In 2013 when Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics, 313,318 visitors from predominantly-Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia arrived in Japan. Six years later, that number tripled to 914,371, according to official statistics.
That number doesn’t include visitors from other Muslim-majority regions. In 2019, 26,546 arrived from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and 22,724 from Turkey. Arrivals from all these Muslim-majority nations may only have made up 3% of Japan’s visitors in 2019 but they were almost a million-strong, and their needs could not be ignored.
Japan has been diligently developing its Muslim-friendly tourism ecosystem over the last decade or so as more Muslims arrive to visit or live in the country. All of this was building up to the Olympics year when authorities were expecting 1.4 million Muslim visitors to flock to Tokyo.
With the pandemic cancelling international tourism since early 2020 and the government barring foreign spectators to the Games this year, how are Japan’s halal restaurants surviving?
HIT BY PANDEMIC
“Many [halal-certified eating establishments] are closing down due to having almost no customers. They are hugely impacted because they expected a million Muslim customers to come to Tokyo 2020,” Shinya Yokoyama, local halal pioneer and co-founder of Food Diversity Inc, told Salaam Gateway.
There are two categories of Muslim-focused restaurants in Japan, according to Yokoyama. The first are the halal-certified eateries primarily targeting Muslims and the other seeks a wider clientele by providing Muslim-friendly options on their menus.
Aya Kambe, chief researcher at Yano Research Institute, estimates there are about 700 of these two types of eating establishments registered on major halal websites in Japan, of which around 100 do not use pork, serve only halal meats and do not sell alcoholic beverages. Compared to a year ago, this number has decreased, especially in Tokyo, she said.
“As a result of the government's restrictions on movement and requests to shorten business hours, the flow of people, time of use, and the amount of money spent per customer have changed, affecting all restaurants, including halal eating establishments,” said Kambe.
Eating establishments have been most severely hit by the pandemic, with part-time workers being the majority of those who lost their jobs, because of the high proportion of part-timers in the sector, said Shigeto Nagai, head of Japan economics at Oxford Economics.
Out of the 99,765 people who had lost employment by April 2 this year since the pandemic started, restaurants and bars accounted for slightly more than 10%, reported local media last month, citing government data.
In January, a report from Nikkei Asia painted a dark picture of Japan’s restaurants, with hundreds of temporary closures, companies in the red, and 842 with debts of at least 10 million yen ($91,350) filing for bankruptcy last year, up 5.3% from 2019.
The restaurants most severely affected by the pandemic are those that serve alcoholic beverages in the evening, said Kambe, as they have been asked to shorten their operating hours.
The halal restaurants that don’t serve alcohol and don’t open till late at night have regardless seen a fall in customers, but while their situation is severe, many of them are thought to be able to maintain their businesses, she added.
Japan’s Muslim population of around 200,000 isn’t big enough to sustain all of the country’s halal eating establishments.
Muslims are, however, making efforts to support their local eateries by buying take-out and using lunchtime menus. They are also going on Facebook and Instagram to encourage others to patronise the halal eating places, according to Kambe.
The halal restaurants themselves have adapted to survive. The reasonably-priced establishments with Muslim regular customers living in Japan are still in business. Others have moved to where there is demand for lunch and delivery orders (food delivery has boomed in Japan, similar to many other countries during pandemic lockdowns) from Muslim customers, according to Kambe. Yet others had to make different decisions.
“Halal establishments that target Muslim tourists and are located at high-end areas with relatively high rents are either closing or changing their menus to broaden their target customers,” said Kambe.
She gave the example of Tokyo’s major curry chain CoCoICHI, that had to shutter two of its halal branches last year. “The halal establishment of this curry chain were priced higher than the other non-halal establishments and were aimed at tourists,” Kambe explained.
“Halal establishments, whose customers were mainly Muslim tourists, stopped offering halal menus and replaced them with vegan menus or other menus that suit Japanese food trends,” she said.
Yokoyama observed the same. “Vegan and vegetarian movements are supporting them (halal eateries). Many Japanese consumers are having more vege options than before because the stay-home-period is too long and they get bored with their daily meat meals,” he said.
Many restaurants are relying on government support.
A large number of Japan’s restaurants are small businesses that have received financial support from the government to help them keep the lights on, according to Nagai and Kambe.
In the first-quarter of this year Tokyo-based businesses were given 40,000 to 60,000 yen ($365 - $548) per day from the local government to keep their shops open until 8 p.m. This has continued beyond March.
“Currently, 40,000 to 100,000 yen per store per day will be given depending on sales from April 25 to May 11,” said Kambe.
The hope is that Tokyo’s restaurants will still be standing when the Olympics finally start on July 23.
But with no foreign spectators allowed at this year’s Games, hotels and eating establishments will be particularly hit, said Oxford Economics’ Nagai.
Even if there is a substantial number of domestic spectators, restaurants may not see much of a change.
“[O]lympic Games have not always increased domestic consumption significantly because regular consumption activities by locals and foreign visitors were crowded out by visitors for Olympic Games,” said Nagai.
Kambe points out the halal establishments that will be affected by the no foreign spectators policy are those that have invested in store equipment in hopes of attracting new Muslim tourists.
“This is especially true for major restaurants that are aiming for scale in sales,” she said.
Some of these have closed down after being badly-hit by COVID while others have changed menus to serve more local customers.
It may be a very challenging time but halal restaurants in Japan are not disappearing completely anytime soon.
The efforts of major Japanese restaurants to promote halal may have been set back by COVID-19 but once the pandemic is over and Muslim tourists return, investment in halal will probably resume, believes Kambe.
Her colleague, Marlinda, an Indonesian who has lived in Japan for 25 years, pointed out that more businesses are being set up by Muslims to provide authentic halal Indonesian food, and these can be ordered via platforms such as Instagram. “Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims living in Japan have more options for ready-to-eat halal food,” said Marlinda.
She and Kambe expect a gradual increase in the number of halal restaurants in the long-term as more Muslims travel to Japan to work and live in local places other than the major metropolitan areas, and the number of Muslim students studying at local schools is also increasing.
“Even those restaurants that have been closed or changed their menu have already learned how to handle halal menus, so I think they can return easily and quickly,” said Kambe.
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