Beef elbowing onto Japanese barbecue grill

Most people in Japan barbecue thinly sliced meat, seafood, vegetables and noodles, but beef consumption is growing

TOKYO — Japan is going through the height of its barbecue season right now, but one can practically never smell the aroma of sizzling Canadian beef.

Whereas barbecue aficionados in Canada and the United States are used to suburban backyard gatherings, most people in the Tokyo vicinity or other Japanese big-city areas have little in the way of lawns, and backyards are virtually nonexistent.

People gather for barbecue in parks and on riversides. And the cooking style is different from the thick meat fare prevalent in Canada and the U.S. People here add seafood, vegetables and fried noodles to the grill, while the meat itself is usually thinly sliced to be grilled and eaten within a short time, Japan Barbecue Association (JBA) president Tamio Shimojo said.

“Short plate is the most popular cut for yakiniku (barbecue),” Shimojo said.

Although hamburger patties and steaks also find their way onto the grill, that rarely happens among ordinary households, Shimojo said.

“Those two forms of barbecue would rather be eaten at restaurants,” he said.

The Japan Productivity Center’s White Book on Leisure data shows 21 million people enjoy barbecue at least once a year, whereas only eight million people play golf at the same frequency.

“So you can see barbecue is a very popular activity,” Shimojo said.

Although he does not have data on yearly barbecue beef consumption, with the recent Japanese barbecue boom and beef boom, consumption of beef by barbecue is considered to be increasing, he said.

Shimojo said he founded the JBA in 2006 to create a new barbecue culture in Japan. The association currently counts about 10,000 members, all certified by the JBA as “barbecue instructors.”

The JBA holds seminars throughout the country where one can learn full-fledged barbecue skills through a set of barbecue workshops and about 60 certification tests a year, Shimojo said.

“We also collaborate with Japanese companies to develop barbecue-related products, and have created an official certification system for products, services and goods our association recommends, as well as do sales promotion activities,” he said.

Barbecue consumers can be divided into two types: people seeking cheap beef and those wanting high quality (mostly wagyu) beef, Shimojo said.

“Because the meat is meant to be baked on a grill, thin slices of marbled meat is also popular,” he said.

The typical volume of beef Canadians eat at barbecue is roughly half a pound, and Shimojo said Japanese barbecue lovers eat around the same amount.

“It may be more,” he said.

Canadian beef would be a rare visitor among the JBA’s activities, as the meat is not generally known among Japanese consumers, Shimojo said. When one talks about imported beef in this country, one usually talks about American or Australian meat, he said. “However, Canadian beef is gaining recognition little by little at retail,” he said.

Japan Foodservice Association (453 companies with 67,000 outlets) managing director Kiyotoshi Tamura echoed Shimojo, saying little Canadian beef is used in this country’s restaurants.

“U.S. and Australian beef is mostly used,” Tamura said.

Among trade insiders and consumers, Canadian beef is a generic brand and nobody differentiates between western Canadian beef, typically barley fed giving it white fat, and the yellow fat Ontario beef, the result of a corn diet.

Shiroh Ohashi, executive director of the Japan Meat Traders Association (JMTA), a grouping of 26 meat exporting and importing companies, said he does not know the difference in demand for the two types of beef. However, Australian beef is barley-fed and U.S. beef is corn-fed, Ohashi pointed out.

“Both types are strongly in demand, so it seems there is not much difference,” he said.

The difference comes in promoting Canadian beef for barbecue because there is a growing consumer demand for thicker steak cuts for steak, indicative of a fusion trend of traditional Japanese and North American-style barbecue in this market,Canada Beef president Francis Andres said.

Japan’s barbecue season normally lasts from July through August, as well as Golden Week, a week from April 29 to early May containing a number of Japanese holidays.

Andres said the biggest opportunity for the Canadian beef industry is ratification of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, also known as TPP11, a signed but not-yet ratified trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, which will help level the tariff playing field versus Australia and give Canadian beef an advantage over U.S. beef.

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