Onigiri Rice Balls Increasingly Popular Worldwide due to Taste, Healthfulness

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A customer looks at the selection of onigiri available at Musubitei in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo in October.

Onigiri rice balls have been gaining popularity domestically as well as in many foreign countries for their delicious taste and healthfulness.

Increased demand for takeout due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the opening of a number of onigiri specialty stores.

Onigiri is also becoming increasingly popular among health-conscious foreigners, leading to the expansion of onigiri shops overseas.

As domestic rice consumption slumps, many businesses are trying to find new demand for the “soul food” of Japan.

Using delicious rice

On Oct. 27, Musubitei onigiri shop in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, was bustling with customers looking at the onigiri in its display case to decide which one to buy.

The display case is lined with rice balls filled with various ingredients such as salmon, ume plum, pickled takana greens, and mentaiko spiced cod roe.

“The rice is fluffy, unlike what I used to eat in China. The onigiri is so delicious that I keep coming back to this shop,” said a 31-year-old company employee from China who works for a nearby company.

Tetsuya Kazama, 56, president of an audio equipment rental company, opened Musubitei in late August, hoping that many people would enjoy the rice from his home prefecture of Niigata. He insists on using rice made from koshihikari produced in Uonuma in the prefecture for the onigiri.

The onigiri sold at the shop cost between ¥180 and ¥360 each, which is slightly more expensive than onigiri sold at convenience stores, but the company sells nearly 500 onigiri a day. Many foreign customers also visit the shop.

“I want people around the world to know the deliciousness of Japanese rice through onigiri. We are also considering the expansion of onigiri shops overseas,” Kazama said.

High demand for onigiri

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Customers eat Onigiri rice balls at a restaurant in Osaka on Nov. 21.

Onigiri specialty shops are springing up in many places in the nation, with many opened by firms from other industries.

Honnori-ya, operated by a subsidiary of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), has opened eight new shops since April 2022, and now operates 20 shops in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Zojirushi Corp. also launched its onigiri shop “Zojirushi ginpaku onigiri (silver-white onigiri)” at a department store in Osaka in April 2022.

Ohmoriya Co., a company that specializes in nori dried seaweed, opened an onigiri shop called “Nori musubi” in Kyoto, where customers can choose from three different types of nori.

The increase in the number of onigiri shops was prompted by the fact that people became accustomed to eating their purchased food at home or at work during the pandemic.

According to a family income and expenditure survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, expenditures on onigiri and other food items using rice for households of two or more people reached a record high of ¥5,172 in 2022.

The price of flour, which is an ingredient of bread and noodles, temporarily spiked due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but the price of rice has remained relatively stable, which is one of the reasons why demand for onigiri has increased.

Spreading overseas

Nevertheless, per capita consumption of rice has remained stagnant due to the diversification of dietary habits, among other factors. After peaking at 118 kilograms in fiscal 1962, rice consumption has continued to decline, reaching only approximate estimates of 50.9 kilograms in fiscal 2022.

One tailwind for increased rice consumption is the popularity of onigiri, which has begun to spread overseas. Onigiri is attracting attention as an inexpensive, healthy food.

The basic ingredients of onigiri are rice, seaweed and salt making it easy to eat for people who follow religious dietary restrictions or are vegetarians.

Omusubi Gonbei, which has 51 chain stores in Japan, has two stores in the United States and two in France.

On a busy day, a single store can sell several thousand onigiri, each of which costs about ¥400. In the future, the company plans to open 1,000 stores overseas alone.

Boosting exports

The amount of rice exported overseas for commercial use has been increasing due to a growing number of onigiri shops opened overseas. According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the volume was 4,516 tons in 2014, and it increased sixfold to 28,928 tons in 2022.

As part of efforts to boost overseas exports of rice, the ministry launched a strategic project to expand the overseas market for rice in fiscal 2017.

The ministry has been promoting the deliciousness of rice at tasting events in various countries and bringing Japanese and foreign companies together.

“Until now, rice has only been featured for using to make sushi, but the recent onigiri boom has opened up opportunities to develop the rice market,” a ministry official said. “In the future, we would like to expand the export of rice not only to North America and Asia, where it has been very popular, but also to the Middle East and Africa.”

Using substituted ingredients

Convenience store operators have begun attempting to solve social problems through onigiri.

In July, Seven-Eleven Japan Co. began selling “mirai deli onigiri tuna mayonnaise” which is tuna mixed with pea protein. The company said this is an effort to address food shortages caused by the world’s growing population.

In August, Lawson Inc. began selling frozen onigiri at its outlets in Tokyo and Fukushima Prefecture on a trial basis. The company aims to reduce the number of deliveries from food factories to stores and respond to the so-called 2024 logistics problem, an anticipated shortage of labor in logistics-related fields.