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.


Zero Sugar Beer

This is a good example of subjects which interest me.

One recent trend in Japan is zero sugar beer, which is interesting for a number of reasons:

1) it is not really "beer", because the malt content is kept low enough to be classified as "happoshu" under the law, and is therefore subject to a lower tax rate. ("Happoshu" is a good deal cheaper than "beer", but cannot be labeled "beer".)

2) production processes are used which result in all or most of the sugars being consumed by the yeast, before the yeast are killed. If there are fewer than 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 ml, it can be labeled as zero under the law. So there actually are sugars in all of these "zero sugar beers". In fact, carbohydrates (for which the definition is broader) are not addressed by this labeling at all.

3) what is the marketing angle for these beers (I will call them beers, at least in this post)? Being able to put a big zero on the label is most likely the main attraction. Some customers will, no doubt, assume the zero refers to calories. The beer companies are unlikely to go to great lengths to disabuse these customers of their mistake. But for customers who do know what is being referred to, and Japanese consumers are relatively well informed, these beers certainly do hold an attraction - mainly for people concerned about high blood sugar and diabetes. These products should also be attractive to people on low carbohydrate Atkins-type diets.

4) the sugar taste has to be compensated for and the individual formulations differ, some including artificial sweeteners.


5) these are beers where both the malt and sugar contents are being held very low, a challenge for a product which is produced from a limited number of ingredients. Beer is a complex chemical mixture, but it starts out from a deceptively simple combination of ingredients. (Granted, this is not Germany and even the German law has been revised, but under the "German Beer Purity Law" only water, barley and hops were allowed in the production of "beer".)

I plan on revisiting many of the above points in the future.

The three zero sugar beers shown in the picture are Asahi Free Style (Toshitsu Zero), Suntory Zero-Nama and Kirin Zero. All varieties shown are 500 ml cans of happoshu-type beers.