High prices have plagued Japan since the tail end of the pandemic. Now, one of the staple foods that has so far evaded hikes is feeling the pinch. The cost spike is also removing some beloved items from restaurant menus.
The unbearable cost of living
Modern Japan is an interesting economic anomaly. Wages have stayed stagnant in the country for around three decades. And despite a push by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio for a general wage increase, most businesses aren’t budging.
On the other hand, the cost of living has remained relatively low. Food prices – both for home consumption as well as dining out – are reasonable, if not downright cheap. And property prices are a steal relative to many Western countries. (We’ve been apartment hunting in Tokyo and I’ve been surprised at what we can get relative to Seattle, WA for the same price.)
But that’s changed post-pandemic. Japan’s weak yen brought the first hit, jacking up the price of imported raw materials. Then came the Ukraine War and the rising cost of oil. As a result, all prices – from home heating and electricity to the food on store shelves – are climbing. Japan’s Consumer Price Index is up 4.2% to its highest level in 41 years.
Consumers say they’re feeling the pinch. In a recent survey, 98% of moms said they’ve felt the shock of rising prices. The majority say that home heating and electric costs are the biggest bite. However, rising food prices come in a close second.
But consumers aren’t the only ones struggling. Recently, the director of the Tokyo National Museum revealed in an op-ed that heating and electric costs for the facility had doubled from 200 million yen to over 400 million yen. (The museum stores dozens of priceless items that require temperature control and thus year-round cooling.) He warned that, at this rate, the museum couldn’t continue preserving some of Japan’s oldest historical artifacts.
Bird flu and expensive feed
One food item that evaded the bite for a long time? Eggs. Eggs have remained ridiculously cheap in Japan. Which is surprising given the Avian flu-induced spike that plagued the US for several months.
Now, just as egg prices in the US are coming down, they’re going up here. In January 2022, 1kg of medium-sized eggs ran around 175 yen (around USD $1.28) wholesale. As of February 2023, they’ve more than doubled to 326 yen.
According to Toyo Keizai, egg prices were already on the rise, thanks to the general increase in shipping and production costs. But then the first cases of Avian bird flu hit in October – earlier than usual. Authorities have identified 76 cases between then and February 2023.
Say bye-bye to your pancakes
While rising egg prices are hitting consumers, they’re hitting restaurants in a big way. Many chains say they’ll suffer economically due to the spike. And some are responding by taking entire items off of the menu.
One of them is Skylark, which runs multiple “family restaurant” brands in Japan. The company says it expects the hike to shave 400 to 500 million yen off of its projected 6 billion yen revenue this year.
In response, the company is cutting items containing eggs off the menu at several of its brands. Pancakes at its Gusto restaurants are on hold until prices come down. And at Chinese restaurant chain Bamiyan, customers will find themselves out of luck if they wanted to dig into a tenshindon (天津飯), or crab meat omelette.
Meanwhile, customers at Otoya, a washoku (Japanese-style cuisine) restaurant, won’t find chicken nanban on the menu for a while. The dish, made with a rich tartar sauce, uses up eggs like there’s no tomorrow.
The Japanese government is taking action to lessen direct impact to consumers. The Agricultural Ministry asking egg producers to shift their usual shipment balance and assign more priority to shipping eggs to retailers. (50% of eggs already go to retail outlets.)
So far, the impact on retail eggs has been slight. A carton of 10 eggs that sold for 214 yen in January 2022 is now going for around 262 yen. However, combined with the general increase in prices, it’s yet another pain point for Japan’s residents.
Egg prices are finally falling in the US. Hopefully, Japanese prices will follow suit. Otherwise, cheap eggs may only be something we remember that happened a long tamago.
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