Decreasing demand for fish in Japan to hit salmon exporters?

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Changing diets and a declining population points to decreased demand in Japan for seafood imports in years to come as price increases continue to outpace inflation. 

The Statistics Bureau of Japan released the November 2021 pricing information last week, showing that the price of salmon in the country increased 3.3 per cent from the previous year.

Is this unremarkable increase newsworthy? Often, the price the price of salmon can be seen to fluctuate that much within the course of a single week. The rise, however, comes at the same time as a general increase in the price of fresh fish in the country of 8 per cent.

This comes as demand for seafood in the country continued to fall, with per-capita consumption at 23.8 kilograms in fiscal 2019 from its peak of 40.2 kilograms 18 years before, according to the Fisheries Agency.

According to recent Japanese government figures, domestic demand for marine products will decline in the coming decades, and aquaculture production will shrink if it remains dependent on domestic demand.

Japanese purchasing power is also on the decline. Key to the resistance of price increases on certain goods is a lack of wage inflation in Japan, as wages in the country have remained stagnant. Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows annual real wages, in terms of U.S. dollar-based purchasing power in Japan, are at about $39,000 in 2020, an increase of just 4 per cent from 30 years earlier. Over the same time period wages in the US nearly doubled to $69,000.

But is there another factor at play in Japan’s declining demand for seafood?

Shrinkflation
Last year, the Bank of Japan cut its consumer inflation forecast for the year ending in March 2022 to 0 per cent from 0.6 per cent. According to CNBC, Rising commodity costs pushed Japan’s wholesale inflation to a 13-year high last year. But the pass-through to households has been remarkably slow due to sluggish domestic demand, keeping consumer inflation stuck around zero.

Companies have also had to face increases on the consumption tax, which has risen from 3 per cent in 1989, to 5 per cent in 1997, to 8 per cent in 2014, and 10 per cent in 2019.

The upshot is strong consumer resistance to price hikes on familiar products with a well-established price point. Manufacturers are caught in the middle, and many are resorting to “shrinkflation” – reducing package contents while keeping prices the same.

Big in Japan
There are still reasons for exporters to be optimistic. In a 2017 survey by the seafood company Maruha Nichiro, salmon was found to be the most popular neta (topping) for the sixth year in a row, ranked far higher than the more traditional tuna and halibut.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government’s fisheries white paper of 2016 shows that salmon represents 16 per cent of the total value of imported fish to country and that this is continuing to grow.

According to Nippon.com, data published in March 2020 shows salmon as the most often eaten sushi topping of 53.2 per cent of women and 41.3 per cent of men, far ahead of lean tuna in second place.

While Chile and Canada account for a substantial portion of farmed salmon consumed in Japan, by far the most coveted imported variety is Norwegian Atlantic salmon. Ninety per of Atlantic salmon and trout consumed in Japan is imported from Norway and Chile.

According to a NSC survey, salmon exports to Japan totalled around 34,000 tons in 2019, roughly 40 per cent more than a decade ago. The UK, by contrast, only managed to send 1,060 tonnes to the country in the same year, worth just £8.7 million.