Japan seems to have a strange relationship with snacks. They love snacks and enjoy eating them but at the same time due to the importance of appearance (both physically and in terms of personality) they wont actually eat that many. This is no doubt much healthier than the western attitude and leads to lower levels of obesity but at the same time is a small example of the levels of conformity expected in all aspects of an individual’s life.
My post today isn’t really about conformity, health or obesity. I’ll save the conformity versus the individual right to self-expression debate for another day. For this post I want to talk about the actual snacks themselves and why there are so many odd flavours and short-lived products especially in a country that consumes far lower levels of sugar than many western countries.
When you live in Japan you’ll notice a steady flow of new flavors and products many of which are seasonal or limited edition. From the insane number of different Kit Kat flavours to the strangely colored (black and green) Doritos there’s always some new variation that people are talking about or insisting that you have to try. If these new variations are so great why is it that so few are on the shelves for more than a few weeks?
Many seasonal snacks will be the more traditional ones which rely on a particular crop or fruit. While it would be easy to import or store the needed ingredients people want their traditional snacks to be made with local ingredients. there’s also a major cultural element to having these treats at a particular time of year. So I can understand why these would be limited to particular times.
It’s a bit more difficult to understand the mass-produced seasonal products or the often crazy limited edition flavors. In many other countries these kinds of products are released as a test run and as a way to make a short-term profit boost. When companies in the west release a limited time product they are hoping it will be popular enough to continue but if it isn’t they still get the short-term advantage of more people talking about and buying their products.Kit Kat chunky and several other popular western snacks started this way.
In japan though it seems to be common to constantly release new special flavors and I’ve yet to see any that become permanent. I suppose green tea flavored Kit Kats are pretty much a permanent fixture now in some stores but there seem to be very few others.
What I mean is that Japan seems to release ten times as many special edition snacks as the UK but continues far less. In the UK we had products like Whisper gold and Whisper mint which both started as limited edition products.
I don’t really have numbers to back this up it’s just my impression. Almost every snack company in Japan seems to release a near constant stream of new flours and seems to plan from the beginning to not continue them regardless of how popular they are. I find it a bit disappointing as some of the best (and worst) snacks I’ve tried in Japan have been limited edition and were gone after a few weeks.
Many of the products were fairly strange or pointless but others were good. Most companies also seem to have seasonal special products which they only sell for a short time but do it every year like clockwork. This often leads to strawberry, green tea, sweet potato and sakura flavoured products being all that’s in the stores at some times of year.
I suppose it could be like seeing the Coca Cola commercial and the special bottles being a sign of Christmas. For me the coke commercial was one of those things that actually made it feel christmassy. Given how important the seasons are in japan these snacks could have the same effect that actually seeing the cherry blossoms does for some people. If you live in a built up area and travel the same route to work or school every day it quite possible that you might not see sakura all that much so seeing products might be what kick starts that spring feeling.
I suspect that a big part of what makes these things so popular is that the japanese just like new things.The most popular brand in japan isn’t Gucci or Armani, Its new. People are so obsessed with having new houses that it’s actually common for people to buy a ten or fifteen year old house (that even in an earthquake prone country won’t be half way through its life yet) and knock it down to build a near identical one of the same size. I strongly suspect that Japans economy would be in an even worse state if they didn’t have this wasteful habit of throwing away or destroying things which still have years of potential use.
So if you find a snack your like or something that you really want to share with people back home make sure to get it quick and stock up as its unlikely to be around for very long.
What’s the weirdest/best snack you’ve seen in Japan?