Japan aims to attract 40 million foreign visitors annually by 2020. Amid the need to accommodate the various needs of these tourists, one of the most pressing issues is how to deal with dietary restrictions. Of the many different people with religious dietary restrictions, much attention in recent years has been paid to Muslims. The term halal is given to foods prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. In Japan, there is an increasing focus on halal certification systems where a third-party organization reviews products and services to determine if they are worthy of the halal classification, but the fact is that Muslims do not only eat halal certified foods.
The number of Muslim visitors to Japan has increased year on year recently and, according to some statistics, is expected to reach 1.4 million by 2020, accounting for more than 3% of all foreign visitors. Such an increase in numbers has restaurants scrambling to address the need for Muslim-friendly and halal-certified foods. What factors are necessary for creating a society where people of diverse cultures can all have enjoyable dining experiences? RUintheknow investigates, taking into account the perspectives of both food providers and consumers.
Menus created based on preconceived notions are confusing to Muslims
'Japanese-style izakaya are surprisingly convenient actually, when I go out to eat with Muslim friends.'
These are the words of Professor Mariko Arata of Ritsumeikan University’s College of Gastronomy Management, a cultural anthropologist who has conducted food-related field work in Indonesia - publishing a body of research on halal.
Many readers may find the first example she gives of the situation surrounding Muslims and food in Japan a little surprising.
‘Restaurants with halal menus offer some peace of mind, but there are only a handful in Japan, which obviously severely limits choice. Most of the halal food in Japan is limited to a choice of ethnic cuisine, or expensive Japanese-style haute cuisine, with the latter more often than not requiring a reservation. Clearly, these are not well suited to visitors who simply want to sample authentic Japanese food in a casual atmosphere.
That said, there are a considerable number of Muslims who opt to discern whether certain dishes are edible or not by means of their own judgment, even if the dishes aren’t officially halal certified. Some eat seafood, and some eat certain pork-free dishes. If you are going out to eat with friends such as this, then an izakaya is a perfect choice. The menus are extensive, reasonably priced, and you can order items individually from the menu.’
Taking her own experience of eating out with Muslim friends and acquaintances, she explains: ‘First, I ask my guests about their preferences, including what they can’t eat, then I order dishes to meet their preferences. When the food arrives, I explain what it contains and how it was prepared before they try it, and, if they like it, we order more. The reality is, however, that it is difficult for foreign visitors to attempt to eat at an izakaya on their own, because it is not possible to discern the actual ingredients of a dish just from the name or a photograph.'
There are many foods and drinks that individual consumers decide are halal (or not), even if they are not certified. That said, however, when the Japanese, who have next to no dietary restrictions, attempt to make halal dishes without sufficient knowledge, they can sometimes unwittingly use haram (prohibited) ingredients, or, on the other hand, overreact by removing ingredients a consumer would have perhaps considered okay to eat. In this way, even the best intentions can sometimes end up confusing Muslim visitors.
People need information to determine if a food is halal (permissible) or haram (prohibited)
Given this current reality in the restaurateur industry, what then is the best approach restaurants can take towards meeting the needs Muslim visitors effectively in a short space of time? According to Professor Arata, there are two things they can do: disclose information and develop menus.
‘Even though Muslims may belong to the same religion, each person’s attitude toward dietary restrictions is different. These attitudes vary widely from region to region and individual to individual. Therefore, the basic approach is to provide sufficient information to allow Muslim consumers to decide for themselves what they can or can’t eat. Because people’s food preferences are wide and varied, just providing one halal menu will only have a very limited effect,’ she explains.
‘With regard to halal, the one thing that most Muslims will check first is whether or not a dish contains products derived from pigs (i.e., pork, ham, bacon, sausage, and lard). Next, they will want to know if the meat has been prepared according to halal standards, and whether or not a dish contains alcohol (including mirin).
‘Seasonings rarely show up in the name of a dish, and you can’t tell from a photograph what seasonings a dish contains. Like people with allergies, people with religious restrictions have a requirement to confirm that a dish does not contain certain ingredients before they eat it. So, even if something contains small amounts of meat or alcohol, restaurants need to disclose that information in the form of pictograms, or by presenting a list of ingredients.
‘Alternatively, indicating which dishes are pork and alcohol-free, or providing a separate menu with just those dishes in it, would make it easier for customers to choose dishes. It would also, incidentally, reduce the amount of time restaurants need to spend on dealing with customers.’
In practical terms, however, what does menu development really mean - what form might it take?
Professor Arata provides an answer in Part 2 >>>
Professor Mariko Arata's Researcher's Database: