

Now food safety and security are a matter of course. The coronavirus crisis could trigger another look at food safety and security.

Although food safety and security have been highlighted, safety and security would be followed by health.

Measures against lifestyle-related diseases once attracted a lot of attention, and so-called FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses) became popular among food types.

Given the fact that the population has been further aging, the food/farming industry’s offers of new food products with the additional value of health could be easily accepted in the food market.

Focus on behavioral economics and exports is also an effective strategy

In recent years, incorporation of the perspective of behavioral economics has been attracting attention in economics.

This is backed by consumption behavior, which is not based on reasonable judgments. Behavioral economics is the search for basic principles of consumer behavior, based on an idea that they can be key to marketing to take advantage of knowledge obtained through such research.

For example, when we buy soy sauce, do we compare the characteristics and prices of individual companies’ products, and select one suitable for us reasonably? That would never be the case.

In fact, best-selling products are put at the level of consumers’ eyes on shelves in sections at a store.

Consumers don’t compare all products from the top to the bottom of a shelf, but often choose one from among those which they saw for the reason that they’ve heard of the product name, that the label design is good, or that the product is just cheap.

Then, retailers may be able to increase their sales by placing products they want to promote among consumers on shelves that can catch their eyes. These sales methods can be devised by taking advantage of the perspective of behavioral economics.

However, in Japanese society, where the population has been continuously decreasing and aging, the food market cannot be expected to expand significantly.

Food companies and farmers need to look abroad and not rely on competing for shrinking shares of markets.

In terms of exports, it is said that it is important to have a large market near the home country. Particularly for foods requiring freshness, it is important to shorten the transportation period.

In that sense, Japan has a great advantage because it is close to China and Southeast Asia, where the population will continue to grow and people’s incomes will increase.

Japanese cuisine was registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, which would serve as an advantage. This is an opportunity for farmers to look both inside and outside the country. If agricultural products produced by farmers are accepted overseas as well, farmers could gain not only sales but also great confidence.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to rise in awareness of food safety and security among people overseas. After the coronavirus crisis, a great opportunity for agribusiness in Japan may come.

On the other hand, it is also important for us consumers to get shokuiku, or dietary education, which has been emphasized in recent years, from a young age and become smart consumers.

Unlike industrial products, food products could be harmful to us if we choose them only for economic reasons or based on our preferences. I hope that members of society will take an interest in safe and secure food consumption through learning and thinking about lifestyle-related diseases, etc.

* The information contained herein is current as of October 2020.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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