INTERVIEW: New thinking needed for Malaysia-Japan halal agreement to reach potential, Tokyo halal pioneer warns
Photo: Cahyani Ariya Wiji, a 21-year-old Muslim foreign student from Indonesia, receives a bowl of halal Udon noodles, from a staff at a dining hall in the Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, east of Tokyo May 13, 2014. Picture taken May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino
A first-mover in Japan’s halal industry believes Malaysia must change its approach to business there before it can really benefit from the agreement signed in November aimed at boosting mutual cooperation. At the same time, he says an uncoordinated certification system is not allowing sufficient Japanese food companies and restaurants to display the halal logo.
Shinya Yokoyama, who organised the country’s first halal trade show in 2014 and advises Japanese government departments on their approach to Islamic compliance, worries Malaysian authorities are missing a trick by encouraging companies to market their food there as halal.
“Halal is not so familiar to Japanese consumers yet, but they are very familiar with Asian foods?your nasi goreng, your nasi lemak, your mee goreng and so on,” Yokoyama told Salaam Gateway.
“That’s why I say, don’t sell ‘halal’, sell ‘Asian foods’ instead.”
Yokoyama believes it will be difficult for Malaysian halal companies to build a market in Japan even with the support offered them by government agencies like Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE).
MATRADE has been encouraging exporters to look east since the two countries signed their cooperation agreement November 28 in Tokyo to pave the way for more business opportunities in the halal industry between them.
The deal includes the promotion of trade and investment for halal products and services between the two countries, as well as measures to boost the demand for Malaysian halal certification and Muslim-friendly tourism to Japan.
The countries will also collaborate on the development of Japan’s halal supply chain and ecosystem, and Malaysia will offer its halal expertise to organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games.
Yokoyama believes the tie-up between the two countries has already been “quite successful”, citing the reported 135 million ringgit ($33 million) in sales made at the Japan-focused Malaysia Halal Expo trade show in Kuala Lumpur in January?more than double the sales target of its organiser, the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development. Anecdotally, he has also been seeing more Malaysian food brands on Japanese shelves.
But he questions whether it will be possible to sustain this momentum if Japanese consumers fail to take to products that are marketed based on their halal credentials.
MARKET ‘ASIAN’, NOT ‘HALAL’
“from a Malaysian perspective, exporters want to promote their products as halal because they know that halal is still new to Japanese consumers,” Yokoyama said.
“They want to demonstrate how clean halal is, how healthy it is, how nice it is. But Japanese consumers, even when they listen and learn about halal, many of them still feel that this food is only for Muslims. So eventually and unfortunately, Malaysian SMEs will lose their opportunity to sell their products.”
Yokoyama believes that if they are marketed as Asian gohan, or cuisine, halal-certified products will become more palatable and appealing to Japanese consumers.
“There are websites where Japanese women talk about gohan, like nasi goreng that they always say comes from Indonesia or Singapore?they don’t mention Malaysia at all. Malaysians are always disappointed to hear this, but then they realise they have to promote halal Malaysian cuisine as Asian gohan to Japanese consumers.”
Yokoyama said he has raised this point of view with the chief executive of MATRADE, himself a Japanophile who had previously lived in the country for seven years.
It is yet to be seen whether this conversation will have an effect on MATRADE’s ongoing advice to businesses, especially while exporters gear up for Japan’s 12 months under the sporting spotlight.
NOT ENOUGH HALAL FOR BIG EVENTS
The most attention-grabbing aspect of last year’s Malaysia-Japan halal agreement involves the related matter of the Southeast Asian country’s offer to assist organisers with their provision of food for inbound Muslim athletes and visitors in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Trade policymakers believe the global sporting event will provide an effective route for Malaysian companies to showcase, promote and supply halal products and services to the Japanese market, while also promoting them to Muslim sports fans visiting the country.
Tokyo 2020 also comes barely 12 months after Japan hosts this year’s Rugby World Cup, which begins in September?another top-tier sports event that is also expected to draw Muslim visitors by the thousands.
Yokoyama believes Malaysian companies, and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), are “very serious” about shipping their products to Japan, especially with these sporting events in sight. However, Japanese certification bodies are struggling to meet the demand from food companies and foodservice outlets in time for the Games.
Accordingly, Yokoyama expects his country will struggle to provide enough halal food to visitors outside the athletes’ village, where Malaysian halal wherewithal features strongly.
“I have spoken to some food providers, and they have told me that they cannot supply enough halal-certified products in time for the Olympic Games. I think there will not be enough,” he said.
Central to this issue of limited halal facilities is a complex regulatory environment, whereby the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), the halal accreditation heavyweight, recognises seven certification bodies in Japan. This is a lot for a country with a minuscule number of Muslim residents?though no official figures exist, most estimates point to a population of around 100,000.
Because of its constitution, which clearly separates religion from the state, Japan’s government is not allowed to oversee or manage these certifiers, as is the case in countries like Australia and New Zealand.
Yokoyama claims the complexity of the halal certification ecosystem has become worse than he anticipated when he began advising the Japanese food ministry on halal issues five years ago, and it is putting off food manufacturers and foodservice establishments seeking a halal logo. Reports of businesses abusing their certification have not helped build confidence in the system.
“The situation has been getting more complicated in halal certification. I hope the certification issues will be eased in the future but I don’t think they can be solved by themselves. I don’t know what’s going on among halal certification bodies now,” he said.
There are alternatives for halal-seeking visitors who can’t find halal-certified food in Japan.
Have Halal Will Travel provides a Tokyo travel planner that includes a food option, and Halal Gourmet Japan, an app developed by Yokoyama’s own company Food Diversity, categorises restaurants ranging from fully halal-certified to those that just have halal storage facilities or use halal meat.
“This is the alternative for Muslims who travel to Japan. When restaurants can cater meals that are equal to halal, but not certified, it should be no problem,” said Yokoyama.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s halal agency is gearing up to promote its own version of food disclosure, as Yokoyama puts this approach, ahead of the Olympics.
Recognising that visitors are likely to swamp the miniscule number of certified-halal restaurants in Tokyo, JAKIM will publicise “Muslim-friendly” restaurants that are supplied with halal food packages by a Malaysia-led central kitchen during the Games. At the same time, these establishments can go about their usual business catering for non-Muslims, including serving alcohol.
Yokoyama is yet to be persuaded by this approach, however, though he acknowledges initiatives like Muslim-friendly restaurants and his own app are necessary at a time when not nearly enough halal-certified businesses cater for growing numbers of Muslim visitors, culminating with a vast shortage of facilities in time for Tokyo 2020.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect way to cater for Muslims, but what is?” he asks.
“Muslims and Islam are still new to Japanese catering establishments, which are only beginning to understand how important halal foods are. Yet it’s still better than nothing.”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)