The vegan trend has not caught on in Japan just yet, even though many of its traditional sweets are already plant-based. So, is there room for a new wave of plant-based confectionery in Japan?
In today’s post, we break down the market for plant-based confectionery in Japan and identify space to grow. We use the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” interchangeably as a reflection of how strongly linked the concept of vegan is in the market for plant-based sweets to date.
Consumers looking for plant-based sweets in a Japanese supermarket would be disappointed. Japan lacks a strong vegan community and consumers aren’t yet interested in vegan products. Understandably, they don’t show up on store shelves. Nor is there ad space for vegan products in Japan. This is different to mature vegan markets such as the UK where advertising really convinces consumers. In short: Japan’s appetite for plant-based confectionary needs more time to warm up.
Demand for plant-based confectionery in Japan is low, for now
In Europe and the US, plant-based confectionary has seen a boom with the number of products launched doubling in 2020. Before plant-based confectionery came plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy. As we saw in a previous blog article, this “meat” industry is building a promising new market that is Japan.
Demand for plant-based confectionery in Japan, however, is still limited to a small minority of vegan consumers in Japan, and too marginal for retailers to take notice of. According to our interviews of professionals in the sector, plant-based confectionery should naturally follow the soaring trend of cruelty-free meat and dairy, but the demand is just not there yet.
The reasons our experts gave for this were a general lack of interest in veganism itself, and the perception of treats as an unnecessary luxury, rather than a need. Whereas meat consumers might be interested in changing their habits to more environmentally conscious ones, sweets are not perceived as an essential part of the Japanese diet.
In the niche vegan sector in Japan, plant-based confectionery is an even smaller niche, which doesn’t yet chime with growing awareness for sustainability, or the curious sweet-toothed Japanese consumers’ needs.
In addition to experts, we also spoke directly to consumers. It was good news for vegan dentists, but more bad news for vegan confectioners, as the Japanese people we interviewed do not have a clear idea of what plant-based confectionery is. They have no image or experience of trying such products, so they can’t even imagine a vegan treat. Many of our interviewees worried about the taste of “vegan” products, which presents an opportunity: to avoid “vegan” branding, and appeal to Japanese consumers' love of novelty and curiosity to try “new tasty delicacies”.
It’s also worth noting that, in the case of stores, the staff rarely understand the words “plant-based”, “non-dairy”, and “vegan”, which complicates the search for the consumer, Japanese speaker or not.
Japanese accidentally vegan sweets
In the Japanese market, the true rivals to plant-based sweets are not coming from the outside. As in China and other Asian countries, the widespread use of dairy (and meat products) is quite recent, so contrary to their European counterparts, Asian sweets are traditionally plant-based and free from animal products.
In the case of Japan, glutinous rice sweets such as mochi, and red bean paste based treats such as yokan, are still popular and occupy prime real estate near the tills at convenience stores. It is easier to satisfy a craving with a product eaten for generations rather than a new, unknown sweet, branded with a concept as foreign as “plant-based”.
For now, the sweet market seems to be roughly divided between traditionally vegan Japanese treats, and originally foreign confectionery containing dairy in the form of butter or milk such as cupcakes or doughnuts. Even in the bakery aisles of supermarkets and shops, dairy-free snacks and chocolates are quite rare.
Instead of aiming for vegan, aim for healthy!
Searches with vegan and vegetarian restaurant finder Happycow, throw up limited results outside of Tokyo. However, interestingly enough, in cities like Nagoya and Osaka, while stores don’t market themselves as vegan or vegetarian, there are a handful of “health stores” that seem to be offering vegan products. Rather than looking for plant-based confectionery in Japan that is explicitly branded as such, consumers would do better to look for healthy products that are accidentally vegan, since both markets seem to overlap here.
Following this trend, Gateaux de Voyage’s first plant-based confectionary line, Las Olas, leverages a “healthy” brand image, seeking to capitalize on the rise in interest for organic products and self-care.
In our consumer research, several consumers made comments about trying okara based cookies and snacks. Here there may be an opportunity to launch innovative plant-based okara confectionery in Japan.
Japan’s vegan confectionary
The easiest plant-based sweet to find, be it in convenience stores, specialized shops or supermarkets, seems to be chocolate. Once again, they are not necessarily aiming at a vegan audience, but play on marketing arguments such as sustainably-sourced cocoa, organic ingredients, and allergen-free products.
The main brands we found are Nikkoh (allergen-free consumers), the Aeon TopValu brand (allergen-free consumers), Almaterra (organic products, allergen-free consumers), People Tree (fair trade, organic), and Gracia del Sol by Sokensha (organic products). Except for Almaterra and People Tree, all these brands launched plant-based chocolates very recently, in the last five years.
Despite not being directly marketed as vegan or plant-based, they are an effective alternative to dairy chocolate.
There does not seem to be any Japanese plant-based candy or cookie brand, however, we could find some tasty sweet manufacturers.
The first of them, Biokura, can be found mainly in the allergen-free aisles of supermarkets and is not advertised as vegan. Once again, it stems not only from a consumers’ desire for healthier options but from the very Japanese circumstances of a Buddhist diet, restricting animal products such as dairy or eggs.
The Desica brand of the premium supermarket chain Seijo Ishi is another option. It should be noted that while their quinoa or fig and apricot cookies are roughly the same price as their shelf mates, these are all found in high-end stores, and not easily available to the next-door customer.
8ablish and Vegan Sweets Courier have taken to the Internet to sell their treats online since the market is so hard to reach offline. On the other hand, big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya are seeing a rise in “free-from” bakeries, which are effectively vegan. Less populated prefectures too can taste caring sweets, with Wood Moon selling in Shimane and Yamaguchi as well as Osaka.
Plant-based confecitonary in Japan has opportunities in the tradition of sweets as souvenirs
The initiative launched in 2019 and was met with the 2020 tourism crisis due to the pandemic, instead of the expected Olympic touristic leap. Japanese consumers were not interested enough for the initiative to soar and the campaign failed to find an audience.
However, this might still be an interesting start: instead of aiming at a Japanese audience as primary consumers, why not target foreigners? The borders might be closed but the popularity of Japanese culture abroad is not growing weaker, and we can expect the next wave of inbound tourism to be teeming with vegan people who would feel more comfortable finding obviously branded plant-based sweets.
The audience for plant-based confectionery in Japan does not exist specifically, but is shared between other markets, such as macrobiotic food, healthier products, fair trade and organic options. These recently emerging trends give way to potential local food innovations.
The brands that fare well locally are Japanese-oriented and do not advertise themselves as vegan. Initiatives do exist, but they are very recent or time-limited. Younger consumers are less wary of the new possibilities plant-based confectionery offer, and the westernization of Japanese eating habits might give way to more curiosity about these products in the future.
The niche market of plant-based confectionery in Japan is slow to take off, but it’s waiting for a product to take charge and spark new demand for vegan sweets. If you’re curious to know how you can capitalize in trend-obsessed Japan, the GourmetPro network can help you.
Our bilingual consultants each have an average of 10+ years of experience on the ground in Japan, specializing in areas including:
- Market Entry
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- Market/ Brand Localization
- Business Development
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- E-commerce, and more
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