As a nation known for convenience living, the Japanese society has undergone significant changes in traditional eating habits - from long hours of home-prepared meals to takeout foods or dining out frequently in fast food outlets. As the number of mom-and-pop stores steadily decline, supermarkets and mega-chains providing mass merchandising of horticultural goods are increasing in the outskirts of metropolitan areas. Evidently, the homemakers have succumbed to the temptation of preparing "quick and easy" meals with an array of frozen foods, microwavable foods, instant food packages, and even takeout bentos (boxed meal) or meal portions, such as croquettes, cooked meat or fish, or salads.
The rising popularity of convenience food in Japan could be attributed to many factors: more women entering and staying in the work force; the number of singles (women and men) climbing; the casual atmosphere of the eateries and cheap prices of fast foods; and the ongoing menu changes of fast foods.
However, Japanese don't compromise food quality - taste, nutrition and especially safety - for convenience. As in the case of E. coli outbreak in 1996, many customers turned to local stores where produce was considered safer and fresher than those of the supermarkets. In the early 2000s, after a few Japanese cows were inflicted with mad cow disease, consumers boycotted beef nationwide, causing a severe setback in the dairy industry. The present ban on American beef (destined to be lifted in a few weeks) underlies Japanese main concern - American beef cannot be guaranteed safe from mad cow disease.
During the prolonged recession, a series of economic reforms, including business restructuring, deregulation, and widening trade markets, have sharpened consumer demand for high-quality food products at affordable prices. Instead of reducing food expenditures, consumers have become more selective over food purchases.
In that regard, fast food producers and restaurants have been responding to Japanese demands for a wider selection, cheaper, healthier, and tastier meals. As more Japanese opt for eating out, a growing trend of two types of fast foods has emerged: western-style food outlets and Japanese family-run food shops.
Since McDonald's arrival in 1971, other western-style fast food franchises soon followed - Kentucky Fried Chicken, Lotteria, Mr. Donut, and Wendy's - rapidly spreading across the country to more than 3,800 food outlets. Apparently, foreign fast foods appeal to a great number of Japanese families with younger children.
The presence of McDonald's inspired a Japanese version, Mos Burger, which offers an enterprising spin on the hamburger concept. Besides presenting standard hamburgers on the menu, Mos Burger provides burgers with teriyaki chicken, chicken breasts, and fish; also offers lettuce leaves or rice balls as buns. Even the desserts and drinks have a distinct Japanese taste: green tea dessert with sweet red beans and chestnuts and green tea ice-cream shake.
Another burger joint has become the rage in Tokyo - Mamido Burger makes its creations entirely out of sweets. Began in October 2005, Mamido Burger is already expanding to open another shop later this month just after a three-month debut. The uniqueness of Mamido burger lies in the ingenious use of fruits and confectionary ingredients to create the look of a burger. The Mamido burger, priced at 390 yen, features a "patty" (cream) and "pickles" (kiwis) in a "bun" (sponge cake). The fish burger contains a banana shaped as "fish" and topped with cream as "tartar sauce". The French fries are actually deep-fried elongated custard cream.
Japanese-style fast foods generally fall under three types: noodles, rice with toppings, and street foods. Most shops are family-run businesses in small facilities, serving meals ranging from 500 to 1,000 yen. Here is a list of common "quick and tasty" meals located throughout Japan:
Noodles - found everywhere; the seasoning of the broth and the type of noodles vary according to region:
- ramen - Japanese version of the original Chinese noodle soup served with various toppings
- udon - wheat-based noodle in broth garnished with toppings
- soba - thin brown buckwheat noodles: kake-soba (soba noodles in hot soup); zaru-soba (soba served cold with dipping sauce); yaki-soba (stir-fried soba with vegetable and meat toppings); and chuka-soba (boiled soba served with vegetables, meat, or seafood).
Rice plates - rice served with different toppings:
- kaiten-zushi - plates of different kinds of sushi, ranging from 100 to 300 yen, placed on a conveyor belt. Introduced in Higashi City in 1958, the self-service sushi bar has become popular with over 5,000 restaurants throughout Japan.
- donburi - a bowl of steamed rice with various toppings: tendon (tempura shrimp); katsudon (pork and egg); oyakodon, (chicken mixed with egg); and gyudon (beef and onions).
- curry rice - thick, creamy Japanese curry sauce with chicken, pork or beef served over steamed rice.
Street foods - found at food stalls in the day time and at night known as yatai:
- oden (stew with various ingredients);
- yakitori (skewered chicken, giblets, or vegetables);
- okonomi-yaki - found at food carts or small shops: pancake containing various ingredients, such as pork, seafood, cabbage, etc.
Recently, bento sales have escalated due to aggressive marketing by convenience stores, supermarkets and takeout chains, such as the popular Hokka Hokka Tei. Nowadays, consumers are presented with a vast bento selection of higher nutritional value, better quality and tastier morsels, all at a reasonable price. In the past, mainly students and young people, who couldn't afford a decent meal, bought bentos. In the last few years, the image of bento has been elevated to a delicious, balanced-diet meal. High-end bentos that cater to the health-conscious and those who care about quality ingredients, have been drawing in men and women in their forties and fifties.
While the popularity of Japanese fast foods surges at home, Japanese fast food franchises make their impressions around the world, such as Kaiten-zushi restaurants and Wagamama (known for ramen) in major cities of the West, and as Yoshinoya (gyudon), Hachiban (ramen), and Ichibanya (curry) in the East. Undoubtedly, Japan is well on its way exporting another aspect of its culture - Japanese cuisine.
(First published on UniOrb, January 2, 2006)