Upscale Donuts

Here is an article about a donut chain, called "miel" which started in the Kansai area and is now opening a shop in Ginza, Tokyo. The donuts are baked instead of fried and contain ingredients such as collagen. The calories are 2/3rds that of regular donuts. As you can see from the pictures, the atmosphere is definitely not that of a fast food restaurant - more like Starbucks. I do not see prices for individual donuts, only donut sets with pastries which go for around 1,110 to 1,300 yen.


Soy Milk and Taste

Here is an article about new flavors for Kibun's soy milk - melon and yakiimo (grilled sweet potato). That is not too interesting, but the subject of soy milk flavoring is interesting. I cannot remember where I read this, but I did read somewhere that the approach to soy milk flavoring Japan and the US is very different. In the US, people generally do not like the taste of soy and therefore masking is objective. In Japan, people like the taste of soy, so complementing the taste is the goal.


Morinaga Chorus

There is a product renewal article on Nikkei Trendy. Not overly interesting, just a new flavor - peach - but it mentions in the article that the Morinaga Chorus product was first introduced in 1927, which was a surprise. That took the history of lactic acid drinks back earlier than I had been thinking. Sure enough, a quick search shows that Calpis was introduced in 1919.


McDonald's Tsukimi Burger

McDonald's will sell the tsukimi burger again next month. For a long time after coming to Japan, I kept seeing the tsukimi burger offered over and over again. Deja vu over and over as they say. It certainly has become a tradition, this article says that McDonald's Japan first started selling it in 1991 as a seasonal offering.

As can be seen the the picture, the tsukimi burger employs an egg in the same form seen on Egg McMuffins. Tsukimi means viewing the moon in Japanese, so I suppose the yolk is supposed to represent the moon, although the round shape of the egg might also be what is being referred to.


Sapporo Classic 2008 Furano Vintage Beer

With a name that long it has to be good, I suppose.

Sapporo Classic 2008 Furano Vintage Beer is a limited production (30,000 cases) beer. They claim a fresh taste due to hops which has not been processed in any way.

Furano is an area of Hokkaido, and I believe the Vintage refers to the harvest of the hops and barley in that area during 2008, under special licence of Sapporo.

Interestingly, despite the name Sapporo, the head office has long been in Tokyo. Last year a special product development office in Hokkaido and this is one of the first results. Interestingly, due to that move, the development received regional development assistance from the national government.


Nisshin Foods and Chicken Ramen

Nissin Foods is celebrating 50 years as a company (not counting the small, in house operation that started 10 years earlier) and along with it 50 years of Chicken Ramen, their first product and still a big seller.

Momofuku Ando's story is well known, he developed the method of producing instant noodles and the resulting company he started enjoyed almost overnight success with the introduction of chicken ramen.

It was considered a luxury in post-war Japan, but is now a convenience and can be found world-wide. Happy birthday chicken ramen!


Region Specific Marketing

Many people new to Japan are often surprised that on one hand while menus across the country look pretty similar, there certainly are styles and seasonings that vary from region to region.

Almost everyone is familiar with the "omiyage" which are supposed to represent what is "famous" from a specific area, and which are usually food and packaged in a way to be made convenient for the obligatory present to co-workers upon return from a vacation. These "famous products" from various regions usually have historical basis, but a lot of hype is required to keep them going.

Another regional variation most people are familiar with are items like ramen or okonomiyaki which differ by region - Sapporo ramen, Osaka okonomiyaki, etc.

Most food companies on the other hand are faced with more subtle variations which can make or break a product. Many products are limited to Eastern or Western Japan simply do to their appeal in one of those areas.

Major, nation-wide food companies often introduce new products in just one regional market 1) because that area was found most promising in consumer research, 2) in order to evaluate a product in a test market with specific characteristics (Shizuoka is known for being somewhere between Osaka and Tokyo in its preferences and is thus the preferred test market), or 3) with no intention of going nation-wide (usually these are seasonal and are marketed to make the people of that region feel special - people in other regions cannot buy the product).

I am not sure which of the above applies to the new mushroom burger from Mos Burger, but it is only being introduced in Western Japan. It is said to have an Autumnal flavor. Announcements like this are hardly rare, but they are interesting to follow up on. Chances are those of us in Eastern Japan will not get a chance to buy this mushroom burger even though there are Mos Burgers on almost every other corner.


High Food Prices: CVS and Restaurants

It is interesting that high food prices effects convenience stores (CVS) and restaurants differently. High prices hurt restaurants and the empty tables you might have noticed attest to that. If you still are not convinced, Denny's has just announced that it will be reducing some prices which is always a sign of poor sales.

At the same time, all CVS chains are reporting around 11 percent increased sales over last year. Prices at CVS are not cheap, but they are cheaper than at restaurants. People appear to be making that calculation.


Asahi's Imitation Milk

Asahi is introducing a nutrition drink (350 ml PET bottle) which is low calorie and contains no fat, but has the same calcium as 200 ml of milk. The packaging is designed to remind you of milk. Just having the same amount of calcium in a drink is no guarantee that the same amount will be absorbed by the body, and 157 yen is expensive for a 350 ml bottle. That is the same price as most 500 ml PET bottle drinks.

It does have fewer calories than milk, but I would rather pay 100 or 110 yen for 200 ml of milk.


Service Area Food

Japanese have long had ekiben (special boxed lunches only sold at certain train stations). The same way of thinking goes into the special foods only available at certain service areas along Japanese highways. Here is an article that summarizes some of the best things to eat at various service areas. Interestingly, this is one of the most popular articles, more than two weeks after it was posted.


Packaging: Natto and Coffee

Packaging can seem very unimportant compared with what is inside, superior packaging can make or break a product. Visual design can make products stand out from the crowd, but functional design can also make products much more desirable.

Here are two examples from this week's news of new packaging.

Mitsukan, a major natto maker in Japan, introduced new packaging which allows for inclusion of the soy sauce in a same container and not in a separate plastic package. This saves time and helps avoid getting your hands or the table dirty (problems cited by customers).

Nescafe, is introducing new packaging for coffee refills which allow you to directly refill a jar of coffee without cutting open an aluminum refill bag (I didn't realize this was a problem). More interesting benefits include reduced loss of volatile aroma compounds during refilling (that sounds important as most of the flavor compounds are volatile) and this packaging reduces the amount of aluminum used by 30%, thus reducing the carbon footprint.


Seven Eleven and Katsuo

There are two articles about Seven Eleven and katsuo (bonito) containing products.

In one, Seven Eleven will be introducing a new selection of katsuo containing foods, which contain katsuo which have not been caught using net fishing off the coast of Ibaragi Prefecture - this is said to reduce scarring. Katsuo shavings are frequently used in Japanese cooking.

In the other, new flavoring including katsuo is announced for Seven Eleven oden. The oden in the picture really does look good, doesn't it?


Kimchi Mayonnaise Ramen

Nissin will be introducing a kimchi mayonnaise cup ramen next month. I am not really sure if this sounds good or terrible.


Beer Sales by Category

There was an interesting graph in yesterday's The Japan Food Journal. The exact numbers were not given, but you can eye the graph and come pretty close. The graph was a monthly measure of beer sales by category (beer, happoshu, 3rd category) compared with the sales in the previous year.

Two factors are clear:
1) 3rd category beer is what is carrying the market while beer sales have suffered big setbacks. This is likely do to the large price differences which have been discussed in this blog before.
2) there appears to be an unexpected boom in beer sales. 3rd category beer sales in July were up 40% over last year, happoshu 3% and beer 2%. The likely reason for this is the unusually hot summer we are having.


Arable Land in Japan

Continuing with the same article I have mentioned the past two days, there are some interesting numbers of land utilization in Japan. The numbers below are for the years 1985, 1995 and 2005.

Percentage of Arable Land Utilized (not sure how you go over 100%)
105.1% 97.7% 93.4%

Hectares of Farm Land Abandoned to Other Uses (in thousands)
135 244 386

Most of the other numbers in the report are less interesting as they deal with the case Japan is trying to make about Japanese consumers preferring Japanese produced food.


Food Self-Sufficiency 2

The numbers I mentioned yesterday were based on calories by the way. An article on the government report was published in The Japan Food Journal (Japanese) on 2008.07.18.

