Clearing the air on halal food in Japan

The recent signing of the memorandum of cooperation (MoC) on “halal” matters between Malaysia and Japan marks another milestone in the excellent diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof and Hiroshige Seko from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry signed the MoC on behalf of their governments.

Immediately after the signing, our minister pursued a discussion with the Tokyo Olympic Council (TOC) head Tushiro Muto on the issue of supplying halal food and beverages (F&B) from Malaysia for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

TOC, a professional body, was very receptive to this approach by a Malaysian minister. It readily acknowledged that it was aiming for 40-45% of the F&B at the Olympic Village and at its planned events to be halal certified and in tandem with all compliance.

Later, the minister officiated HalFest Tokyo, a three-day event meant to showcase halal F&B, pharmaceutical and cosmetics production in Japan and Malaysia. More than 80 companies or participants were involved in the exhibition, almost half of whom were Malaysians.

While the Japanese companies were keen in their pursuit of producing halal F&B products for Japanese markets, a similar conclusion could not be drawn from their Malaysian counterparts.

In his speech, the minister raised the issue of food processing and the need for a clear understanding of the Japanese food chain and markets. Specifically, he spoke of making the process of food production in Japan more halal than it is now.

He said Japanese food would remain the same, only the process would become halal so that Muslims could consume a variety of Japanese dishes which they would otherwise not touch. These include both meat and non-meat products.

When the processing of food is not halal, Muslims can only consume a limited number of items on the menu. That is why the focus here is on the process. His message was loud and clear: the menus do not have to change, only the process.

Value added

With the participation of Malaysians in the F&B process and the halal certification to be done, hopefully Japanese food producers will follow the halal approach in addition to the organic and food source traceability programmes that they already have. This would boost consumer confidence as far as halal food is concerned.

The halal component would add value to the overall food chain in Japan as far as Muslim consumers are concerned. This is what the TOC would like to have, so that Muslim participants from across the world competing in the Tokyo Olympics will have halal F&B throughout their stay in Japan.

Promoting halal food and promoting Malaysian food, however, are two different things. Malaysian food suppliers at HalFest Tokyo seemed more focused on promoting their home-based F&B items than getting involved in the Japanese F&B process and production.

They tend to think that because there is now an interest in halal food in Japan, the demand for Malaysian food and food products will automatically be created. This is a fallacy as the two are not related. The export of food products into Japan must also go through a stringent process.

Nasi lemak

Muslims who come to Japan do not mind eating Japanese food as long as it is prepared in the halal way and has halal certification. Local Japanese do not mind eating halal food, either. But the average Japanese or non-Malaysian Muslim in Japan would have issues over a plate of nasi lemak, due to reasons of food familiarity.

In the same way, many British Muslim tourists in Malaysia would prefer eggs with toast for breakfast instead of a packet of nasi lemak, no matter how delicious that packet is. The point is, they are not familiar with the dish, even if it is halal.

So to promote keropok lekor or kerepek ubi or nasi lemak in its original form on the basis that it is halal, even when the Japanese are accommodating to halal products, is not yet sufficient. It is also a tall order for Malaysian entrepreneurs to meet.

But having said that, nasi lemak, if presented in the form of a halal Onigiri, could be a good option and would have a better chance of hitting the right note among hungry Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Again, it is the process that matters.

The Japanese menu cannot be replaced with Malaysian cuisine, no matter how popular the dish is in Malaysia. Taste buds cannot be captured or changed overnight. The key here is to make more and more Japanese dishes halal as we operate in the Japanese market. In the same way, food producers in Malaysia make halal dim sum and fried kuey teow for the Muslim market here. They are still Chinese dishes, but the process is made halal.

This is a major misunderstanding that needs to be corrected if Malaysian companies want to penetrate the Japanese F&B market.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.