Norwegian salmon and mackerel are thriving in the Japanese market. While salmon is a popular dish for young people in restaurants, more and more people are choosing a mackerel sandwich on weekdays.

Japan is one of the most important markets for Norwegian seafood. Good relations with Japan have enabled the success story of Norwegian salmon since the 1980s. Traditional Japanese food, known as ’washoku’, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and includes sushi culture in which Norwegian salmon plays a major role. In many ways, Japan is an exemplary and strategic market for global growth. Fresh Norwegian salmon has a strong position in Japan and is often referred to as the ’original sushi salmon’.

Norway had direct exports of over 114,000 tonnes of seafood to Japan in 2017, with a value of NOK 4 billion. This made Japan the largest Asian market for Norwegian seafood exports.

The Japanese are among the world’s largest consumers of seafood. Eight in ten Japanese say that they eat seafood at least once a week, while six in ten say that they eat seafood twice a week or more. This makes Japan one of the world’s biggest seafood markets. Figures from FAO show that they also score highly in terms of kilograms per person per year.

Though Japan is in the top three countries in terms of seafood consumption, it is experiencing increased competition from other protein sources. The average Japanese consumes around 107 seafood meals a year. It is believed that adults with higher income and experience in the kitchen have the highest preference for seafood. 74% of the 50+ age group state that they eat seafood at least twice a week, while the figure falls as low as 59% for the 18–34 age group (SCI).

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Photographer: NSC

A large selection means many choices

The Japanese seafood market has over 400 different seafood species – a very large selection for customers. Around 83% of seafood is cooked at home in Japan, with 85% of it consumed at dinner. When Japanese people are asked about how many species of seafood they would eat for dinner, the number is much higher than in Europe. Over 20% of the population would choose from among 18 species for weekday dinner, while the average Japanese person would choose from among nine species. For Norway, the corresponding figure is three species.

Japan also differs from a number of other markets in the salmon category. Salmon doesn’t just consist of “salmon” in Japan – it includes (primarily) coho, chum, Atlantic salmon, trout and sockeye/red salmon.

There are two Japanese words for the term salmon:

’sake 鮭’ and ’saamon サーモン’. For centuries, sake has been a part of the Japanese diet and it is often fried before it is consumed. Coho, chum and sockeye/red salmon are in the sake category. These species are known as Pacific salmon in Norwegian. Sake, or Pacific salmon, makes up 70% of the salmon supply to Japan.

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Photographer: NSC

The other category, ’saamon’, which includes Atlantic salmon and trout, has been on the Japanese market for less than three decades. These species differ from sake in that they are consumed raw, eaten fresh and are usually referred to as ’nama’ salmon.

As a general rule, sake is used in Japanese cooking, while saamon is a popular choice for sushi/sashimi or western food. In fact, many Japanese consumers aren’t really aware of the fact that there is a difference in usage.

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Photographer: NSC

Where are the different species eaten?

Lightly salted mackerel (salted saba) is most popular as an everyday dish. Market insights from the Norwegian Seafood Council also show that in recent years processed mackerel has increased in popularity. It is within this category that Norwegian mackerel falls. Many remain faithful to classic Japanese cuisine, but they combine this with Western food traditions. New dishes, such as sandwiches and toast with mackerel have been introduced, which has driven growth.

A complicated retail market

While the Japanese retail industry is perhaps one of the most fragmented in the world, it is also one of the largest with over 3,000 shopping malls and 52,000 convenience stores. The Japanese expect to have a shop with a good, and preferably, local selection of food, located close to their home. Independent retailers often stock traditional fish dishes that are low in processed products.

AEON is Asia’s largest retailer with over 21,000 shops, malls and offices in 13 Asian countries, 17,000 of which are located in Japan. Over 30% of the shops in Japan are run by AEON, which means the company is influential and can have a big impact. When asked where they usually buy seafood, 15.4% of Japanese say at AEON.

E-commerce for groceries is well established in Japan, and the Japanese are known to purchase many different items online. The Japanese market is characterised by the development of new platforms, logistics and a lower resistance to shopping online for  seafood than Europe. Three in 10 consumers say they intend to purchase seafood online within the next 12 months. Over the period 2016-2018, e-commerce in seafood has almost doubled. However, it is worth noting that Japan still lags far behind other Asian countries, such as China and Korea, when it comes to the proportion of seafood sold online.

What are the primary drivers for buying seafood for the Japanese?

The consumption of seafood in Japan is linked to taste and the health benefits of seafood, without eating it purely out of duty. For a number of years, the Japanese have mentioned convenience – fast and easy availability – as an increasingly important factor when choosing seafood.

Via the Norwegian Seafood Council’s presence in the market, we see that there have never been more convenience products available on the Japanese market. However, in order to see this translate into increased consumption, we must carry out more promotions and raise consumer awareness about new products. At the same time, we are facing a new trend in relation to the environment and sustainability, which is becoming visibly more important for the Japanese in their choice of seafood.

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Photographer: NSC

For example, AEON takes consumer trends like this seriously, putting pressure on import chains and its suppliers in several areas. This has had exciting ramifi- cations for product development, as well as increasing the need for origin labelling throughout the value chain. Therefore, the Norwegian Seafood Council is now actively working with AEON in Japan to ensure that consumers are aware of Norwegian-origin foods. About 3% of their seafood is already ASC or MSC certified, with a goal of certifying 10% of seafood by 2020.

In 2015, AEON launched its first tuna farm in order to reduce the catch of wild fish. This has led to a greater focus on tuna capture and their welfare.

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Photographer: NSC