Some more interesting numbers from the same article are the following, concerning Japanese grain imports (how much and from where).

Wheat (148.9 billion yen)
 America 53.8%, Canada 24.2%, Australia 21.9%
Soy (149.1 billion yen)
 America 76.5%, Canada 9.2%, Brazil 8.1%, China 6.2%
Corn (300.8 billion yen)
 America 96.3%, China 2.8%


Food Self-Sufficiency

These numbers below are from the Japanese government, so they might be calculated in a way favorable to the message Japan wants to present, but however you look at it, Japan is a major food importer and worries about self-sufficiency and sudden changes in world markets are natural. The recent surge in food prices is a good example.

Australia 237%
Canada 145%
USA 128%
France 122%
Germany 84%
Great Britain 70%
Italy 62%
Switzerland 49%
South Korea 46%
Japan 39%


Environmental Measures by Food Companies

There was an interesting article in the 2008.07.18 evening edition of the Nikkei Shimbun. It mentioned some of the measures taken by various food companies to be more environmentally friendly.

Seven Eleven - thinner plastic bags
Asahi Beer - less aluminum in beer cans
Nissin Foods - ramen cups from resin/paper
Ezaki Glico - thinner boxes
Suntory - less material in PET bottles
Morinaga Milk - thinner glass bottles
Nippon Ham - thinner film on sausages


Natural Cheese Production in Japan

Most of the milk produced in Japan ends up as milk and not other dairy products. Since the demand for milk has held steady or decreased in recent years, the major dairy companies are aiming to replace a good deal of the imported natural cheese with domestic natural cheese.

As a result, a number of large natural cheese factories have opened in the past year. The June 1st issue of the Hokkaido Shimbun gave some details on the new factories and new production capacity. The numbers below are given in tons of raw milk used yearly.

Meiji Dairies
200,000 tons
Snow Brand
200,000 tons
Morinaga Milk
150,000 tons

Previously domestic natural cheese production was very limited. Expect to see a large number of new cheese products in the coming months.


Supermarket Circulars in Japan

One more website which might be of interest to people looking for information on Japanese products, which was brought to my attention on the Japan Marketing News blog.

Japanese supermarket sales depend on supermarket circulars which come with daily newspapers. If you want to stick with the same product, but get it at the cheapest price, you are likely to have to keep up with the circulars and buy at a different store each week depending on where it is on sale.

I have read that this is why Walmart, through its Seiyu department stores in Japan, have not been able to get across the everyday low prices concept. Most Japanese shoppers, read housewives, still think about supermarket circulars first.

Here is a website where many of the supermarket circulars are reproduced.


Company Histories

There is one more website I would like to mention. Information in English on Japanese companies is getting a little bit easier to find than in the past, but is still not what it should be. I just came across a website called Funding Universe and for some reason they have a big list of company histories on the website.

Many Japanese company histories are included, but some are very much out of date. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to start when you have struck out everywhere else.


Everything About Can Drinks

I mentioned an interesting blog yesterday, and today I would like to introduce a fascinating website devoted to can drinks in Japan, called Can Can Jiten (dictionary). I don't see any information about the author, but somebody has been going to the trouble since 1999 of recording all the information from the labels of all the canned drinks he or she can find. The result is a fairly amazing archive of data on almost 9,000 different drink cans. If you are interested in such things, you can spend hours on this site looking at the different products or the changes in a single product over time. Well done. I don't have that much free time or energy, but it is nice someone else does though.


Vending Machine Blog

There is a very eccentric and yet fascinating blog in Japanese about the daily changes made to a specific Japanese vending machine. Only the title of the blog is in Japanese, all the rest is shown through daily pictures of the vending machine. Most days there are no changes, but once every 10 days or so, certain drinks are replaced by new offerings. With this daily record, it is easy to see that these changes and the placement of the drinks is not random. Worth a look.

I first became aware of this blog through Neil Duckett's blog.


The Health Report - Reliability of Published Research

What if everything we know is wrong - or at least 90 percent of what we think we know.

There was a very interesting topic covered in The Health Report on July 28th concerning the reliability of published research data.

Professor John Ioannidis, Chairman of the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology University of Ioannina Greece and Tufts University Boston, claims that 90 percent of research findings end up being false. There are a number of reasons given in an article he authored as well as the show transcpript and podcast. I highly recommend both.

His major point appears to boil down to the fact that p > 0.5, while generally recognized as being significant, is susceptible to false positives when huge amounts of data are being trolled for any possible associations. Only 10 percent of these associations pan out following further investigation.

Another way to view the same thing is if 10 groups study an association and only one group finds a significant association, that is the paper which gets published.


Beer Company Non-Alcohol Drink Sales

All the major beer companies also have non-alcohol drink units also which are important to the companies. Suntory and Kirin even challenge Coca Cola.

There was an article in today's Nikkei MJ outlining the announced the recent sales and earnings figures. I mention it here to give those interested an idea of the size of these sales. The units are in "oku" yen or hundred million yen and are projected 2008 sales through the end of the year.

Suntory 8,495
Kirin 4,180
Asahi 2,740
Sapporo 378


Menthol Flavored Can Coffee

This strikes me as odd. I associate menthol with cigarettes, although that does not necessarily have to be the case. I am not really sure what the target group is, but Kirin will introduce a new canned coffee flavored with menthol.


Hot Summer 2

Speaking of seasonal foods, one offering I like during Japanese hot weather is cold noodles. Japanese eat noodles as meals in Japan, but a huge bowl of hot noodles will cause you to sweat profusely.

Nice alternatives are cold noodle dishes such as reimen (冷麺), a cold ramen dish, or somen (素麺) which is made from different ingredients and is often served on ice. Reimen has a stronger taste, while somen depends just on the taste of the noodles and the diluted soy sauce based dip. Somen really cannot be beat and I know of Japanese who choose somen for their first meal back in Japan after a long overseas trip.


Hot Summer

Ever since the rainy season ended, it has been very hot here in Japan - even hotter than usual. Not surprisingly some food items sell well when the weather is sweltering. Sports drinks, ice cream and beer come to mind, but other items as well.

One item which comes as a bit of a surprise to me is milk. I love milk and it is cold, but it is also thick. If I am really hot, I usually want to drink something a bit more watery, like a sports drink or water itself, but sales of milk are usually helped quite a bit by hot summer temperatures. Maybe people are smarter than I give them credit for and choose healthy milk over sugary drinks.


Hydrogenized Water

Ito en is coming out next month with a canned water product which touts naturally high levels of hydrogen, which it claims can act as an antioxidant. The water is from Oita Prefecture, and it is not cheap at 4,320 yen per case (24 cans). Itoen has a line up of 12 drinks and 11 supplements which have antioxidant properties.

Interesting idea, but I would like to see some hard evidence first.


The Health Report - Weight Loss Diets

One of the best science programs focusing on health and nutrition is Australia's The Health Report, which is also podcast.

Last week, both of the topics were very interesting. The first topic was concerning a study on various weight loss diets: traditional low fat diet (with calorie restriction), Mediterranean diet (olive oil, nuts and fish), and low carb diet (with no calorie restrictions).

The results for both weight loss and blood fats was the same: low carb > Mediterranean diet > traditional low fat diet.

There are many ways to conduct such trials and comparing diets is very difficult. One interesting aspect was that there was no attempt to standardize calorie intakes. Emphasis was placed on diets which could be maintained as permanent life-styles and the ability to closely monitor the subjects. The result were extremely low dropout rates.

The debate will surely continue, but this one study in the New England Journal of Medicine does support my personal opinion that refined sugars are more of a concern than fats.

Shai I et al. Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet. New England Journal of Medicine, July 17, 2008;359;3:229-241


New Recaldent Gum

Here is an article about a new Recaldent gum which is going to be introduced next month called "Kamu Power" or "Chewing Power".

In addition to the CPP-ACP ingredient in other Recaldent gums, this new offering has a long lasting taste which will allow you to chew more. The company cites studies that show that people are eating more and more soft food and therefore chewing less, even though there are other studies which show that chewing has important connections to saliva production and mental functions.

So in addition to the dental health market, they are trying to target students and other people looking for any mental edge possible.


