Rice is central to the Japanese diet, right? Well, yes and no. While rice remains an essential component of Japanese cuisine, Japanese people have been eating less and less rice each year for decades. Why?
You can boil it down—so to speak—to three factors: Steady rise in per capita income, the ongoing Westernization of the diet, and a declining population.
Inverse Relationship with Income Growth
Rice has been a staple of the Japanese diet throughout recorded history. However, something curious started to occur in the decades following World War II, which caused rice consumption to decline. The culprit was not a blight; It was income growth!
The Japanese call the period from about 1960 until the end of the Cold War in 1991 when GDP doubled as the “Kodo keizai seichoki” （高度経済成長期） or “Japanese economic miracle.” Although the rate of growth has fallen since that time, Japan has continuously booked steady increases in per capita during this period. At the same time, they started to eat less and less rice as the typical Japanese diet became more diverse.
Back in 1962, every man, woman, and child in Japan consumed approximately 118.3 kg of rice each year. In 2005 the among was only 64.9 kg. By 2015 that figure had fallen to only 56.4 kg (equivalent to approximately 2-1/2 bowls of rice/day). By 2025 the estimate is only 49 kg, and by 2050, the expectation that Japanese people will eat only 34.7 kg of rice per year. Putting that in perspective, the average citizen of Thailand ate a whopping 135.6 kg of rice in 2015. The global average was 60 kg per person at that point.
Scholars have noted that “as income grows, per capita rice consumption is expected to decline as consumers substitute rice with high-cost quality food containing more protein and vitamins such as processed rice, vegetables, bread, fish and meat.”
Popularity of that last substitute was due to influence of the West and American culture, in particular.
More Big Macs
The Japanese diet used to be composed primarily of rice, fish, and vegetables. Ever since the end of World War II, the amount of animal food and oil, common elements of Western foods, has increased dramatically.
Simply put, as the number of Big Macs consumes has increased, rice consumption has declined. McDonald’s did not start expanding beyond the borders of the U.S. until 1967. The first McDonald’s in Japan opened in Ginza way back in 1971. While the number of McDonald’s restaurants has been declining during the past decade, at its height in 2007, McDonald’s had 3,746 locations across Japan. The country still ranks as the 3rd largest market for the company. There are, of course, plenty of other places to get a hamburger in Japan today.
The third factor responsible for a reduction in rice consumption is somewhat less obvious.
Japan’s population has been steadily declining from its peak of 128 million in 2010 to around 124 million today. As has been thoroughly documented, this long-term decline is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. Barring an increase in immigration, which is unlikely, by 2060, the population will be only around 86 million. That’s more than a 30% reduction from 2010.
These changing demographics are having a significant impact on virtually every market, and rice is certainly not immune. There are simply fewer people to eat rice.
On top of these problems, like everyone else, Japanese rice farmers were then hit with the coronavirus. It is, however, turning out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
Anomaly Caused by the Pandemic
While the coronavirus has disrupted life for all of us and is still causing much hardship, it turns out that it has been a boon for Japanese rice farmers.
On January 15, the Japanese Cabinet Office released the results of a recent survey of dietary habits conducted in November, which yielded some surprising results.
17.9% of 1,967 respondents answered that their rice consumption at home under the new coronavirus “increased,” whereas only 4% said it had “decreased,” which has been the norm for decades.
Rice is the ultimate comfort food. Miyu tweeted about her “stay-at-home” diet. She has “chicken breast, salad, and rice for lunch as well as rice, natto, and miso soup at night.” This diet is helping her to keep from over-eating during the pandemic.
The results varied by age. 27.2% of those in their 30s said that they are now eating more rice. 20% of the respondents in their 40s and 50s also said they have been consuming more rice.
…but why? 85.5% said that the main reason for this shift back toward the traditional dietary staple of rice was that they had more opportunities to cook at home than eat take-out bento box meals. Many cited that they are now eating more bread and noodles at home, too.
There is, however, still concern about the cost of rice. 63.7% of respondents mentioned that the primary factor to consider when purchasing rice is price rather than “variety” or “site of production.” Considering that rice is more expensive in Japan’s protected domestic market than in any other country, such feedback is really not all that surprising. The average price of 1kg of rice in Japan is approximately 500 yen, compared to only 85 yen in Vietnam.
Price is, however, not everything. There are plenty of people who are quite selective in terms of the brand of rice that they buy.
Branded Rice from Specific Geographies
Rice is rice, right? Wrong! It turns out that there are quite a number of varieties of rice. It is possible to detect significant differences in taste.
Japanese farmers certainly recognize that the long-term trend regarding domestic rice consumption is not their friend. While they are thankful for the perversely positive impact of the coronavirus, they are not sitting on their laurels as market dynamics once again start to reduce demand.
While nothing new, many resources are being poured into marketing campaigns for rice grown in specific geographic regions.
Some of the best-known brands include Koshihikari （コシヒカリ）which is grown throughout Japan, Akita Komachi（秋田こまち）, Hitomebore（ひとめぼれ） from Miyagi, and Yumepirika （ゆめぴりか）from Hokkaido.
Most Japanese people have their own favorite brands and ways to prepare their rice.
Gorilla Guard Guarantee tweeted, “Cooked rice with various mushrooms (is the best). I think that the brand ‘Yukimusubi’ is the most delicious in Japan–especially when cooked with and bacon and chicken stock. While dangerous, I tend to keep eating until my stomach is torn. It’s just so good!”
For rice connoisseurs, the particular strain of Koshihikari from the Uonuma Region（魚沼）of Niigata Prefecture is probably the most famous. This mountainous region with very large amounts of annual snowfall has been harvesting some of the most tasty rice in the country for hundreds of years. It often commands a significant price premium—for a good reason.
Other Creative Ways to Market Rice
Japanese farmers are also quite skilled at composing huge, living murals in their paddies to create additional buzz about rice.
It is a form of aerial tourism—especially well-suited for drone photography. Different types of rice are used to generate various colors. These projects can only be completed with the aid of more than 1,000 local volunteers. The results are spectacular.
This video with English subtitles provides a more detailed explanation of how the tiny town of Inakadate in Aomori Prefecture has become world-famous for their giant rice paddy murals and how they make them.
After viewing the video you’ll probably crave a bowl of steamed rice!
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.