In 2017, a small group of Japanese executives strolled through the lush farmland of Castledermot, Co Kildare.
Among them were silver-haired Eiji Negishi, general manager of a successful restaurant chain in Tokyo, and its general manager, Tsuyoshi Nakayama.
“We were struck by the greenness of everything,” Mr. Nakayama said. “We were used to Australia, where the dominant color is brown.”
The Irish cows “seemed really stress-free”, Mr Nakayama said.
This pilgrimage to Ireland, organized by Bord Bia, quickly bears fruit. The Negishi chain now sells Irish beef tongue in its approximately 40 restaurants around Tokyo. Dismissed as organ meats in some parts of the world, gyutan (beef tongue) is a mid-priced meal in Japan, eaten with rice, soup and yams.
One of Eiji Negishi’s innovations has been putting tongue on lunch menus – for years it has been consumed with sake in late-night izakaya – Japanese-style pubs – ever since it originated in his prefecture. native of Fukushima.
The Negishi chain is the world’s largest customer for Irish beef tongue. Ahead of Christmas, it debuted Irish ribeye on its menu – a first for a major restaurant chain in Japan and a first salvo in the battle to crack the world’s third-largest beef market. Tricolors decorated the walls of Negishi outlets in Tokyo, along with images of Holstein-Frisians grazing in the Irish countryside – cows in America and Australia, the collective source of 86% of beef in Japan, are furthermore higher on grain in cavernous industrial barns.
“Negishi is thrilled to have a healthy, grass-fed product,” said Joe Moore, market manager for Bord Bia in Japan.
Durability was also a vital factor, said Mr. Nakayama. Japanese companies are increasingly under scrutiny from consumers and environmentalists about where food comes from. Criticism of Ireland’s climate, where it rains 10 months of the year, is a selling point in Japan: Negishi executives were stunned to learn that 80% of Ireland is covered in grass.
“Our chain mainly used Australian beef, but water is scarce there and from an environmental point of view it is risky,” Mr Nakayama said, citing concerns about global warming. “American beef is not grass-fed and you can only eat a limited amount of it.” The company began looking for alternatives and moved to Ireland, from where it now imports 60% of its beef (the remaining 40% still comes from Australia).
Ireland has always struggled to establish itself in this Asian economic power, where it is often confused with Great Britain or even Iceland, when it is known at all.
At a Negishi Gyutan restaurant in Shibuya, central Tokyo, the manager admits most of his customers would have trouble locating Ireland on a map. “But the beef is lean and healthy, so they notice it,” he said. Two office workers on their lunch break shrug and laugh when asked where Ireland is. “Somewhere in Europe,” said one.
The Foreign Office hopes to boost diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with a new 21.4 million euro Irish house in central Tokyo. Construction of the building, which will house the Irish Embassy and showcase the nation’s history and traditions, is expected to be completed in March 2024.
The campaign to put more Irish food on Japanese plates was boosted by the 2019 Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, which drastically reduced beef tariffs, helping it compete with the US and Australia. Irish beef exports to Japan nearly doubled in 2020, to €15.7 million. Ireland is now the seventh largest exporter of beef to Japan, with plenty of room for growth, according to Bord Bia.
“We produce enough food in Ireland for 25 million people, five times our population,” Mr Moore said. “And 90% of the beef we produce is exported – we are the largest net exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere.”
Overpopulated Japan, on the other hand, has a food self-sufficiency rate of just 37%, according to its agriculture ministry. One of the main causes is the decline in domestic production of staples like rice – and rising imports.
Irish exporters hope the appetite for their produce will continue to grow. Ireland exported 146 million euros worth of food and drink to Japan in 2020, but there is plenty of room for expansion, Negishi’s Mr Nakayama said.
“It’s a beautiful country, the people are nice and the food is of very good quality. We would like to sell more. We see part of our job as making Ireland better known in Japan.