New Kirin Offerings

Kirin announced a new entry in the "Dai-3-Beer" (3rd beer) category called Kirin Smooth (which will go on sale in early September). Kirin claims it is smooth, light, creamy and will lower in alcohol than other brands (4%). Kirin already makes the best selling "beer" in this category, Nodogoshi.

Beer companies have been trying to counter high taxes for many years, now the high prices of ingredients is making this even more important for beer companies and consumers.

Kirin also announced a new winter season Happoshu (low malt beer) which is lighter tasting for the cold season (actually, I would prefer a richer taste for the cold season, but what do I know). This will go on sale in October.

They also announced a new limited edition beer which uses special hops from Iwate Prefecture and will go on sale in November.

To give you an idea of the prices in the 3 beer categories, the suggested prices will be as follows per 350 ml can:
beer 217 yen
happoshu 161 yen
dai-3 beer 141 yen


Cheese Substitute

With food prices, and especially dairy prices, so high it should come as no surprise that substitutes are now being considered. In yesterday's edition of The Japan Food Journal (Japanese language) there is an article about Marine Foods coming out with a cheese substitute made from plant oils. There are plenty of other products being offered as substitutes, but this one serves as a good example.

This cheese substitute is called sutirino (スティリーノ) and is aimed at the industrial use market or the private brand market. It costs 30 percent less than cheese and can be used at a mix with cheese or as a complete replacement.

I would have to think that the physical properties would differ somewhat from processed cheese and I also wonder about the trans-fats since this is processed plant oil. But the biggest question is taste - if it does not taste good, it will not do well. The taste of good cheese is very complex and almost impossible to copy. The complete set of compounds that contribute to the taste of cheese differ by the variety cheese and are still not completely understood.

Nevertheless, with prices what they are, there will certainly be many more alternatives proposed for a large variety of foods.


Update: Eel and PB

There was an article in the evening edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun, that I did not see until after my posting on eel (unagi). It concerns one of the many cases of mislabeled food in Japan. Food produced in Japan sells at a premium. As a result there have been many cases of imported food, being relabeled as Japanese and therefore sold at a premium. In this article a company was raided over the mislabeling of Chinese eel as Japanese eel. Therefore, the Taiwanese (as distinct from the Chinese) are trying to raise impression of their product so that it will sell at a premium similar to Japanese eel.

Concerning PB, I was mistaken about Seven and I Holdings' private branding, their PB products are sold at a slight discount. Although there is an article in the July 25 edition of Nikkei Shimbun about how all the companies turning to private branding are not immune to commodity prices and are having to increase their prices at the same paces as national brands.

There is also an article in July 26 edition of Nihon Nogyo which addresses if all these retailers are ready to take on the risks associated with product safety, ingredient sourcing, etc. Retailers claim they are ready to take on the risk, but the risks can be huge. One mistake, badly handled can ruin a company.



There is an interesting feature in daily The Japan Food Journal (Japanese language) on July 23rd about musenmai, which is rice that does not need to be washed before preparation. The rice is the same but the processing is different and the taste is essentially the same. Musenmai ends up being about 100 yen more per 5 kg, which is not much of a difference.

This type of rice has become very popular due to the ease of preparation, but the article focuses on the carbon footprint of the two types of rice. They conclude that if you include the consumer's washing and the added cost of cleaning up the solids in the waste water, musenmai has a smaller carbon footprint. Interesting, because I would have thought that extra processing would have lead to the opposite, but there is not extra processing, just different processing.


Taiwanese Eel

This year the days to eat unagi (eel) are July 24th and August 5th. The days are called 土用の丑の日(Doyo no uchi no hi) - sometimes called Eel Day for lack of a better term in English. Actually, I didn't even know there could two days, but they are listed on the Japanese Wikipedia page. The story can be found lots of places on the internet, but essentially during the Edo Era unagi sellers came up with a story that if you eat unagi on the Ushi no Hi day of the Chinese calendar in during the summer it will help you beat the heat.

What I found interesting was that it is such a boost for unagi sales that this year Taiwan eel farmers are conducting a big push to get Japanese to eat Taiwanese eel, stressing the safety and traceability of Taiwanese cultivated eel.

Here is another interesting post about a new eel extract drink.


Nikuman and Seasonal Food

There is an article on Nikkei Trendy about the new nikuman (manju) lineup being introduced by Circle K Sunkus in August.

I find this very interesting because it was not long ago that nikuman was a seasonal food, only sold in convenience stores during the winter months. This was very noticeable, because each convenience store had to clear out table space for the large nikuman heating machines. Now nikuman, and sometimes oden, have become year-round offerings in convenience stores.

I love nikuman and welcome the availability, but also feel that something Japanese is being lost by not following the seasons. It seems very American to insist on exactly what foods you want regardless of season.


Summer Bonuses Down

Bonuses in Japan are usually set by the unions according to parameters such as age, length of employment and a relatively small performance component. The biggest variation from bonus to bonus is due to the company's overall economic performance.

This article on Japan Today notes that bonuses are down due to the overall economy, but I bet the bonuses in the food industry are down much more overall due to the price squeeze most companies are facing.


Japan - Rice as Alternative to Corn, Wheat

There is an article on Bloomberg about how Japan is going to increase rice production as an alternative to the large amounts of wheat and corn Japan imports. This was not feasible in the past, but due to the sky rocketing prices of all grains, domestic rice is no longer simply the protected, high price crop it used to be.

Most of the new rice cultivation will be of high yield varieties aimed at use as livestock feed.


Private Brands (2)

Continuing from yesterday's post, there was an article on Japan Today about how Family Mart is going beyond Private Branding and actually building their own factory for mineral water drinks.
Sounds like a good place to start - packaging water is certainly on the low end of the technology scale. It should also be a good opportunity to produce a product at a low price, because some makers clearly make a killing on bottled water.


Private Brands (1)

Private Brands (PB) are brands owned by retailers and not producers. Most well known brands are owned by food producers and are called National Brands (NB). In recent years, the use of PB has exploded as retailers flex their muscles and as a way of keeping product prices down.

This is not a welcome development for food producers because they depend on brand value to keep prices high enough to make profits. With PB, the retailer simply defines the product specifications and then lets producers bid the rights to produce the product. This reduces the food producers to not much more than contract manufacturers. The up side for producers is that such contracts are usually for large volumes.

One example of PB which is not new is the milk you see at McDonald's. If you look on the side, it is manufactured by Meiji Dairies. Newer examples are convenience stores which are increasing the number of PB very rapidly. Seven-Eleven is part of Seven and I Holdings, therefore both Seven-Eleven and Itoyokado both sell the same PB products. It appears to me that this is an attempt to replace NB, because the prices do not appear to be greatly discounted. I suppose this is why the line is called "Seven Premium".

In an article on Nikkei Trendy, the way Lawson is using PB to keep prices down, as well as the the moves by both Lawson and Seven and I Holdings to make a wider variety of more basic items such as seasonings as PB.


Yamazaki Lunch Packs

There is an interesting product profile on Nikkei Trendy of Yamazaki's "lunch pack" series.

Yamazaki Baking Co. is the largest bread manufacturer in Japan. I don't really like the mass produced bread sold in Japan, but that is really the fault of consumer preference. The white breads are very bland and the crust is removed prior to packaging in many cases. These "lunch packs" are a good idea though. Basically, the lunch packs are two pieces of bread mashed together around the edges with something stuffed inside. Here is my list of some of the interesting points made in the article:

1) this product was first introduced in 1984. With the extremely high turnover of most products in Japan, a 24 year history as a best seller is very impressive indeed.

2) over the years, there have been several hundred versions introduced. That sounds like a lot, but product renewal in Japan happens as fast as product turnover, so this is not really that surprising. It does make one curious to see a list of the interesting variations that must have been introduced over the years. No such list is provided. They do however mention the two most popular varieties though - peanut butter and egg salad.

3) the main reasons cited for the product variety are the desire to have enough variations so that people can buy the product daily without getting tired of the same thing every day and also the products which are only sold in certain regions of Japan (something food companies do frequently in Japan).

4) the marketers first thought, as would I, that the main market for these products would be men who want a quick lunch, but they found that women were the main consumers. The reason turned out to be the appeal to women of a portable light lunch.

