Japanese Supermarket Becomes Place for Japanese, Muslims to Interact; Offers Halal-certified Products Alongside Typical Japanese Products

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Customers shop at Bongo Bazar, which offers food products that are uncommon in Japan, in Misato, Saitama Prefecture.

Certain supermarkets have recently gained wide popularity by focusing on specific areas, such as offering a variety of international foods or showcasing local food culture. I recently visited a few different stores like these.


Local supermarkets offer selections for all

With its cheerful design and lined-up shopping carts, I thought I had found a typical Japanese suburban supermarket while walking in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, about 20 kilometers from Tokyo Station. A sign reading “Bongo Bazar” was outside its storefront, a 15-minute walk from Shin-Misato Station on the JR Musashino Line.

However, once I entered the store, I found pieces of colorful paper hanging from the ceiling with “Ramadan” written on them.

Packs of dates were piled up in one part of the supermarket, along with a description: “In Islam’s Quran, the date is a food that God gave.” As I read it, the store manager, Ken Minowa, 53, told me that at the time, in late March, the dates were the best-selling product.

Ramadan refers to an Islamic month of fasting. Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown and break their fast with dates which are very nutritious, Minowa said.

Since the 1990s, Misato and neighboring cities such as Yashio in the same prefecture have seen an increase in Muslim residents, mainly Pakistanis, who are often involved in the sales and repair of used cars. The supermarket caters to these customers with products such as mint leaves, lemon grass and chickpeas, which are relatively uncommon in Japan. I saw a nearly one-meter-long frozen chunk of sheep leg meat sold along with Guinea fowl and rabbit meat.

Yukari Okada, 61, visited the supermarket from Yoshikawa, another nearby city in the prefecture. “This place looks like a Japanese supermarket, but the scent of various spices fills the air. It is a curious and interesting store,” she said, looking around.

The owner of the supermarket, 56-year-old Chaklader Badal, is from Bangladesh and operates a Halal food import company. “I wanted to build a supermarket where Muslim families can also enjoy shopping together,” he said. The store opened in March 2020.

Halal food, meaning food which is permissible according to Islamic law, does not include pork or alcohol. Bongo Bazar also does not sell pork or alcohol products at all.

Instead, it offers Halal-certified products. There are about 1,000 Halal-certified products including meat processed following Islamic law. For example, seemingly ordinary yakisoba pan-fried noodles and bread were labeled “Halal.”

A 54-year-old Pakistani who runs a curry restaurant in Yashio carried a shopping basket full of the store’s products. “Choosing food products is quite important for us,” he said with a smile. “I can shop here without concerns, which helps a lot.”

Muslims are not the only customers at the supermarket. The Misato housing complex managed by Urban Renaissance Agency is located across from the store. The housing complex contains 9,000 units in a roughly 48-hectare space almost equivalent to Tokyo Disneyland. It is the agency’s second-largest housing complex in the nation.

Products more commonly bought by Japanese shop-goers, such as baked sweet potatoes and flowers for Buddhist altars are sold at the supermarket entrance. While there, I saw an elderly woman pushing a shopping cart pass by a woman wearing a hijab, a headscarf often worn by Muslim women.

“I want to make my supermarket a place where different people shop together and deepen mutual understanding,” Chaklader said.

Minowa added, “Through trial and error I would like to create a store that is exciting for both strict Muslims and their Japanese neighbors.” The supermarket continues to evolve as a place of interaction between Japanese and Muslims.

Stores for foreigners on rise

Grocery stores geared toward foreign residents are increasing across the country.

Courtesy of Aisa Superstore’s Osaka outlet
Aisa Superstore’s Osaka outlet, which opened in 2023

Asia Superstore’s outlet in Osaka opened in July 2023 in Tenjinbashisuji shopping street, which is known as the longest shopping arcade in Japan. The store sells 1,000 to 1,500 Southeast Asian food products, mainly from Thailand, such as coconut milk, curry pastes and fresh coriander. The number of products offered there is more than in its Tokyo main store. Thai bento box lunches such as gapao rice and khao man gai are sold daily.

