A lunchbox for dinner? Japanese say “Yes!”

Published on
October 12, 2016

Perhaps nowhere in the world are premade, or take-home, meals featuring seafood as popular as they are in Japan.

One of the most prominent forms of take-home meals in Japan are “bentos,” or boxed lunches. These come in many varieties and often include seafood, including “eki-ben” (train-station lunchboxes featuring local specialties) and children’s lunch boxes, especially popular on school sports days. They are also not only for lunch—bachelors living alone and empty-nesters find it more convenient to buy a prepared meal for dinner than to cook for themselves.

This is a growing market in Japan, given the population’s propensity to marry late, or not at all, and to live long. Single-person households in 2035 will account for 37.2 percent of all households in Japan, according to estimates in the report “Household Projections for Japan: 2010-2035” (Department of Population Structure Research).

Shops specializing in bentos are common. Unlike fast food chains, there is no seating—it’s take out only. The biggest chains are Hokka Hokka Tei, Kamadoya and Hotto Motto.

Hokka Hokka Tei has more than 2,000 franchises and company-owned branches throughout Japan. It offers a variety of dishes, generally with rice, at relatively low prices. For example, an autumn offering priced at 600 yen (with tax) (USD 5.94, EUR 5.31) features rice flavored with matsutake mushroom, Pacific saury, a potato croquet, and stewed vegetables. A more deluxe selection adds tempura including a prawn and is priced at 740 yen (USD 7.32, EUR 6.55). Hokka Hokka Tei, with 1,037 shops, including both directly owned and franchise stores, is a subsidiary of Osaka-based Hurxley Corp.

Kamadoya, based in Kobe, has about 2,300 stores, mainly in western Japan. The menu is extensive. A bento always features rice and vegetables, usually pickled or cooked in broth, while the protein is frequently deep-fried (proteins include shrimp, oysters or horse mackerel, as well as pork cutlet and chicken). Some notable seafood items currently featured are saury (a fall favorite), tempura shrimp and salmon. Prices are for most part run between 390 (USD 3.86, EUR 3.45) and 700 yen (USD 6.92, EUR 6.19).

About 500 yen (USD 4.94, EUR 4.42) seems to be a psychological price point with those lower considered “economy” and those higher judged “deluxe.” Hotto Motto has launched a “bento of the day” campaign offering bento boxes at a reduced price of 500 yen. Monday’s special offering is ginger pork, Tuesday features mackerel and deep-fried chicken, Wednesday is ground meat cutlet and sweet and sour chicken, Thursday is a hamburger patty and croquet, and Friday features lemon chicken and fried whitefish. The company is a subsidiary of Fukuoka-based Plenus Co., Ltd., which used to be engaged in office equipment sales before it changed industries to the food industry in 1980. It has about 2,700 shops. They have expanded to China and Korea. (The parent has 2,986 shops, but some may be of other brands). Plenus originally tied up with Hokka Hokka Tei as a franchisee, but a trademark dispute in 2006 ended with Plenus introducing its own competing brand.

The delicatessen sections of supermarkets, as well as convenience stores, have similar offerings. Supermarkets in Japan typically mark down items after 6 p.m., to avoid allowing food to expire. Many working singles shop these bargains in the evenings. The offerings here are tilted a little less toward deep fry. Among fish items, salmon, Spanish mackerel (“sawara”) and mackerel are the hot sellers, in that order. The advantage of takeaway shops is that the food is recently made and served hot, more of a concern for the deep-fried items that they feature than for simpler cooked fish and vegetables.

Convenience stores, which are taking an increasing share of the bento business, will usually offer to microwave a bento.

7&i Holdings, operator of 7-Eleven stores in Japan, notes in its FY 2016 annual report, “In Japan, the social environment continues to change with the continued fall in the birthrate, combined with an aging population, households with fewer members, an increase in the number of working women, and a decline in the number of small- and medium-sized retail stores.”

Convenience stores are expanding rapidly in Japan, taking advantage of falling real estate values to establish new locations. The company plans to open 1,700 new stores in the coming year. They currently control a 41 percent share in the convenience store market. 7-Eleven also has the most stores (12,467), followed by Lawson (9,562) and FamilyMart (7,604).

The Japanese take-home meals market is estimated at 74 trillion yen (USD 732 billion, EUR 655 billion) annually, and the company hopes to take a larger share of it, mainly by appealing more to the elderly and working women, who – it says – are more sensitive to price and receptive to original items. An example is healthy options, such as “no additives.”

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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