5) the article claims that the result of the marketing plan focusing on women has taken the sales in 2001 (0.59 billion yen per year) to a projected 40 billion yen in 2008. Wow!


6) around one million packs are produced every day.


Fishermen Strike

There have been several fishermen "strikes" over the past few months. It started out with an squid fishermen's strike, and has now broadened.

As with many things in Japan, a direct translation does not always convey what is going on. First, strikes in Japan are rarely the long grueling processes that you see in other countries. I remember when I first came to Japan, there was a strike on the private railway that many people used each day to get to work. When people said that there would be a strike starting the next day, I started wondering how to prepare for the coming weeks or months. But the strike ended up being just several hours long, just long enough to make a small point. The issues were settled not long after.

In this case fishermen are "striking" against the consumer, and it is not clear to me what they hope to gain. The first squid strike caused a temporary jump of 32% in the wholesale price of squid. The purpose was call attention to high fuel prices which make fishing unprofitable.

In this more general strike, the aim is the same - calling attention to the effect of high fuel prices. Eventually, they appear to want fuel subsidies from the government, but have not made specific demands yet.


Anheuser-Busch to be sold to InBev

The sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev (Belgium) is big news in the US, less so here in Japan. A little bit of nationalism comes into play of course. Many Americans liked the idea that the world's largest beer company was American, even though the watery taste of major US brands is not very popular in other parts of the world.

In graduate school, I remember a European friend of mine laughing for days after hearing a commercial on TV for a US beer. I forget which brand it was, but the ad campaign touted the fact that the beer had "no aftertaste". My friend kept saying "No aftertaste?? You drink beer FOR the aftertaste!!". I also wonder if this is somehow related to the way many Americans seem to drink to get drunk and not to slowly enjoy the taste of a good beer.

I have to say that I agree with the European approach. I like beers with a strong taste (and aftertaste) and therefore tend to choose bitter or stout beers.

I like the taste of Japanese beer, which does not differ all that much between the major manufacturers.

Occasionally there are ad campaigns for Budweiser using the Budweiser girls in their racy outfits and there are posters and cutouts of the same girls in some Tokyo bars, but the market penetration in Japan is very low for US brands.

InBev does not even have a website focused on Japan (English or Japanese). Becks and Stella Artois can be found, but even less frequently than Budweiser.


Suntory overtakes Sapporo to become No 3

It appears that Suntory has overtaken Sapporo in the most recent sales figures. Asahi and Kirin are the clear No 1 and No 2, but Sapporo has been slipping in recent years, while Suntory has been gaining.

Suntory actually taking No 3 might be a bit premature, because they held off on price increases following the last price hike in wheat prices. Sapporo plans to make up for the lost sales once Suntory brings its prices in line with other producers.


Japanese Companies will Label Carbon Footprint

There was an article in the 2008.06.19 edition of Nikkei Shimbun that says that by the end of 2009, Ajinomoto will start labeling all its seasoning products and frozen foods with their carbon footprint. It also says that Ajinomoto will be the first Japanese company to do so, but in a 2008.06.23 Kyodo News article, it states that Sapporo Beer will start labeling its "Black Label Beer" brand 350 ml cans with their carbon footprint starting next year.

I am not sure who wins, but these moves will likely put pressure on other companies to follow suit.


Matsushita Becomes Panasonic

I believe most Americans are only familiar with the Panasonic brand, but up until 2004, most of the Matsushita Corporation electronics and other products were sold under the National brand in Japan. That was a bit confusing at first, because to a smaller degree Panasonic branded products were also available here.

Since 2004 they have been phasing out the National brand (I understand that this is due to the difficulty of obtaining trademarks in other countries), and as of October of this year, the name of the company itself will become Panasonic, replacing the namesake of the founder. At that point, the brand consolidation will be complete and Matsushita and National will not be used anymore.


Or Just Try Chocolate Milk During Exercise

Following from yesterday's post, here is an article from the New York Times about sports recovery. An expert in the article suggests just drinking low-fat chocolate milk, because what you really need is carbohydrate and protein.


Sports Drinks in Japan

These was a pretty good article distributed by Kyodo News Agency which gave a quick history and run down of the big sports drinks in Japan. Of course there are many, many sports drinks in Japan and more are introduced every year, but I think this article was right to narrow it down to 3 high profile sports drinks which interesting histories.

Coca Cola - Aquarius This was introduced in the 1980s and is an isotonic drink. It remains a strong brand for Coca Cola here in Japan, but is not used outside Japan for some reason. Outside Japan, Coca Cola sells Poweraide.

Meiji Dairies Corporation - VAAM This was the first amino acid drink introduced in Japan (or possibly anywhere) and it is based on the amino acid mixture which hornets feed on and which allows them to fly long distances. Naoko Takahashi won the Sydney Olympics Women's Marathon while using VAAM.

Otsuka Seiyaku - Amino Value This is another amino acid drink, but it stresses the value of branched-chain amino acids, which are said to assist recovery. Mizuki Noguchi won the Athens Olympics Women's Marathon while using this Amino Value.

It is interesting to note that Gatoraide has tried several times to crack the Japanese market, but has failed with several different partners.


Asahi Style Free

On the internet and in newspapers there are often articles and examples of Japanese English which was very funny. Sometimes it is a little more complicated than a simple error. The Japanese absorbs words from other languages almost constantly, especially from English. But as soon as they the foreign words became part of Japanese, the meaning starts to change. I think this is one of the most frequent causes of Japanese people's mistakes in English.

The name of this Asahi low malt beer (happoshu) is Style Free. In English this sounds like the product completely lacks style - not good. But in Japanese has taken the word free in the sense that you are freed from restraints. So when you see gloves that say "size free" it means "one size fits all". Therefore, "style free" means "drink this beer in any situation and don't be constrained by a certain style or occasion".
The English which follows "refreshing new style" could be doublingly confounding it you do not keep in mind that they are trying to stay something like "a new style which is free of the constrains of any specific style". My wording here is less than eloquent, but hopefully you get the idea.


Japanese and Given Names

The use of given names in Japanese is interesting and can be frustrating. First of all, Japanese put the family name first, so the names are generally reversed when making the transition to English.

But the main frustration with given names is that they are used much less than in the West. In Japanese, if you just use someone's given name, it would sound like he or she is a family member or a very close friend. If there are two Suzuki's in the office, they might be distinguished by their given name and possibly by use of only their given names, but this would still be somewhat uncommon.

What is really confusing is when a Japanese uses only his or her given name when doing international business, or worse, he or she chooses a shortened version (such as Tak or Yasu) or even a Western nickname. Generally, that name is of no use when you try to employ it in Japan. If you just ask for someone by his or her given name, you will likely receive a blank stare. Even in the same office, only a minority of people would be able to state the full names of all their coworkers.

Over the past 10 years or so, computer systems have made it necessary to be able to at least pick out the full name of the person you are looking for, but stating full names from memory is another matter.


From Coke Light to Coke Zero

Here is a picture of a vending machine in transition from Coke Light to Coke Zero. In fact, this might already be dated (it was taken in May), because I have not seen much Coke Light recently, either in vending machines or in convenience stores.

Unless my memory forsakes me, there was Coke Light many years ago and then Diet Coke. The website says that Diet Coke became Coke Light in April of 2007 (it is called "Non-calorie Coke" in Japanese, ノーカロリー コカ・コーラ). Then Coke Zero was introduced in June of 2007 and appears to be taking over.

A vitamin fortified version of Coke Light has just been introduced, so that might be where they are taking the brand.


Suntory Dakara Zero Style

Here is a popular and interesting sports drink. Suntory's Dakara Zero Style claims zero sugar, zero fat and zero salt - thus the name. It also claims to retain its sweetness and to have a good balance for your body (presumably from the calcium, potassium and magnesium contained).

With all these zero's I was surprised to see that there are 17 kcal per 100 ml. That is not much less than low calorie beer (happoshu can be as little as 24 kcal per 100 ml). A closer look shows that there are sugars added, just not table sugar (zero 砂糖 but not zero 糖類 or zero 糖質).


