Japanese restaurateurs continue their breakthrough in Asia

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The Yomiuri Shimbun
A curry and rice meal served at the Gurugram branch of Curry House CoCo Ichibanya

BANGKOK — Japan’s major restaurant chains are making inroads into Asian markets in hopes of tapping into previously unexplored regions such as India and the suburbs of major cities.

The growing popularity of Japanese cuisine overseas has given a boost, but the key to a stable business is the development of refined flavors and ingredients suited to local tastes.

Skyscrapers of tech companies and multinational corporations sit side by side in Gurugram, a New Delhi suburb that has become a symbol of India’s rapidly growing economy.

Leading Japanese restaurant chain Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, operator Ichibanya Co., opened its first Indian branch in Gurugram in August 2020. It became a hot topic of conversation when a Japanese-style curry restaurant opened in the birthplace of curry. Japanese expats took Indian colleagues and friends to the restaurant, and the branch grew steadily. The most popular menu item is chicken cutlet curry, which costs 475 rupees (¥800).

A local staff member said it was nice that customers could choose the spiciness and toppings, as such a system does not exist in Indian restaurants.

Zensho Holdings Co., which operates the Sukiya beef bowl chain, operates outlets in India. In consideration of Hindus who do not eat beef, the management has created a menu with chicken and vegetable dishes.

Although India is a huge market, many people prefer local food and the country leans rather conservative, according to an industry source. Despite this, the number of Japanese restaurants has gradually increased to about 130 in June 2021, according to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).

The number of overseas Japanese restaurants has almost tripled, from around 55,000 in 2013 to around 159,000 in 2021. One of the factors behind this increase is the push from people who are introduced to Japanese cuisine during their visits to Japan during the pre-pandemic travel boom.

In Southeast Asia, where Japanese restaurants took hold some time ago, companies are opening outlets in suburban and rural areas. A survey conducted by the JETRO Bangkok office last fall showed that the number of Japanese restaurants in Bangkok fell by 1.5% from a year earlier due to COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, but had increased by 15.5% in suburbs and rural areas.

“It’s not just the Japanese capital,” said a JETRO Bangkok official. “Thai capital in Japanese restaurants is also increasing.”

Careful planning required

However, there have been many instances of missteps.

In countries with a large Muslim population, for example, halal must be taken into account. In India, menus must appeal to its large population of vegetarian customers. Some Japanese companies pull out after several years due to problems with local joint ventures.

“It’s hard to bring in what’s sold in Japan,” said Ryosuke Yasuda of R&A Information Service Co., a Thailand-based food research company. “Detailed research is needed on things like local preferences, price ranges and regulations.”

Political risks have arisen, as seen in the case of Russia, where foreign-backed restaurant chains pulled out in light of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In Myanmar, the local business environment suddenly changed after a military coup in February last year.

To increase agricultural exports, the Japanese government in April began establishing export support platforms for eight countries and regions under consideration, including Thailand and Singapore. These platforms will analyze the characteristics of the market in each location and provide consultations with the aim of increasing the number of restaurants.

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