COVID-19 strengthens home meal replacement trend in Japan

“Nesting behavior” has taken hold in Japan due to COVID-19, resulting in people eating out less.

It’s a trend that is only expected to intensify as Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Fukuoka prefectures extend their state of emergencies, which were due to lift on 7 February, for another month. While the declarations are in place, the government is asking restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m.

Instead of eating out, many consumers have been turning to fast food, take-out, and more frequently, to home meal replacement for convenience in Japan, with the latter option known to feature seafood in sushi and tempura formats, among other options.

Home meal replacements, which come either prepared or partially prepared, are having their moment: A 2019 report by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, “Home Meal Replacement Market Heating Up in Japan,” found that the segment “has shown the highest rate of growth in recent years, with sales reaching a record JPY 10.25 trillion [USD 95 billion, EUR 78 billion] in 2018.”

Supermarkets and convenience stores are selling more of these products, many under a Japanese government-sponsored promotional program called “FastFish,” which aims to make convenient seafood available to more consumers. FastFish seafood selections typically come boneless and pre-spiced, breaded, or in sauce.

The program was created in 2012 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in an attempt to reverse the steady decline of seafood consumption in Japan after meat consumption surpassed that of seafood in 2009.

Before FastFish’s formation, the ministry conducted a survey to identify why families were choosing meat over seafood, and discovered that Japanese children disliked fish because of the difficulty they faced when picking the meat from the bones of whole-grilled fish, a popular preparation method in Japan. Some children also revealed that they thought fish possessed a smelly odor, though sushi remained popular among the demographic. Additionally, young women expressed a lack of knowledge regarding how to prepare fish, with some saying they did not like to bother with cleaning seafood, the ministry found.

With these opinions in mind, FastFish was established and optimized for convenience – seafood products within the promotion can be prepared simply using methods like microwaving or frying. FastFish products are often frozen in plastic vacuum-bags, with some items requiring minimal preparation such as heating in a microwave or boiling-in-bag. The program has expanded to a large extent, with 3,288 products now available.

The program’s criteria keywords include: "easy," meaning the meals are expected to shorten cooking time and shopping time; "feel free," meaning products possess a price range that can be purchased repeatedly and continuously to satisfy daily eating habits and modern budgets; and “targeted quantity, packaging, and storage,” meaning that products have the potential to develop new demand or are unique in terms of quality or taste.

Japan has many walkable neighborhoods, and it is still common for people to shop for food on a daily basis, with consumers often visiting shops via bicycle or on foot. But while COVID-19 remains a threat, people are avoiding spending more time in public places than is necessary. Those who prefer to avoid crowds are turning to home-delivery services, such as Coop delivery, which delivers weekly meals. Frozen foods, including fish, make up a substantial portion of these orders. Besides convenience, they often feature lesser-known or underutilized seafood species.


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