The store was opened at the request of Thai people living in the Kansai region. “We would like to increase the number of our stores in other areas such as Yokohama. We hope people will be more understanding of Thailand and Southeast Asia,” Phernbatr Tanatorn, a senior official of the store’s operating company, said.

Sozai side dishes protecting local food culture

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Gran Mart employee puts salad agar and other agar-based side dishes in a display case at the supermarket in Daisen, Akita Prefecture.

I recently found unfamiliar sozai side dishes at a branch store of large supermarket Gran Mart, located in the suburbs of Daisen, a city known nationally as the venue for the Omagari National Fireworks Competition in Akita Prefecture.

Salad kanten (agar) was among the dishes in a refrigerated display case at the East Mall branch store, about a 10-minute drive from the city center. The salad kanten looked like tofu, but had cucumbers and carrots inside, making it look like a jelly made from potato salad. It had a uniquely smooth, elastic texture, and a slight sweetness and vegetable flavor. Mayonnaise and eggs were also included in the salad kanten.

“In Akita, there is a culture of hardening everything with agar at home to enjoy as a snack to go with tea,” said Masaki Goto, 62, store manager and senior officer of supermarket operator Takayanagi Co.

The southern region of Akita Prefecture is the center of that food culture, and hardened items include milk, canned mikan tangerines and beaten eggs. The practice is said to have been a way to compensate for the lack of food in the region, which has long cold winters.

Recipes for what to harden in what way vary from household to household. In the past, people would prepare their own specialty agar dishes for gatherings during New Year’s and Bon holidays, as well as sports and other local events to entertain their guests.

However, as people have become busier with an increase in the number of working married couples and other factors, the number of households making the time-consuming agar dishes is said to be declining.

“Gone is the time when mothers would cook home-style dishes that have been passed down from generation to generation. I think it is our responsibility to preserve the local food culture amid such an environment so that it will not disappear,” Goto said.

The supermarket also sells egg, milk, sesame and blueberry agar, which can be enjoyed as desserts.

Kumiko Taniguchi, 65, a homemaker from Daisen, said she bought kurumi (walnut) kanten, made with finely ground walnuts and sweeteners, because she remembered her mother making agar dishes with seasonal fruits. “I became nostalgic for the dish,” she said.

The store also has been selling single-serving sozai side dishes since 2018 under the name of “Anbe ii,” which means “just right” in Akita dialect. Deep-fried dishes, processed seafood products and other sozai are offered in square containers that are 10 centimeter long on each side.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Anbe ii” sozai side dishes in small containers

According to Daishi Nakagawa, 49, another senior member of Takayanagi, the store “wanted to show something special about Akita supermarkets” by using the name.

“Although it takes a little time and effort to pack the sozai dishes, demand for them is growing,” Nakagawa said. “We hope it will also help address the issue of food waste.”

According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Akita Prefecture has the population with the greatest percentage of people aged 65 and older among all prefectures, and the rate is expected to exceed 50% by 2045.

In addition to “Anbe ii” products, the supermarket offers products tailored to elderly-only or single-person households, such as a package containing a single slice of bread.

As the population continues to decline, supermarkets face a challenging future. Still, Nakagawa said it is the mission of local supermarkets, which are rooted in local areas, to continue to support the diets of local households.

“We will continue to do our best to be the last remaining supermarket in the prefecture,” he said.

I hope that supermarkets with a rich individuality will continue to operate vigorously even as the society changes.

Traditional foods across Japan

Value in Kami, Kochi Prefecture, a supermarket established in 1963, promotes traditional foods rooted in local communities nationwide.

Among the products is Tosa zushi, or nigiri-zushi made with vegetables and other ingredients from the mountains. Tosa zushi sold at Value is made with sushi rice, cooked with yuzu vinegar, bamboo shoots, myoga Japanese ginger, shiitake mushrooms and the stem of giant taro.

Value sells frozen Tosa zushi at its own website Tabegoro, aiming to make it a new Kochi specialty following katsuo no tataki, seared bonito served sliced, among other dishes. “We hope that people all over Japan will learn about this lesser-known food culture,” said Yasushi Ishikawa, president of Tosa Yamada Shopping Center, the company which operates the store.

Courtesy of Tosa Yamada Shopping Center
Tosa zushi