“Do Tokyo convenience stores sell bibimbap?”…”We’re going to Korea for pork belly”

■ Japanese retailers shouting “Yes Korea”…and holding their own ‘Korea Fair’

As relations between Japan and South Korea are rapidly normalizing following the meeting between the two leaders, the “YES KOREA” movement is gaining momentum in Japan, with Korean food culture at the forefront. Retailers across Japan, including 7-Eleven and PRONTO, have been organizing a series of events centered on Korean food, creating and strengthening Korean food fandom across generations and regions.

On May 30, Japan’s largest convenience store franchise, 7-Eleven Japan (7-Eleven), wrapped up its two-week Korea Fair, which ran from May 9 to 22, according to the Korea Tourism Organization and Japanese retailers. With a total of more than 21,400 stores from Hokkaido to Okinawa, 7-Eleven used the fair to promote Korean food culture and showcase products that are easy to enjoy.

7-Eleven prepared a total of 18 products for the Korea Fair, ranging from rice balls made with Jeonju bibimbap and soy sauce crab paste to bulgogi gimbap, japchae, bibim cold noodles, marinated chicken skewers, and desserts such as injeolmi (soybean paste) and pudding. The products are also labeled with a logo announcing the “Year of Visiting Korea,” so that interest in Korean food can lead to tourism to Korea.

Jeonju bibimbap rice balls presented by 7-Eleven in Japan at the Korea Gourmet Fair. 7-Eleven homepage, Galmuri

“7-Eleven Japan first proposed the fair to the organization,” said Yang Nan-young, deputy director of the Tokyo office of the Korea Tourism Organization, explaining that it was the first event of its kind dedicated to Korean food. “Considering that the number of customers visiting 7-Eleven convenience stores averages 20 million per day, we thought we could reach a cumulative total of 280 million people during the event to promote Korean food and the Year of Korean Visit,” said Yoon. “We were told that 7-Eleven plans to continue to produce and sell the menu items that were popular through the fair.”

The local response has been enthusiastic, as it is unusual for a major retailer like 7-Eleven to organize an event centered on Korean food. A 7-Eleven Instagram video announcing the event (press release) received 7,374 likes, and a Twitter post announcing the offerings received up to 330,000 retweets.

Pronto, which operates cafes and bars across Japan스포츠토토, is holding a Korean fair through July, featuring Korean rice wine and pancakes. Pictured is the Korean food menu at Pronto. Galmuri Homepage

Pronto, a Japanese cafe and restaurant chain, is also hosting a Korean food-themed fair from July 20 to July 31. Pronto is an Italian bar concept that serves brunch, coffee, and tea from morning to noon, and pasta and alcohol in the evening. Pronto said it will serve cheese chicken ribs, seafood vegetable pancake, rice wine, and sotteoksottok at the festival.

This move by a large Japanese retail and food and beverage company is a clear indication that Korean food has a significant fan base in the Japanese domestic market. The fact that these publicity-conscious companies have chosen Korean food as a “well-sharpened knife” to boost sales also means that Korean food is no longer a culture limited to a certain region, age, or gender. In fact, wherever this reporter visited in Tokyo, whether it was a convenience store, a 100-yen shop, or a small or medium-sized supermarket, Korean products such as Chamisul, Bibigo dumplings, and Shin Ramen were on the shelves.

Although the Korean Wave has been in Japan since the 2002 Winter Solstice, some experts believe that Korean food has become more popular since the pandemic.

“Korean soju used to be sold only at Korean food supermarkets, but now Korean food culture has spread widely in Japan to the point where you can easily buy it at regular supermarkets,” said Aya Narikawa, a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies at Dongguk University (and former Asahi Shimbun reporter and columnist specializing in Korean cuisine). “The influence of the drama on Japanese people’s familiarity with Korean food is very significant.” “Especially during the pandemic, Korean dramas became very popular on OTT platforms such as Netflix, and for example, chicken from ‘Love Crash Landing,’ soju from ‘Itaewon Class,’ and soft tofu are typical Korean foods that have developed a fan base through dramas,” Narikawa added.

■ Deepening Japanese love for Korean food…”Samgyeopsal is the best…Cheese chicken ribs are popular these days”

According to many Japanese tourists, the “must-try food in Korea” is pork belly, also known as “Korean-style grilled meat” (yakiniku). It’s similar to the Japanese pork dish chashu (チャ?シュ?), but the flavor is different because it’s grilled on an open flame. In Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo neighborhood, known as Korea Town and one of the best places to eat Korean food, there are several restaurants serving Korean-style pork belly, and it’s so popular that long lines form at opening time. Reflecting the popularity of pork belly, Hanam Pork, a famous Korean pork belly chain, recently opened a store in Shin-Okubo, and you can expect to wait in line for at least 30 minutes to get in during meal times. Shin-Okubo is also home to several places where you can enjoy Korean-style ssam and grilled pork belly.

Shin-Okubo street in Tokyo’s Koreatown is filled with people on May 27. Photo by Lee Su-min

A menu at a Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo. The menu lists a variety of dishes, from redfish sambap to marinated crab and pork feet. Photo by Lee Su-min

Mr. Matayoshi, who visited Seoul and Busan last month, said cheesy dakgalbi has recently become popular among Japanese 20-somethings. He lives in Naha, Okinawa. “The most famous Korean food is definitely pork belly, but cheesy chicken ribs are popular these days, so I visited a restaurant in Insadong.” “I also enjoyed fish cakes and kimbap, which are similar to Japan but different. There is also an izakaya in Naha that serves Korean-style sundae as a snack.”

Similarly, Tsuda from Sapporo, Hokkaido, said, “There are many Korean restaurants in the downtown area of Sapporo, including Odori and Susukino.”

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