Japanese Cheese Market

There is an interesting article in the June 30th edition of Shokuhin Sangyo Shimbun (食品産業新聞) about the Japanese cheese market. Here are some of the points made in the article:
- cheese prices are expected to go up another 10 to 15 percent by next Autumn, due to increasing dairy ingredient prices,
- as in other industries, repackaging is also being used in addition to price increases (for example, 10 slice processed cheese packs are now 8 slice packs),
- the price increases will likely lead to reduced imports of natural cheese and lower consumption of industrial use cheeses.

There is also a nice chart showing the variation in the Japanese cheese production and consumption for each year from 1990 to 2007. Here are some interesting numbers (all in tons) comparing the years 1990 and 2007 (data from the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry).

Domestic Natural Cheese Production 28,415 and 42,948
Imported Natural Cheese 111,629 and 211,405
Processed Cheese Consumption 77,428 and 163,262
Total Cheese Consumption 153,325 and 279,189
(some of the natural cheese is used to produce the processed cheese)


Prices of Products Made from Flour

There is an article in the June 30th edition of Shokuhin Sangyo Shimbun (食品産業新聞) showing some of the price rises in products made from flour by comparing the prices in September with the higher prices in April (the month the government raised flour prices by 30%).

flour 137 to 157 yen
cup ramen 91 to 108 yen
spaghetti 142 to 174 yen
white bread 125 to 136 yen


Tea Harvesting Season in Shizuoka

There is an interesting chart in the June 27th edition of The Japan Food Journal (日本食糧新聞), showing the Spring tea leaf picking season for last year and this year.

The season was a bit delayed this year and the yield is down (due to the cool weather, I suppose), but still the season started only two days later than last year and lasted for the same number of days. The exact same pattern of harvested tea-per-day was shown both years. The first days are best and then the yield per day decreases steadily. This would not be interesting to someone in the tea industry, but I find the way mother nature keeps to a fairly strict schedule interesting.

2007 Season April 19th to May 17th
2008 Season April 21st to May 19th

The article points out that for the 3rd year in a row, the price of even good quality tea is down. That goes against the trends for other crops, especially grains.


Ramune Flavored Toothpaste

Here is a ramune flavored children's toothpaste from Apagard. I think this is a good example of how popular the ramune taste is with Japanese young people. Seems like the most popular flavor for such products in the US is bubblegum.


Ramune - a Japanese Flavor

Anyone who has lived in Japan, has seen ramune drinks - mostly likely at a local festival. There is a nice Wikipedia entry on ramune here. I did not realize that it had been invented by a foreigner, but apparently the Scot, Alexander Cameron Sim, first came up the the concoction in 1870 in Kobe.

The name comes from a Japanization of the word lemonade, and the flavor is a carbonated lemon-lime flavor. The unique bottle is also traditional and distinctive.

If any company is considering flavorings in Japan, ramune flavor should at least be considered, it is very popular with Japanese youth.

The photo is from Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.


Biofuels To Blame

Here is a damning article from the Guardian, which says that according to a still secret World Bank report, 75% of food price rises are due to biofuels and not 3% as the Bush administration claims.

I have always considered the idea behind biofuels to be ridiculous. The whole idea is clearly aimed at supporting farmers. And since Iowa is one of the first primary states for any presidential election, all presidents have to be pro-corn and pro-biofuel. But putting that much energy into making something to burn has always sounded crazy.

Japan has some initiatives to use the power from trash they intend to burn anyway. That makes a lot of sense. If I remember correctly that was referred to as biofuel also, even though the concept was quite different.


Heinz Squid Ink Spaghetti Sauce

Heinz sells squid ink pasta sauce in Japan. I am not sure how well the product is doing, but squid ink is a standard spaghetti sauce in Japan, and is available at all Italian restaurants. You also see squid ink flavored snacks fairly often - usually as limited edition products.

I checked on the US website and did not find any such product for sale in the US by Heinz, so I suppose this was specially developed for the Japanese market.

The love of all things squid is one of many things that overlaps in Japanese and Italian food.


Food Miles and Climate Change

There is an interesting article in the recent issue of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology titled "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States".

Recently, people who are environmentally conscious and who also believe that organic food is more healthy have had to start balancing their desire to buy organic food (which might not be locally produced) with their desire to fight climate change by buying locally (and thus minimizing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions).

As I read it, this article addresses two big questions: how much does distance and transportation add to the carbon emissions related to food in the US? and what are the differences in total emissions (production and transportation) between food categories in the US?

The answer to the first question is not all that much. Total transportation only contributes 11% of the life-cycle greenhouse emissions of a product (4% of which is final delivery). Therefore savings can be made by buying locally, but not all that much. (I would add that buying locally, might very well involve less efficient production.)

To answer the second question, the data was broken down into seven groups:
1) Beverages
2) Cereals, Carbohydrates
3) Chicken, Fish, Eggs
4) Dairy
5) Fruit, Vegetables
6) Oils, Sweets, Condiments
7) Red Meat

The emissions of each these categories was measured four different ways: CO2/household, CO2/dollar, CO2/kCal and CO2/kg.

Red meat comes out as the largest contributor by a large margin using any of these measures (the authors estimate that red meat contributes 150% more greenhouse gases than chicken or fish). Dairy comes out high based on CO2/dollar (I would think this is because milk is historically very inexpensive relative to its nutritional value). When CO2/household and CO2/kCal are used, the contribution from dairy falls back a good deal, and when CO2/kg is used dairy falls in line with the minor contributors.

The authors suggest that replacing some red meat and dairy intake with chicken or fish, say once a week, would have a greater positive impact on the environment than buying locally.

It still looks to me like dairy should not be in the same category as red meat. Nevertheless, this is an interesting study and will surely invite similar analyses in other countries.


The DNA Files Podcast

There is a very interesting series on NPR, which is also being podcast, called "The DNA Files". The whole series is interesting, but the show called "Food in the Age of Biotechnology" is a very good summary of genetic modification. Past failures, current issues and future possibilities are all dealt with, while still allowing the listener to come to his or her own conclusion.

My personal opinion is that there is great promise in genetically modified foods, but the products which have made it to market so far have benefited farmers more than consumers, leading to the backlash. When clearly superior products, which are only available by genetic modification, start to hit the market, some consumers might change their attitudes on the subject.

Japan attitudes are closer to those of people in Europe than those in the US. No Japanese company wants to sell genetically modified food, but with so many commodities coming from the US, genetically modified ingredients are hard to avoid.


Gusto Restaurants and Anpanman

Anyone with kids in Japan knows about Anpanman, the young children's cartoon series where all the characters are different food items. I should devote an entire post to this in the future, but for now I would just like to note that Gusto Restaurants use Anpanman for their children's menu.
Almost all family restaurants in Japan use some Japanese cartoon character for their children's menus, but only rarely if ever US or European cartoon characters. I suppose that is because, aside from Disney characters, the penetration of US and European cartoon characters is not very deep.


Is Nippon Ham Interested in Anti-Fatigue Drinks?

Japan Pharmacology and Therapeutics (薬理と治療) is an interesting scientific publication to keep an eye on, because data from scientific trials are often published which shed light on what products both drug and food companies are trying to develop.

In the March issue, Nippon Ham published a set of three trials (anti-fatigue efficacy and two safety) on their imidazole dipeptides (CBEX-Dr) which are extracted from chicken breasts. Companies don't usually put out that much effort and money on human efficacy and safety trials unless they are serious.

The results were positive, but as there is not yet a FOSHU category for anti-fatigue, one wonders when they will be able to use the data and if so, will the protocols in this study be acceptable. It is not easy to measure fatigue.

The trials were all in the form of a drink, so maybe we can look forward to such a chicken breast extract drink from Nippon Ham.


Rakuten and Next-day Delivery of Perishables

Rakuten announced that it is going to start next day deliveries of perishables. In the future it plans to move to same day deliveries.

Rakuten is a large on-line seller in Japan, similar to Yahoo, with many affiliated stores.

I see that dairy is not mentioned in the article, possibly because dairy is a bit more difficult and possibly because most of the major dairy companies already have home delivery networks.

Refrigerated express delivery (or "cool-bin", クール宅急便) has been a standard service for a long time in Japan and it is very convenient - no need for dry ice, for example. And as this article explains, it also makes new business concepts possible. The same service would not be possible in the US.


