Despite signs of an economic recovery in the country, the Japanese food industry is still suffering from a market where the low cost lunch has become a matter of pride and where bargains and bentos still reign supreme. Michael Fitzpatrick reports.

The shadow cast by almost a decade of economic recession in Japan continues to loom large over the food industry in the land of the rising sun. Despite signs of financial recovery, consumers still see the purchase of food – and in particular lunch – as a prime cost-cutting exercise. In fact, according to two recent surveys, the quest to seek out low price lunches is turning into something of a national obsession.

Japanese salarymen and their female counterparts, the Office Ladies, or OLs, spend on average JPY855 (US$7.19) per day on food and drink, according to a survey conducted by the country’s beverage maker Kirin.

Of that total, the average spent on lunch is JPY468, with men paying JPY474 and women JPY464. Given the deflationary nature of the Japanese economy it is still possible to eat well for around JPY500. However, according to the Kirin survey, this has not stopped consumers seeking to cut costs further where they can.

Indeed, according to Kirin, when it comes to lunch, price seems to have become the primary driver behind choice, whether this be a packed lunch – a rice-based bento box – or a restaurant meal.

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Youth driving snacking trend

Eating habits seem to be shifting too. A remarkable 73% of respondents to the Kirin survey said they also bought snacks to eat at work, a practice traditionally frowned upon in Japan, a country not usually given to snacking. According to the Kirin survey, the greatest average outlay on snacks was made by men and women under 20-years-old, who forked out JPY175. Closely behind that group were men in their 50s, who paid JPY173 daily on average to treat themselves.

More revealing still on the issue of pricing is a similar set of figures from Asahi Newspaper’s investigation into just how the nation spends its lunchtime yen. It received 2,893 responses to its recent questionnaire about reader’s lunchtime eating and drinking habits.

Although Asahi readers seemed to spend more on lunch than those questioned by Kirin, the drive to cut costs was just as strong.

The most common amount spent on lunch, as cited by 28% of respondents, was JPY1000. This total reflects the Japanese lunchtime culture of the set lunch menu, common up and down Japan where even more top-end restaurants often knock out lunchtime meals and drinks for around the JPY1000 mark.

However, still over a third of respondents said they were trying to cut their spending to within the JPY500 range – not impossible in Japan given the discounting practiced by numerous city restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets selling a myriad different versions of the bento lunch at around that price.

Price the key factor

Despite the economic upturn, most respondents (983) chose price as the principal criterion in selecting lunch, followed by nutritional balance (677), atmosphere (475), and finally calories (162).

Some are very creative when it comes to pinching the pennies at lunchtime. Many revealed in the survey a preference for meals at University cafeterias. “Often cheap and delicious,” cited one 38-year-old Tokyo man. Another woman said she bought rice, a relatively expensive staple in Japan compared to other Asian countries, to which she then added dishes bought, quite cheaply, from the company cafeteria. 

Eating establishments such as the company café are long established in Japan and often subsidised, but, compared to the US for example, the quality is often poor. They are also unpopular because employees fear they may have to spend precious free time with colleagues or, heaven forbid, the boss.

According to the Asahi survey, a remarkable 31% prefer to eat alone, 23% with friends, colleagues (22%) or family (20%). But only 1% said they like lunchtime with the boss. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who has worked in Japan where a strict hierarchy still prevails in the office and demanding codes of protocol have to be adhered to. A short office lunch, sometimes only a few minutes for many workers, is a time to be treasured, according to most respondents.

Bosses keeping it real

Despite its unpopularity, the trend for bosses to lunch with their employees gives another insight into consumers’ desire to keep spend down, “because there is still the view that we are in hard times,” office worker Alisa Suzuki told just-food. “For the first time in memory thousands have been laid off. It would not be right for the boss to slink off to the same fantastic venues he used to go in the bubble economy days.”

The restaurateurs and food business can only dream that those heady free-spending days will return one day, for now bargains have never been thicker nor the customers more picky.