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Thailand emerges as next big market for Japan seafood

'Blue ocean' market grows in importance after China import ban

Thailand emerges as next big market for Japan seafood

Japanese distributors of seafood are racing to make inroads into Thailand, which is turning into a key market now that China has banned seafood imports from Japan.

Yokohama-based Sprout Investment organized a tasting event at a Bangkok tavern in late April to showcase fresh seafood from Japan. Restaurant owners, both Thai and Japanese, enjoyed sashimi made from bonito, mackerel and more.

"I was surprised at the quality of the bonito and the mackerel," a Thai participant said. "I want to serve them at my restaurant."

Sprout operates more than 20 izakaya pubs in Japan and has opened a location in Bangkok. It plans to expand into seafood wholesaling in Thailand as early as August.

"We sense high potential," said Naoki Ito, Sprout's representative director. The business will purchase mainly seafood caught off Chiba prefecture's Boso Peninsula and supply it to eateries in Thailand.

"We aim to provide fresh, quality fish in the medium price range," Ito said.

Tokyo-based seafood distributor Uoriki aims to have up to 100 outlets in Thailand within five years under plans laid out last October.

"Thailand is a 'blue ocean,'" or a relatively untapped market, President Masayuki Yamada said.

Uoriki formed a joint venture with Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group in April 2023. The venture opened its first outlets that October.

Uoriki is looking to set up additional outlets mainly at Lotus's hypermarkets and Makro cash-and-carry stores, both operated by CP. It wants to expand its footprint beyond Bangkok to areas like Chiang Mai and is considering additional tie-ups with Central Group and other Thai conglomerates.

Jalux, a trading house backed by Japan Airlines and Sojitz, has opened in central Bangkok a wholesale market selling fresh Japanese seafood. The market has seen an increase in retail customers since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the store.

Japanese food was once considered a luxury in Thailand but has become more ubiquitous as incomes in the country rise. Growing demand has strengthened Thailand's cold chain -- a necessity for distributing Japanese seafood at prices affordable for middle class consumers.

The growing Thai market is also a boon for Japan given that China, once the largest importer of Japanese seafood, barred inbound shipments after Japan began to release wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea.

At the three-way summit in Seoul on May 26, the Japanese side unsuccessfully lobbied China to quickly lift the ban.

"It's critical to diversify export destinations," said Junichiro Kuroda, president of the Bangkok office of the Japan External Trade Organization.

With China not budging, Japan looks to expand seafood exports to Thailand. Tetsushi Sakamoto, the Japanese minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, visited Bangkok in early May and promoted Japanese scallops at an export event.

Thailand is home to an estimated 70,000-plus Japanese nationals, as well as numerous Japanese restaurants and izakaya. It is seen as a test case for establishing a thriving Japanese-seafood business with the hope of replicating the success in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

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