By Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Netw
The number of Japanese restaurants in Thailand jumped about 2.2-fold from five years ago to 1,676 as of June this year, according to the Organisation to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO) and other sources.
In Bangkok, Japanese restaurants account for 8.3 per cent of all restaurants, following those that serve Thai cuisine.
The Japanese daily reported that Thailand's average income per household in 2011 rose about 30 per cent from five years ago, making high-priced Japanese food affordable to many Thai people. Another factor that has led to the expansion of Japanese restaurants in the market is that Thai people have developed a taste for authentic Japanese food.
"More Thai people than before have become familiar with Japanese tastes while traveling to Japan or on other occasions, and now they're seeking out authentic Japanese cuisine," said a researcher of the Daiwa Research Institute.
The proliferation of Japanese cuisine in Thailand also has had an effect on Thai people's dietary habits.
Tokyo-based Reins International Inc., which operates the Gyu-Kaku yakiniku restaurant chain, recently opened its first Gyu-Kaku restaurant in Bangkok.
A 30-year-old owner of the Bangkok restaurant became familiar with Gyu-Kaku chain dishes while he was studying in Japan. He negotiated with the company and obtained permission to open the restaurant in Bangkok.
He said only a small number of Thai people ate beef regularly, but now about 40 per cent of his restaurant's customers are Thai.
While Japanese restaurant chains have in the past focused on the Chinese market, full-fledged efforts are now under way to enter Southeast Asia, which has a population of 600 million.
China and South Korea both come with risks of anti-Japan sentiment, and in the past, Japanese restaurants were attacked.
A Japanese restaurant chain official said, "In Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, people are pro-Japan, so it's easy to do business."
Kourakuen Corp., a Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture-based ramen restaurant chain, opened its first overseas outlet in mid-July in a shopping centre in central Bangkok.
While it offers the same dishes and flavours as it does in Japan, an official of the chain said flagship dishes such as chuka soba (Chinese soba) priced at 99 baht (about 250 yen or US$3.19) and noko gyokai tsukemen (rich-tasting seafood-flavoured dipping noodles) priced at 139 baht are also popular.
Although the prices are about twice that of local fare, the restaurant continues to attract many customers two months after opening. All 48 of its seats are filled between opening and closing time, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., on weekends.
Thai people account for about 80 per cent of the restaurant's customers. A 41-year-old homemaker visiting for the second time said: "I like the tsukemen dish. Japanese food is more refreshing and has a healthier image compared to other countries' [food]."
Kourakuen, which initially considered opening restaurants in China, gave up the idea because the same word was already registered as a trademark in the country.
The chain shifted to Thailand as a springboard into Southeast Asia.
However, in recent years competition with other restaurants has intensified to a level where it is said one new restaurant opens every two days and one closes every five days.
In the past two years, 158 Japanese restaurants closed in the country. As many of them were run by individuals, observers believe they were unable to compete against larger chains.
Yasumasa Asai, head of JRO's branch in Thailand, said, "With growth in the popularity of Japanese food, we're in a time when customers can tell the difference between genuine and inauthentic cuisine."