Taisho Pharmaceutical's Anti-Smoking Patch

There is a news item that Taisho Pharmaceutical is going to start selling a nonprescription anti-smoking patch. In the past smoking patches were prescription only. Why? Doesn't that sound overly restrictive? Maybe and that is not an area I have experience with, but sometimes there is more to the story.

It is very possible that in the past both makers and consumers liked the situation because prescribed drugs or devices are usually covered by health insurance. In this case, the government and/or makers are betting that usage will increase if the patches are sold over the counter.


Some Perspective on Food Prices

Food prices sure have been going up rapidly and the pinch is on everyone except farmers. At a time like this it is good to put things in perspective, because food prices have been low, many would say unnaturally low, for a long time.

There are almost daily articles in the papers about different companies raising prices. If you look closely though, you will see how long it has been since prices were last raised. There was an article in the April 3rd issue of Nihon Shokugyo which said that milk prices were being raised for the first time in 30 years. In the April 19th issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, an article announces that Kentucky Fried Chicken was raising prices on chicken for the first time in 16 years.


Metabolic Syndrome and Japanese Companies

Here is an article from the International Herald Tribune which is pretty much right on the money from my experience. Starting last year, waist measurements became a part of annual physical examinations in Japan and all the people in my company received pedometers to encourage walking and exercise.

Many companies will face a penalty from the government if their workers do not on average make improvements, but for food and pharmaceutical companies this is also an opportunity to boost sales for products which help fight metabolic syndrome. Such products have been on the market for years now, but this new government policy is definitely giving the whole category a boost.

Only a few years ago, one would never hear the term metabolic syndrome except in scientific conversations, but these days it is a very common topic of everyday conversation.

Actually, I have read some unpublished reports on the development of definitions and standards for metabolic syndrome which are very interesting, but that is a topic for another day.


J's Garden

I have mentioned the fact that restaurants and food manufacturers are trying to cut down on ingredient costs by reducing the size of offerings. The other day I happened to eat at a J's Garden restaurant near Enoshima. It was the first time I had ever eaten at a J's Garden before. It does not look that different from many other family restaurants and although it specializes in pasta and pizza, it has a nice variety of items on the menu.

I ordered with the expectation of receiving Japanese portions or newly reduced Japanese portions as I have seen recently, but was surprised to receive something closer to American portions - unusual in Japan. J's Garden is part of the Johnathon's Family Restaurant group. I checked on the website and it looks like the locations are mostly in residential areas, so there is a better chance of coming across one in a car than near a station.

I give it a thumbs up compared with other family restaurants.


Rose Oil Gum and Old Man Smell

Kracie is selling gum aimed at older men who don't want to smell like older men. I looked up the main ingredient, geraniol, and it is the main component of rose oil and is used in some perfumes, various flavorings and even tobacco, but I am not sure why it is supposed to have a specially good effect for masking old man odor or "otoko kusai" (オトコくさい).
As I remember, another company isolated the main ingredient responsible for old man smell, but I am not sure what product resulted from that discovery.


Grades of New Tea

This is a picture from the same store as shown in yesterday's post. Although not readable from this picture, this stand is displaying 2 types and 4 different grades of Shizuoka tea.

The two types of tea featured are Saemitori and Yabukita and each is priced 840 to 2,100 yen based on grade. The Saemitori is said to have a strong umami taste and low astringency. The Yabukita is said to have a strong aroma and a nice balance of umami and astringent tastes. The only difference mentioned for the high grades is that they are hand picked.

These are typical grades, but if you ask the shopkeeper, much more expensive grades are also available.


Spring Tea Harvest

The local tea shops in Japan all have banners out in front announcing the "new tea" or newly harvested tea leaves. People who really like good tea will spend a lot for good, fresh tea leaves. There are multiple grades of tea which are difficult to understand and often are specific to the store.

Shizuoka and Kyoto are easily the most well-known region for tea production in Japan, but other areas such as Kyushu also produce tea.


Horse Meat

I just happened to come across this restaurant the other night. It was very late, so I didn't have time to give it a try. Anyway, even though the sign says that it is an "izakaya" or drinking and eating establishment, without any windows it looks more like a "sunakku" or private club.

In any case, I thought it was interesting because the specialty is horse meat. It is not unusual to see horse meat in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen a horse meat specialty restaurant. While I assume there are others, it is still not an everyday sight.
This restaurant is named Pops and it claims on the sign that the food is imported directly from Kumamoto (Kyushu).
For those who have trouble distinguishing between Asian countries and their cuisine, Japanese do eat whale and horse, but other animals such as dogs, cats, rats, etc. are never found for sale in Japan.


Floods in the US and Commodity Prices

Just as some people had been hoping that commodity prices and oil prices might have peaked, we are now seeing historic flooding in the US Midwest. Many farmers who might have been enjoying the high prices for corn and other commodities are now losing their crops and in some cases their homes.

Very sad, but it is also going to have a ripple effect - first on the crops directly effected, corn and soy, then on other grains as well, since there is a certain amount of interchangeability. It might also have an effect on oil prices as corn is increasingly being used for biofuel. Corn prices have reached 7 dollars per bushel for the first time ever, and oil prices are now being predicted to reach 140 dollars per barrel (although I have not seen a flood-oil price link referred to yet).


Higher Profits on Higher Food Prices?

According to this article in Investopeida, US food producers are showing increased profits resulting from higher prices. Heinz raised prices 4.5% and saw net income increase 7%. General Mills has seen a 17% earnings gain at the same time it was reducing box sizes to offset higher ingredient prices. If that works for them, great, but in Japan, the talk at many companies is simply how to stay profitable.

The article credits brand loyalty and stronger oversees sales. I am not in marketing, but I would guess that brand loyalty is not nearly as strong in Japan, because a culture of always trying something new has been cultivated. Consumers see a price they consider too high or a box they think is not as big as it should be and they simply buy something else.


Japanese Dairy Farmers are Also Squeezed

Japanese dairy farmers are also being squeezed by high food prices, or at least the Japanese government thinks so. According to this article, the 187.1 billion yen in supports for dairy farmers and stockbreeders, which was already up 63.2 billion yen from last year is going to be raised an additional 70 billion yen. These are mostly in the form of unit-subsidies.

I feel sure the butter shortage has also influenced this move, although any boosts in production will lag far behind a stimulus - especially in the dairy industry, where you cannot exactly plant more cows next year, you have to breed more herds of dairy cattle to make a difference.


Serving Size 2 Food Companies

Food companies are also reformulating or cutting serving size. Smaller packages, fewer slices, etc. has become the norm. Here is an example of a convenience store sausage wrap.
This was pretty obvious because the same product used to have 2 sausages, but now has only 1. The size of the remaining sausage might be a bit bigger, but the total size has certainly been reduced and the price, to be best of my recollection, has not changed. (Unfortunately, this tells you something about my eating habits.)


Serving Size 1 Restaurants

My family and I occasionally eat at a Japanese food family restaurant chain called Yumean (夢案), which we all enjoy. I took this picture last month, but at the time we were all surprised and amused to see that the size of this child's plate had shrunk quite a bit. Since that time, we have noticed the same thing a many other restaurants - often in the form a new menu. Hoping you will not notice, I am sure. Because of rising prices and possibly also due to smaller or unsatisfactory new menu items, it is easy to see that restaurants are not as crowded as they were only several months ago.

Reduced serving sizes are especially interesting to foreigners, because we typically laughed a small serving sizes before the current food crisis. I have generally assumed that Japanese serving sizes are about half of what they are in the US. This does not leave you very much room to cut further. Small serving sizes are undoubtedly more healthy than the huge platters you receive in the US, but at some point even Japanese are going to be left hungry.


Food Prices in Japan . . . Going Up

Food prices are big news all over the world and Japan is no exception. In fact, there is little upside to high food prices here, because Japan produces such a small percentage of what it consumes. Food companies and restaurants are caught in a squeeze, just trying to eek out a profit. Raise prices too much and you loose customers.

In a very unscientific survey, sampling size n=1, my wife said typical trips to the grocery store which used to cost around 6 to 7 thousand yen, now lost around 9 thousand yen.


