While sheep meat consumption remains minimal in the country, at only 0.1kg per capita in 2017, compared to pork (15.4kg) and beef and veal (6.6kg), according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), 2017 marks its second consecutive year of this market’s growth.
In Japan, sheep meat has traditionally been consumed outside the home, due to poor awareness of cooking methods and a lack of availability. The majority has been consumed in hotels and restaurants on the northern island of Hokkaido, where jingisukan, a local mutton dish grilled on a skillet at the table, is popular.
But supermarket sales of lamb and mutton nationwide are on the rise. Industry experts have attributed the growth to the stable price of sheep meat in Japan, compared to that of beef, which continues to rise due to a shortage of calves, as well as a growing awareness of sheep meat’s low-fat, high-iron content.
Promotional work in supermarkets, such as free samples and cooking demonstrations from local chefs named ‘lambassadors’, was undertaken by the Tokyo office of Meat & Livestock Australia in 2017, after the organisation’s consumer surveys on why Japanese consumers do not buy lamb showed 47% were unfamiliar with it and 35% did not know how to cook it.
More jingisukan speciality restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka, as well as more halal eateries where lamb is a staple on the menu, are also driving Japanese consumers to try lamb at home, according to one Japan-based meat industry expert, who asked not to be named.
A spokesperson for supermarket chain Aeon reported that, since June 2016, it has doubled or tripled the lamb sections at its Aeon and Aeon Style stores in Honshu and Shikoku islands, which are home to the bulk of Japan’s population.
Domestic farmers are producing more lamb and mutton in response, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, with 170 tonnes (t) of sheep meat produced in Japan in 2014, rising to 180t in 2016. Imports, though, remain crucial, particularly from Australia, which supplies 70% of sheep exports to Japan, and New Zealand.
In 2016, Meat & Livestock Australia reported a 12.9% year-on-year increase of Australian exports of lamb and mutton to Japan, with further growth expected for 2017 and 2018. New Zealand lamb exports to Japan from October 2016 to September 2017 were up 36.9%, with mutton exports up 63% over the same period. Popular among consumers are thinly sliced shoulder meat such as chuck roll, racks, chops or cutlets, as well as marinated lamb that can be cooked easily in jingisukan style.