Japan seems to love beribboned miniature dogs and panda cubs, but in a country where cartoon images of happy cows are used to promote yakiniku barbecue restaurants, farm animal welfare doesn’t receive much attention. The majority of Japan’s prized wagyu beef, for example, is produced from cattle confined indoors their whole lives to limit movement and muscle development — an unnatural lifestyle for a grazing animal.

Hiragai (平飼い), or free-range husbandry, where the animals can move around freely outdoors for at least part of the day, is still a somewhat foreign concept in Japan. While critics call for more stringent animal welfare laws, a lack of interest and demand from the public for free-range food in general has contributed to the current status quo.

Patinastella, an upmarket restaurant in Shibuya, is making efforts to use some free-range items but, according to executive chef Hitoshi Sugiura, it is doubtful that customers have an appreciation for this particular issue. “For example, there’s this image of chicken being both tasty and cheap in Japan. Currently, I don’t think people would really understand the value of ingredients being more expensive based on the fact they are free-range,” says Sugiura.

This sentiment is echoed by Ikki Mukoyama, director of Kurofuji Farm in Yamanashi Prefecture, which specializes in the production of eggs and meat from free-range poultry. Kurofuji’s premium Real Organic Eggs line is the first range of eggs to meet the Japan Agricultural Standards’ stringent criteria for organic foods.

“Most Japanese consumers don’t know how their food is produced. As long as they feel that it’s relatively safe, easily obtainable and domestically produced, they are satisfied,” Mukoyama explains. “When they choose eggs, they’re not really concerned about whether they’re from battery hens in cages or cage-free hens. The majority wouldn’t even know the difference.”

According to Mukoyama, promoting free-range foods isn’t simply just a matter of increasing consumer demand so that suppliers will strive to match it. He says that structural change within the farming industry, along with regulation and government assistance, must be considered.

Co-op Mirai, the largest among Japan’s consumer cooperative unions in terms of members and turnover, has been selling Kurofuji Farm’s Real Organic Eggs via its home delivery service in the Kanto region since 2016. The cooperative also operates brick-and-mortar supermarkets in Tokyo, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, along with a range of consumer services and community outreach programs.

Earlier this year, Co-op Mirai introduced free-range eggs from Agri-Techno, a producer in Fukushima Prefecture, to its delivery line and to 76 of its supermarkets. Kenji Mita, executive manager of the union’s Co-op Deli production management division, says that while they took a loss in the beginning in the supermarkets, sales are starting to stabilize.

“On the home deliveries side, we move around 2,000 packs of the eggs each week, and sales are increasing, particularly in the Tokyo area. Since sales of cage-free eggs are only a 10th of that of regular ones, it’s not a high-volume product for us. However, we feel it is necessary to include cage-free eggs as part of our product lineup to keep our customer base growing,” Mita says.

Some who espouse free-range farming point out that corporations should take the lead, using social responsibility as a driver for change. On a global level, the concept of ESG (environmental, social and governance) is gaining attention.

“Intensive farming, fueled by consumer demand for cheap meat, leads to unsustainable exploitation of water, soil and natural ecosystems,” says Nicky Amos of the London-based Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW), a global standard of farm animal welfare management and disclosure in food companies. “Investors are becoming more active on farm animal welfare as an important ESG issue in food companies.”

In line with this, last November, food and beverage giant Nestle announced a goal to source eggs from only cage-free chickens for all products by 2025, including in Japan. “We firmly believe that robust farm animal health and welfare standards can have both a direct and an indirect impact on food quality and safety,” says Miki Kanoh, the executive officer of Nestle Japan’s Corporate Affairs Group.

The company plans to make the transition to cage-free eggs in Europe and the U.S. as early as 2020, with other markets to follow, but acknowledges that meeting the goal may be difficult in Asia. “In some parts of the world, such as Europe, over 40 percent of our eggs are already from cage-free sources,” Kanoh points out. “In other regions, such as Asia, it may be more challenging to make this change. We are, however, committed to bringing about positive change through working with our partners.”

Those looking to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a medium for change are likely to be disappointed. The 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games set benchmarks to ensure that eggs and chicken served at venues came from free-range chickens, but Tokyo has already indicated it is unlikely to be able to meet such standards.

Hisao Fukuda, President of Japan’s Foundation for Food Safety and Security, a public corporation established to promote science-based communication pertaining to food safety, says: “Chicken and eggs are highly price-competitive commodities. Due to space constraints, along with scarcity of organic feed, cost of production would not make commercial sense to the vendors for the Olympic Village. It is unlikely that the ‘free-range movement’ will catch on just because of the Olympics.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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