“We were struck by how green everything looked,” said Mr Nakayama. “We were used to Australia, where the dominant colour is brown.”
Irish cows “seemed really stress-free”, said Mr Nakayama.
That pilgrimage to Ireland, organised by Bord Bia, quickly bore fruit. The Negishi chain now sells Irish beef tongue at its 40-or-so restaurants around Tokyo. Cast off as offal in some parts of the world, gyutan (beef tongue) is a mid-priced meal in Japan, eaten with rice, soup and yam.
One of Eiji Negishi’s innovations was putting tongue on lunchtime menus – for years it was eaten with sake in night-time izakaya – Japanese-style pubs – since originating in his home prefecture of Fukushima.
The Negishi chain is the world’s largest customer for Irish beef tongue. Before Christmas, it debuted Irish ribeye steak on its menu – a first for a major restaurant chain in Japan and an early salvo in the battle to crack the world’s third-largest market for beef. Tricolours decorated the walls of Negishi’s Tokyo outlets, along with pictures of Holstein-Friesians grazing in the Irish countryside – cows in America and Australia, the collective source of 86 per cent of beef in Japan, are increasingly raised on grain in cavernous industrial barns.
“Negishi are delighted to have a healthy product that is grass-fed,” said Joe Moore, Bord Bia’s market manager in Japan.
Sustainability was a vital factor too, said Mr Nakayama. Japanese companies are under growing scrutiny from consumers and environmentalists about where food is sourced. Gripes about the Irish weather, where it rains 10 months of the year, are selling points in Japan: Negishi execs were astounded to hear that 80 per cent of Ireland is covered in grass.
“Our chain mostly used Australian beef but water there is scarce and from an environmental point of view it is risky,” said Mr Nakayama, citing concerns about global warming. “American beef is not grass fed and you can only eat a limited amount.” The company began casting about for alternatives and settled on Ireland, from where it now imports 60 per cent of its beef (the remaining 40 percent still comes from Australia).
Ireland has historically struggled to make an impression in this Asian economic powerhouse, where it is often confused with Britain or even Iceland, when it is known at all.
At a Negishi Gyutan restaurant in Shibuya, central Tokyo, the manager admits most of his customers would struggle to locate Ireland on a map. “But the beef is lean and healthy so they notice that,” he said. Two office workers on their lunchtime break shrug and giggle when asked for Ireland’s location. “Somewhere in Europe, ” said one.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is hoping to turbocharge diplomatic, cultural and business ties with a new €21.4-million Ireland House in the centre of Tokyo. Construction of the building, which will house the Irish Embassy and showcase the nation’s history and traditions, is due to be completed in March 2024.
The campaign to put more Irish food on Japanese plates has been given a lift by the 2019 Japan EU Economic Partnership Agreement, which has dramatically cut tariffs on beef, helping it compete with the US and Australia. Irish beef exports to Japan nearly doubled in 2020, to €15.7 million. Ireland is now the seventh largest beef exporter to Japan, with plenty of room to grow, according to Bord Bia.
“We produce enough food in Ireland for 25 million people – five times our population,” said Mr Moore. “And 90 per cent of the beef we produce is exported – we’re the largest net exporter of beef in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Crowded Japan, on the other hand, has a food self-sufficiency rate of just 37 per cent, according to its ministry of agriculture. One of the main causes is falling domestic production of staples like rice – and rising imports..
Irish exporters are hoping the appetite for their products will keep rising. Ireland exported €146 million worth of food and drink to Japan in 2020 but there is plenty of room for expansion, said Negishi’s Mr Nakayama.
“It’s a beautiful country, the people are nice and the food is very high quality. We’d like to sell more. We see part of our task as making Ireland better known in Japan.”