Coffee Hunter

Coca Cola's Georgia coffee brand has come out with an interesting new product called Coffee Hunter, which has an silhouette of someone who might be confused with Indiana Jones. This explorer travels the world looking for the best coffee beans. This looks to be the first in a series.
This coffee is from beans grown in Flores Island, Indonesia. 「コーヒーハンターが世界中の産地を巡って探し出してきたとっておきのコーヒー豆をお届けました。」 It tastes pretty standard to me, but it might very well be a good promotion to go along with the new Indiana Jones movie.


A Label to be Envious of

Meiji Dairies "Ocha" Green Tea
Energy 0
Carbohydrates 0
Protein 0
Fat 0
Sodium 37 mg
Ingredients: Green Tea, Vitamin C
"Natural Water is Used"
"Shizuoka Tea Leaves are Used"
Nothing to hide or cause concern on this label, and it is all natural. This is a good example of popular tea products in Japan. Teas and coffees outsell soft drinks here, and aside from the health benefits of tea ingredients which have been proposed, simply consuming a natural, calorie free drink likely helps a great deal in keeping weight off.

If you eat Japanese food in a restaurant or if you buy a Japanese boxed lunch (bento, 弁当) in a railway station, various teas are frequently your only choice of drink, because stronger tasting or sweet drinks are thought not to go well with traditional Japanese food.


PET Bottles and Cats

This post certainly has nothing to do with science. A number of years ago (7 or more), the urban myth spread in Japan that you could keep away cats by putting out PET bottles filled with water. I didn't realize that cats were that big of a problem, but around that time you started to see water-filled PET bottles everywhere.

This myth has been proven false repeatedly, but water-filled PET bottles are still easy to find on a stroll down almost any street.


Burger King Celebrates 1st Anniversary in Japan . . . again

Burger King was in Japan from 1996 to 2001, but reportedly could not compete with McDonald's in a price war. I also heard at the time that there were marketing disagreements with partners and people in different parts of the company. Even if that was not true, it made sense to me at the time. The offerings were largely the same as in the US, where you forget about calories and focus on size and strong taste.

Personally, I thought that the Burger King taste was the main problem, even though I like it myself. Burger King sandwiches have a strong meaty taste and aroma which is not common in Japan. This is in contrast with McDonald's sandwiches which are much milder in this respect.

Now they are back for another try. They only have 6 locations so far - all in Tokyo. Japanese tastes have been changing over the years, so maybe Japan is ready for Burger King now. Recently monster-size burgers at McDonald's and other chains have been popular, so the size of Burger King's sandwiches might prove to be popular.

This time around, Burger King Japan opened its first store on June 8, 2007 and therefore is now celebrating its one year anniversary. Good Luck.


100 Yen Vending Machines

The current price for 350 ml cans of non-alcoholic drinks is 120 yen, but you can find discount outlets and vending machines if you keep you eyes open. Here is a picture of Dydo and Suntory discount vending machines side-by-side.


The "To" in Torui and Muto

This is a picture of a typical "muto" (or zero sugar, 無糖) black coffee - Pokka brand Biz Time Cafe Black. On such products there is a listing for torui (sugars, 糖類) separate from the obligatory carbohydrate (炭水化物) category. What exactly are the criteria for sugars?

This is a link to an informative guide which can be found on a Kanagawa Government webpage, but is also referenced and linked to by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Sugars are any mono- or disaccarides (excluding alcohols). It is that simple, but it is certainly not perfect. By this definition, products might be fructose-free but still contain sugars - milk for example.


Canned Coffee Survey

One very good source of information on Japanese trends and products is Nikkei Trendy (Japanese). This week there is a survey on canned coffee use and preferences. For those interested in this topic for professional reasons, the entire survey is available for sale. For those who simply have an interest in trends, the on-line version should be quite sufficient.

I will just mention a few points I find interesting.
1) preference: sugar free/black > latte-type > low sugar/milk added > sugar/milk added > low sugar/black > no sugar/milk > expresso > sugar/black,
2) the biggest deviation in the above is with latte-type drinks (including cafe au lait) which are much more popular among younger people than older people,
3) canned coffee is much more popular than chilled cup coffee, only among women does the preference come close to that of canned coffee,
4) reason for drinking canned coffee: change mood or feeling > relax > wake up > no reason > need for something in mouth > to concentrate,
5) people who smoke or frequent convenience stores have the strongest preference for canned coffee,
6) ability to mention a brand name: Boss > Georgia >>>> Wonda > Fire > others

The interest in low sugar products is clear, as is the excellent marketing job Suntory has done with the Boss brand.


Breast Milk or Infant Formula not Water

There is an important posting on the Junkfood Science blog concerning hyponatremic seizures resulting from infants being given water to drink. This can also occur if infants are fed diluted infant formula. In short, inadequate sodium levels cause hyponatremia, which in turn leads to an osmotic shift of water from the plasma into cells (such as brain cells) and finally symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. It can also happen in adults (causing confusion and coma), but infants are particularly susceptible.

There is a concern that with increasing food prices, poor mothers may try to stretch infant formula by watering it down. This is certainly not the right thing to do.

Breast milk is the best option for infants. If mother's cannot breastfeed their infants, infant formula is the next best option. Food companies put a great deal of research into making infant formula as close to breast milk as possible. The science in this area has progressed a great deal in recent years, but it is important to use infant formula as directed. After all for that important period, infant formula will be the only nutrition the child will consume.

Taking the discussion a little further, cow's milk is not appropriate for infants either. The composition of cow's milk and mother's milk is significantly different. This is something that was not fully realized a generation or so ago.


Soft Drinks and Cavities

There is an interesting paper in Nutrition Research "Acidic Beverages Increase the Risk of in vitro Tooth Erosion". A group at U of Iowa College of Dentistry compared the effect of Gatorade, Red Bull, Coke, Diet Coke, and Apple Juice, as examples of sports drinks, energy drinks, carbonated soft drinks, diet drinks and juices, respectively, on extracted teeth.

In a pretty simple setup, they simply soaked the extracted teeth in each drink for 25 hours, refreshing the liquid every 5 hours. The acidities of the drinks were measured by straight forward titration. They only went high-tech, and thus beyond what you could do in a high school chemistry class, when they started to measuring the lesions.

Interestingly, the lesion depths corresponded roughly but not exactly with the acidity of the drinks. The most acidic drink was Red Bull, but Gatorade did the most harm. The lesions were measured in micrometers and the results were Gatorade (131), Red Bull (100), Coke (92), Diet Coke (61) and 100% Apple Juice (57).

Anyone who has seen the chemistry demonstration in which a highly acidic solution is used to dissolve a tooth, will not be surprised. This study appears to be a more scientific recreation of the same thing. It still does not tell you exactly what is going to happen under in vivo conditions, but basic chemistry suggests that anyone who spends a great deal of time each day swishing around acidic liquids is not doing his or her teeth much good.

If you want the opposite effect, try dairy. There appear to be a number of reasons why dairy actually acts to inhibit tooth decay (calcium, active proteins, beneficial bacteria, low acidity, etc.). Below are two representative papers on dairy and dental health.

Dairy Products and Caries

Dairy Products and Periodontal Disease


Tougher Drunk Driving Laws in Japan

As of September last year, the drunk driving laws in Japan became much stricter, with very little tolerance at all. A blood alcohol level as low as 0.03 can result in a jail term of up to 3 years. Those supplying drunk drivers with vehicles or alcohol, or even those riding as a passenger in the same car as a drunk driver, can be subject to similar penalties (only slightly less severe). Restaurants are taking this new liability seriously, as you might guess, and most now have signs warning people not to drink and drive. I thought this sign was interesting because it looks very Japanese, as a Japanese sake decanter is pictured instead of a glass of beer.


Kotooshu Wins the Summer Sumo Basho

Bulgarian Sumo wrestler Kotooshu became the first European to win a major sumo tournament or basho. It was big news here in Japan and good news for the sumo association, coming after two years of scandal and generally unfavorable publicity.

This has a direct relation to the food industry, because Kotooshu is sponsored by Meiji Dairies Corporation which makes Japan's best selling yogurt brand - Bulgaria Yogurt. The name is interesting enough, but as is written on the package the brand is "Licensed by Bulgaria". This is the only case I know of where a country licenses its name for a commercial product.

If you follow the 2nd link below, you can see Kotooshu's ceremonial belt or Kesho-musubi, which doubles an advertisement for the yogurt.

