K-food finds its footing in Japan

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K-food finds its footing in Japan

Lee Young-hee

The author is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Konbini is a Japanese word for the convenience stores that can be found on every corner of Japanese neighborhoods. Now a new type of 24/7 shops are proliferating around the capital. They are called “kanbini” with “kan” referring to kankoku, or Korean in Japanese. The shops look like the common convenience stores in Seoul, stocked with all the Korean popular snacks, ramyeon, frozen food and spices. Since the first opened in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture in December 2020, 16 shops are in business around the capital region.

The first kanbini shop in Kawaguchi is located in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from Kawaguchi station. Elementary school students from nearby often stop by to buy Korean jellies and other sweets.

The head of the shop, Seo Jeong-woong, lived in the city for a long time. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, travelling to South Korea had not been easy. But the demand for Korean food and cosmetics was strong. To buy Korean food, people had to go to the Korean town in Tokyo. “Although the area is not densely populated, I felt there was enough demand for Korean groceries. A convenience store is an easier way to approach young Japanese consumers,” he said.

His idea sold well. The store received a lot of media attention. Customers come from nearby Chiba and Tochigi Prefectures. More than 90 percent of the customers are Japanese with age varying from teens to 60s. Per capita spending averages 1,500 yen ($10.95), which is nearly double the average spending at general convenience stores in Japan.

Just a few years back, Korean food could be found only in Korean grocery shops in big cities like Tokyo or through e-commerce. These days, big supermarkets in Tokyo sell different types of kimchi and about 10 brands of soju and other Korean liquor. Korean ramyeon and dumplings can be easily found at any convenience store.

According to Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. (aT)., ramyeon exports to Japan nearly doubled to $65.28 million in 2021 from $33.75 million in 2019. Beverage exports jumped from $8.17 million to $14.75 million. Shipments of red chili paste increased to $5.95 million in 2021 from $4.41 million in 2019.

“Before Covid-19, 3 million Japanese visited South Korea each year. But since they cannot travel, many eat Korean food at home. Retailers are more eager to stock Korean groceries due to increased demand from popular Korean dramas,” said Chang Seo-kyung, head of aT Tokyo branch.

The second floor of the Mega Donki discount store in Shibuya, Tokyo, devoted to foreign food, has been invaded by Korean snack and instant food. The shelves are packed with numerous types of Korean snacks and ramyeon. One female customer in her 20s said she often comes to shop for Korean ramyeon because her friends prefer Korean instant noodles. Lee Beom-soo, a senior officer at Nongshim Japan, noted that ramyeon sales are influenced by dramas and films. Instant cup noodle sales picked up after the film “Broker” directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda featured a scene of actress Bae Doona eating cup noodle.

The Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 8 carried an article about the explosive popularity of Korean soju among young Japanese. As Korean hit dramas like “Itaewon Class” have many drinking scenes, viewers have come to wonder about the green bottle.

Jinro Chamisul soju is sold in three major convenience store chains and big marts in Japan. According to Park Sang-pil, marketing chief of Jinro Japan, sales of Chamisul soju in Japan have surged by around 10 times from the pre-Covid-19 year of 2018. “The popularity of Korean dramas has played a part, but the aggressive marketing strategy for the tricky Japanese distribution network also helped,” he said.

Lawson convenience stores sell ready-made kimchi and tofu stew. As udon and tonkatsu sell like everyday food in Korea, Korean food is slowly seeping into the life of Japan.
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