In the US and some other Western countries, it's normal to have chicken breasts cost more than chicken thighs, but in Japan, it is the opposite. Here is an exploration of the difference between chicken breast and chicken thighs in Japan.
The growing interest of chicken breast in Japan
In the US, it's normal to have chicken breasts cost more than chicken thighs, but in Japan, it is the opposite. Here is an exploration of the difference between chicken breast and chicken thighs in Japan.
First things first, before we dive into chicken, it helps to look at Japan’s meat and seafood consumption. Pork, fish, and chicken are the main animal proteins consumed. Over the last five years, chicken consumption has grown the fastest compared to all other types. If this trend continues, it looks like it could out rank fish in the near future. (Fishis interesting with the sharp decline. It could be pandemic related. Something to explore later.)
Animal Protein Consumption in Japan by Year (2017-2022)
There are many types of chicken dishes in Japan and in fact Japan has a fairly large chicken industry. In 2019, it ranked the 8th biggest country in chicken production by weight (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)
Now lets dive into chicken breast vs chicken thighs.
The growing interest of chicken breast in Japan
In Japan chicken thighs are the default cut of chicken meat and are the most popular cut. It wasn’t until recently chicken breast started to gain popularity.
Chicken breast started to gain traction around 2012, in particular the “Salad Chicken,” which is steamed and seasoned chicken breast (usually packaged in a vacuumed seal.) It is often sold chilled in individual packages at convenience stores or grocery stores and used to top salads, hence the name. Low in carbs, salad chicken gained popularity with the health trend, “carbohydrate-off'' diet, according to Sankei news. As one an imagine, carbohydrate-off diet, so a low carb diet.
"Salad Chicken" and other to go chicken products sold at convenience store
According to Gurunabi, around 2017, within healthy diet trends, the mentality to become healthy shifted from "losing weight by not eating" to "building up the body through nutrition.” From 2014 to 2017, the supermarket chain, Aeon retail, saw their sales of chicken breast double.
Some history on chicken consumption in Japan
Here is a high-level of background on the recent history of Japan’s chicken industry.
Around the beginning of the Showa Era (1926-1989), Japan’s chicken production started to become more industrialized. Until then, chickens were raised as a side business or at home -- not really a formal “industry.” At the time, leaders in the Japanese chicken industry had looked to industrialize chicken farming. There were a variety of factors that helped this happen, including the use of Western chicken breeds. According to Benjamin Schrager, Agricultural Economics Assistant Professor at Utsunomiya University:
Following the upheaval of World War II, the US facilitated three major changes for Japanese chicken husbandry: expanded grain exports from the US in the 1950s; the importation of specialized breeds in the 1960s; and the Japanese industry’s emulation of American corporations in the 1970s.
In other words: American influence. For those who may have guessed, one of the Japanese industry’s emulation of American corporations in the 1970’s is KFC. Through strong marketing KFC solidified itself as a staple fast food chain. One of the big successes was the launch of the Christmas campaign in the mid 1970s. To this day, Japan is known to eat KFC at Christmas.
In fact annual per capita chicken consumption jumped from 1.9 kg in 1965 to 9.4 kg in 1990.
Back to chicken thighs vs chicken breast
Coming back to chicken thighs vs chicken breast, as one might expect, due to the high demand, chicken thighs are about 50% higher priced than chicken breast and have remained so the last few years. From 2017 to 202, the national retail price of chicken thighs were about 140 yen per 100 grams, while chicken breast were about 91 yen per 100 grams. In fact, Japan’s most popular chicken dish is Kaarage is traditionally made with chicken thighs.
Interestingly, during the chicken flu epidemic in 2004 when the price of chicken skyrocketed, the consumption and price of chicken breast and other chicken cuts did not change, suggesting that other cuts of chicken were not used as substitutes for chicken thighs. Japanese people really like their chicken thighs…
What should Japan do with this extra chicken breast?
Despite an increase in popularity, chicken thighs still reign over chicken breast. In fact, to better capitalize Japan’s supply of chicken breast, in 2022, the Japan Chicken Association suggested selling canned chicken breast to Australia, where, like the US and many other western countries, chicken breast is more popular than chicken thighs. Not only would Japan export more chicken, but would be able to sell this chicken at a higher price.
I couldn’t find any articles if Japan has actually implemented this suggestion, but it does seem like it could be a good idea.
As you can see, in this uninteresting chart, the prices of chicken breast and thighs have been relatively stable in Japan, despite the supposedly growing consumption in chicken breast.
Despite the growing popularity of chicken breast, chicken thighs still reign
A study by Nipponham in 2022, asked adults which type of chicken meat do they use most when cooking at home -- they found that 43.9% use chicken thighs the most. This was followed by chicken breast at 25.1%.
Among young men and women in Japan, the top favorite chicken dish is karaage, which is traditionally made using chicken thighs.
In case you were curious, the top chicken dishes cooked according to this survey were karaage at the top, followed by oyakodon, and the third was salad chicken! (It would be nice to have data from prior years to compare the trend, but unfortunately, I was unable to find any.)
Not only do people chose to cook with chicken thighs more often, the top chicken dishes are traditionally made with chicken thighs as well.
Japan is like other countries going through different health trends. Only time will tell how chicken thighs and breast will change in popularity. Perhaps it is only a trend.
If you are in Japan, take a look at the different types of salad chicken products. There are quite a few and they are pretty tasty. For those who want to try some classic Japanese chicken recipes, I suggest Oyakodon-buri. It is a simple dish with chicken, egg, and rice. If you had to choose, which would you rather go for: a chicken breast or a chicken thigh?
Schrager, Benjamin. (2018). The Internationalization and the Industrialization of Chicken Husbandry in Japan in the 20th Century. Japanese Studies. 38. 1-21. 10.1080/10371397.2018.1477477.