It’s been over a month since my trip to Japan (yes, I’m still milking that cow) and I still have a lot to think about. After reading an article on RocketNews re halal ramen that, as the article allegedly claims, is “so good anyone will enjoy it”, I remembered a part of my trip when I spotted some small shops offering halal rice crackers at Sensoji Temple. This got me thinking about how halal food has and will influence the future of Japan’s tourism industry. Is it a lucrative opportunity or just another fad?
The Islam Market in Japan
In economics and the art of marketing, religion is just another classy term for “another niche market we capitalists can exploit”. These religious people have needs; the market can supply them. Supply and demand, basic economics. As for the halal food market, it is indeed a lucrative opportunity for people, especially considering the rising influence of Islam globally. However, in Japan alone, Islam is still a teeny-weeny minority; an estimated 100,000 people amidst the 127.3 million residents of Japan. Most of these Muslims are foreigners and only a small percentage are natives.
So why bother with a halal market at all?
While the national Muslim population of Japan is very low, consider the influx of tourists coming into Japan annually. Because of China being a major dick with their assertiveness and territorial claims over the last few years, in around 2012-2013, Japan has seen a decline in Chinese tourists. An unfortunate condition, considering the Chinese are big spenders. So Japan had to look for other people to entice. Thanks to Abe’s monetary policies, Japan has become a ridiculously cheap place to visit (well, speaking in first-world terms). Added with a weakening yen and cheap tour packages, tourists from Southeast Asia came in and filled in the gaping hole left by the Chinese in the tourism industry. In 2014, Japan saw more Indonesians and Malaysians than it has ever seen in years; 200,000 Malaysians and around 160,000 Indonesians entered Japan as tourists (JNTO stats). Surely these people need food, am I right? And… you may have guessed it, a majority of these new tourists are Muslim, meaning that they require their food to be halal, or processed according to Islamic guidelines.
And it’s not just about pork-free and alcohol-free. No, halal goes beyond that. It’s not my area of expertise, but all I know is that for beef, the cow has to be killed in a particular manner.
And if those numbers aren’t enough, a study from the Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that by 2030, the global halal market will be valued at $10 trillion. Ka-ching!
Bringing Halal to Japan
Since I’m an atheist, I had no qualms on eating in Japan. I ate anything the convenience stores had, could care less how ramen was prepared or what it contained, and drank a lot of alcohol. My only concern was sushi and seafood, because I’m allergic to crab meat, and damn, the Japanese sure love their crab.
But we’re talking about Muslims here, not atheists.
For Muslims, Japan is a rather risky place to visit, mainly because their customs do not mix well with the teachings of Islam, especially dining. Pork, and especially alcohol, are inseparable from the omnivorous Japanese diet and also its culture. Shops have to serve alcohol lest they go bankrupt and everyone loves a bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Indeed, for the devout Muslim, a single bite might mean the difference between heaven and hell.
That aside, it is not like Japanese businesspeople have not noticed this new emerging market. As I have said in the intro, the needs of religious people will be met by people who can supply them. Perhaps the most stellar achievement is the development of the app “Halalminds”. Developed by Agung Pambudi, an Indonesian living in Fukuoka, Halalminds is an app tailored to meet the needs of hungry Muslim tourists. Here’s what the app offers:
The main feature of HalalMinds is a barcode scanner that can be used while grocery shopping. Once an item is scanned, it is matched against the app’s database of approximately 500,000 products to determine if it is halal or not. This is especially useful for those who cannot read Japanese, as food labels often contain complex kanji characters.
The app also provides a halal restaurant locator, a “Qibla compass” that shows the correct direction to face for daily prayers, and daily Quran verses.
HalalMinds has been downloaded more than 1,100 times since launching less than a month ago. At present, the app is only available in English, but additional language support may come at a later date. (Tech in Asia, 21 May 2014)
FUCK YEAH INDONESIAN PRIDE!
Ahem… getting back to topic.
Of course, there have been other measures to tap into the halal market. Thanks to based KAORI, who keeps me updated about halal stuff in Japan, Japanese businesses have been hunting for halal certifications like hungry wolves, all the way to Indonesia. Here are some examples:
- Hikari Miso Co., a maker of fermented soybean paste in Iijima, Nagano Prefecture, was certified as a halal plant by the association [Japan Halal Association] in 2012 and began exporting its products to Islamic markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. (The Japan Times, 26 November 2014)
- Tsukasa Yoshimura, president of a seafood-processing company in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, sees halal foods as a possible way to tackle the shrinking domestic market and use nonstandard marine products. “The concept of halal is not irrational,” Yoshimura said. “Although it may be costly (to remain in compliance with Islamic law), we won certification as a new sanitary code.” Yoshimura’s company developed “gyoza” dumplings featuring meat from horse mackerel smaller than the standard. After the dumplings were certified as halal in October 2011, exports were started to Singapore, where Muslims account for some 15 percent of the population. (The Japan Times, 15 May 2013)
- Halal food, the only type Muslims are permitted to eat under Islamic law, is in hot demand, say managers at Halal Deli, which delivers boxed lunches to devout Muslims in Tokyo. “In our primary plan, we estimated about 200 orders monthly, but now we receive over 500 per month,” says the staff member at Halal Deli. “We plan to get more contracts and we hope the service will eventually be expanded to other cities.” (The Japan Times, 21 June 2013)
The Halal Abuse
Yeah, of course we’re gonna have problems since we’re trying to accommodate a foreign custom into Japan’s homogenous culture. Introducing halal food in Japan poses several problems, with the most major one being abuse of certificates.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous halal certificate is the “halal stamp”. If something has a halal stamp plastered on it, it’s a sure sign God wants you (and allows you) to eat it.
But is that truly so?
According to KAORI and their sources, the halal stamps are just another tool used by Japanese businesses to rake in the shekels. Tomohiro Sakuma, the CEO of Halal Japan Business Association, complains that businesses in Japan tend to see the halal stamps as a means to bring in the cash. “Just put a halal stamp on shit and the money comes in!” kinda describes how their minds work, leading to abuse of the halal stamp.
From another angle, the production of halal stamps and halal certifications are also abused by certification agencies. Preying on the lack of halal knowledge of Japanese companies, these agencies, often foreign, scare companies into buying halal labels, adding to production costs.
This problem stems from the lack of knowledge re halal certification. In the future, it will be the job of the Halal Japan Business Association and other related actors to further educate businesses in Japan when comes to putting halal labels on their food.
Going halal is indeed a lucrative opportunity for Japan, considering the rising Islam population and Japan becoming more open to tourism. It is unlikely to be a passing fad, especially as Japan prepares for the 2020 Olympics. Japan can expect more Muslim tourists to come in the following years, so it goes without saying that Japan has to do whatever it can to make these tourists comfortable.
However, with new customs, new problems also appear. It would be wise for businesses to address these problems swiftly before the entire halal stuff comes back as a painful boomerang which hurts the bridge Japan is building with the global Muslim community.