Bulgaria Yogurt has been the best selling yogurt in Japan for decades, long before Kotooshu came to Japan. The brand image is that of a traditional and healthy yogurt coming from a country known for its yogurt eating traditions and long, healthy life spans. The product was introduced at the 1970 World Expo, around the same time Bulgarians were known for their long life scans. Recent statistics inspire less envy, but the positive image for Bulgaria remains.
Here is Kotooshu's Wikipedia page:


Here is a link to the Meiji Dairies' Kotooshu webpage: http://www.meijibulgariayogurt.com/koto/index.html

Here is a link to a Bulgaria yogurt commercial featuring Kotooshu (video): http://www.meinyu.jp/fun/cm/product/movie/burugaria_002.wmv


Japan's Food Import Tariffs

There was a very interesting article in the 2008.5.21 issue of Nikkei Shimbun (Japanese edition). It lists the tariffs on the importation of several basic food items.

Polished Rice (コメ、精米) 341 yen per kg (resulting in a 788% tariff at current prices)
Wheat (小麦) 55 yen per kg (252% tariff)
Beans (小豆) 354 yen per kg (402% tariff)
Sugar (粗糖) 71.8 yen per kg (305% tariff)
Butter (バター) 29.8% of price + 985 yen per kg (360% tariff)
Cheese (チーズ) 29.8% of price (29.8% tariff)

It does not take a close analysis of the data to see two things:
1) what food items Japan already produces and wants to protect, or put another way, what items Japan believes it can have a degree of self-sufficiency in,
2) why there is no butter on store shelves, but cheese is still easy to find. In the article, it states that Japan has a goal of being 90% self-sufficient in butter. Demand was misjudged several years ago (when such things need to be planned for) and now there is no quick fix. World prices have sky rocketed and to that price an additional 360% is added, which results in it being very difficult to import butter to make up the difference.


Bottled Tap Water

As elsewhere in the world, bottled water has become very popular in Japan. While it is surely better for you than the other choices which amount to nothing more than sugar water, I still have trouble paying so much (usually about 120 yen, 500 ml PET bottle) for something that comes out of the tap for next to nothing.
Here is an interesting offering. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Waterworks is selling bottled tap water at a modest discount. Most 500 ml drinks in PET bottles sell for either 140 or 150 yen. Bottled water sells for around 120 yen. I found this Tokyo bottled tap water on sale in Tokyo Station for 100 yen.
From the label, you can see that they are trying to make a point about the purity of Tokyo tap water - "世界に誇る東京水" and "超高度浄水の水道水". Roughly, "World renowned Tokyo water" and "Ultrahighly pure Tokyo tap water".
Also, in English on the lower edge of the label is written "TOKYO WATER is purified with the advanced water treatment at the Akasa Purification Plant and is bottled without chlorine."
100 ml: sodium 1.87 mg, calcium 2.13 mg, potassium 0.23 mg, magnesium 0.42 mg
100 yen for water is still too much, and the mountain of PET bottles that results is a problem, but it is still better than the other bottled water options.


Krispy Kreme comes to Japan

Krispy Kreme opened its first store in Japan in December 2006. I took the above picture at around 3 pm in front of the original Shinjuku location. Even at off times like this and a year and a half after it opened, there is still lines. I take this as an example of how susceptible Japanese people are to fads. I think this not because Krispy Kreme is doing well, but because there are still long lines in front of the stores and because people buy large boxes of donuts when they make it to the front of the line. I would never wait in a long line for a donut. I would even think twice about a short line. If I had to have a donut, there are other donut stores - lots of them.

A year and a half after it first opened, you cannot walk around Shinjuku without seeing people carrying large boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts. I see on the internet that they will open their 5th location later this week.

Even though I have lived in Japan a long time, I would have had my reservations about opening a Krispy Kreme here. Shows how little I know, I suppose. The marketing was good though, "the hugely popular American donut chain is finally coming to Japan!". The morning news shows all had segments about the opening.

When I first came to Japan, nothing tasted sweet to me because I was accustomed to the American degree of sweetness. Once I became accustomed to Japanese foods (or should I say foods available in Japan), foods in America started to seem sickeningly sweet (and greasy for that matter). You often hear Japanese say, even of foods sold in Japan, "that is too sweet". I rarely if ever hear that from Americans.

A good example is birthday cake in America, which I have heard many Japanese complain about - thick icing made of almost pure sugar.

I have read that other US donut chains half the amount of icing when they open shops in Japan (I don't know about Krispy Kreme).

Last Christmas in the US, my family and I visited a Krispy Kreme for the first time. I thought the donuts were good, especially when hot - too sweet, but that goes without saying. The reaction of my children surprised me though. They did not finish their donuts, saying that they were too sweet. Then after seeing how the donuts are made - basically a bread and fat mixture deep fried and then dipped in pure sugar - my kids said it was interesting but disgusting and they didn't want to go back again. That reaction surprised even me. I thought children would adapt to the US degree of sweetness more quickly than that. Can't say I was unhappy with that response though.

This sounds like I am going on an anti-Krispy Kreme campaign, which is really not my intent, but I do think it is a good example both of fads in Japan and how hard it can be to predict what will be popular in Japan.


Statistics for Food Poisoning in Australia

There was an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2008.05.08


which discusses the importance of not leaving food out too long.

There are lots of statistics which show that food poisoning is much more prevalent than most people assume. In fact, many cases of food poisoning are likely shrugged off as upset stomachs or stomach bugs not realizing that mishandling of food was the cause. This article however states that there are 5 million cases of food poisoning in Australia every year. That is pretty amazing considering the entire population is only around 20 million.

I checked with the source sited in the article and indeed the Food Safety Information Council states that there are 5.4 million cases of food borne disease a year.


I then found the original source of the information, the Australian Department of Health and Aging's "Foodborne Illness in Australia" report of 2000.

(** PDF file **)

It turns out to be even more interesting. This survey estimates 17.2 million cases of gastroenteritis a year, of which 5.4 million are thought to result from contaminated food. The definition is broad enough to cover many cases which do not result in a visit to the doctor, but these are still pretty surprising statistics considering the population of the country.

I might try looking up the numbers for Japan, but nevertheless think it would be hard to directly compare the two (the survey methods would likely be significantly different).

In addition to being a measure of how important it is to handle food properly, this also makes a case for consuming probiotics - the easiest way I know of to avoid gastrointestinal problems. Most probiotics sold by major dairy food companies have scientific data backing up their claims of effectiveness. Probiotics will not prevent gastrointestinal problems but there is a great deal if evidence that they reduce occurrence of such problems.

In Japan, probiotics along with prebiotics make up the largest category of FOSHU foods - that is foods with government approved health claims. In fact, the majority of yogurts sold in Japan have probiotic strains added, not just starter strains.


How about some Sushi and Guinness?

There is a nice kaiten (or conveyor belt) sushi bar in Odawara City Mall which boasts a collection of the world's best beers. It is called Sushi-Bee (or Bay's Table) in English and すし兵衛 in Japanese (http://www.sushibee.com/).

Not only is there a nice selection of European beers, but there are also wines and Japanese sake and shochu. Faux German beer hall wallpaper which along with the ornamental beer taps give the place some atmosphere. And most importantly, the sushi is pretty good.

As with all keiten sushi restaurants, the prices are indicated by the plate colors. Aside form the Japanese-Western mix, it does seem a little odd to have fine beers and wines (slow dinning) paired with keiten sushi which is a high turnover concept.
There is some English displayed on the wall almost as decoration. "The concepts of our menu are arranged widely for young to generation." and "Delicious sushi dishes in good place, with kindly service is our basic." I think I get the idea.

My interest is more on the production end of things, so I will try not to stray into food criticism.
One reason I am writing about this restaurant is because it seems like a good example of how many traditions are more firmly adhered to outside the country of origin.

The kaiten sushi restaurants I have seen outside Japan stick pretty close to the basic sushi lineup. In Japan, the kaiten sushi restaurants always have sushi, of course, but they also offer, on the same conveyor belts, just about everything else the customer might want: tempura, fried chicken nuggets, fruits, desserts, canned drinks, etc. I have even seen burgers and sandwiches making the rounds.