Sheep meat regaining popularity among Japanese diners

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A customer eats the Genghis Khan barbecue at Mongol Aoki restaurant in Kanagawa Ward, Yokohama.

By Tatsuya Watanabe / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSheep meat is increasingly popular once again, coming in fourth among Japanese consumers after beef, pork and chicken.

So-called Genghis Khan barbecue using mutton or lamb was all the rage for a while, but the boom didn’t last long, mainly because of the strong smell of the meat at that time. However, the quality has improved today thanks to progress in technology, raising the profile of sheep meat at restaurants and in households.

Mongol Aoki opened in November 2016 in Kanagawa Ward, Yokohama, as a restaurant specializing in sheep meat dishes. It processes fresh sheep meat in Hokkaido that is imported from Australia and other locations before serving it for the Genghis Khan barbecue, a Hokkaido specialty named after the founder of the Mongol empire.

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  • Courtesy of OK Corp.

    Lamb is on the shelves at OK discount supermarket’s Minato-Mirai outlet in Nishi Ward, Yokohama.

The restaurant was visited by about 20 groups a day in its early days, with the number having increased to more than 30 now. “The sheep tastes fresh and delicious,” said a woman in her 30s who was enjoying the Genghis Khan barbecue.

Manager Naoki Shida said his restaurant “is getting more repeat visitors thanks to word of mouth.”

At Eiri’s flagship restaurant in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, which serves cuisine from China’s northeastern region, popular menu items include local specialty dishes using sheep meat, such as hot pots and stir-fries.

The restaurant used to be visited mostly by Chinese customers, but now the majority are Japanese. Among them was Kenji Koguchi, who ate deep-fried lamb on skewers with co-workers.

“It uses spices that are unusual in Japan. They’re addictive,” Koguchi said.

Sheep meat has been popular in the past, most recently between about 2004 and 2006 when the meat came under the spotlight as the nation was hit by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — also known as mad cow disease — and avian flu.

However, neither restaurants or customers were accustomed to sheep meat at that time. Restaurants sometimes served low-quality meat that had lost its freshness, creating negative impressions that sheep meat “smelled bad and is tough.” Its popularity did not last long.

Now sheep meat is back in style again.

Sheep meat from Australia accounts for about 70 percent of the entire supply in Japan. According to Meat and Livestock Australia, an organization representing producers in the country, exports to Japan have been rising in recent years, surpassing 8,000 tons in terms of weight shipped in 2016 and 2017 — almost the same level as in the mid-2000s.

“Technologies for storing and transporting [sheep meat] have improved,” said Kazunori Mihashi, an MLA official. “Moreover, an increasing number of restaurants serve products that are placed under proper freshness control.”

Sheep meat is also drawing attention for its health benefits.

According to Tsutomu Sanaka, who specializes in nephrology and is director of Medical Plaza Ichikawa Station in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, sheep meat is rich in carnitine, which helps produce acetylcholine in the brain and can thus improve memory abilities when it is deteriorating.

“Moreover, sheep meat can activate mitochondria in cells, thus easing the leg cramps caused by aging,” the doctor added. “I recommend elderly people eat sheep meat.”

More and more people also enjoy eating sheep meat at home, as the many recipes available on the internet have made cooking it easier.

OK Corp., which operates a discount supermarket chain, began offering sheep meat in 2005. The company plans to increase its purchase volume to 100 tons in fiscal 2018, more than double the level in fiscal 2015.

“Sheep meat is free from religious taboos around the world,” an official of the company said. “As a supermarket operator that supports the dietary habits of our local communities, the significance of sheep meat is changing. It’s something that should be on our shelves.”

Sheep meat consumption is also increasing in other parts of Asia, pushing up prices.

At OK’s outlets that sell sheep meat, chilled shoulders were ¥165 per 100 grams before tax in 2015, but rose to ¥179 in 2018. Prices will likely be the key to making sheep meat more popular.

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