Thursday 15 June 2017

Finding Karl, Japanese Snacks, and Protectionism

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My wife came back from the shops the other day and told me rather excitedly that she had found "Karl." Not quite understanding, I started looking around for a trailing non-Japanese guy, before she produced a pack of corn puffs from her bag with a flourish. The Karl in question is actually pronounced Kāru (カール) and is the name of Japan's oldest snack which went on sale in 1968. At a time when confectionery/candy (okashi =お菓子) meant only something sweet, it was a ground-breaking product that has been called the pioneer of Japan's massive savoury snack (snakku-gashi =スナック菓子) industry. (Another term for snack is oyatsu, but this refers to anything eaten between meals, whether for small children, pets, or adults!). The curly-shaped light corn puffs come in cheese (pictured right) and soup stock flavours and are extremely more-ish. Alas, the Japanese snack market has become so fiercely competitive that the company, Meiji, announced in May that they would stop selling the product in Eastern Japan in August, something that produced an outburst of nostalgia and panic-buying in Tokyo. Hence the excitement of my wife at finding "Karl."

Although Kāru are made from corn, the most popular snack products in Japan are made from potatoes. In a TV Asahi poll of the top 30 most popular snacks, almost half were potato-based, including the top two. It thus came of something of a shock to many Japanese snack fans when a potato shortage was announced in April due to typhoon damage to crops in Hokkaido last year. The result was that number one producer Calbee halted production of some of its most popular products, leaving spaces in convenience stores and supermarkets as people rushed to stock-up. Prices of some products, such as Calbee's pizza-flavoured crisps, reportedly went for six  or seven times the original price in online auctions. [UPDATE: These went back on sale on June 19th!]

This may all seem rather inconsequential, but as with the butter shortages in 2014 and 2015 (with signs in the supermarket asking customers to limit themselves to one pack), it points to a more important point: Japan is rather protectionist and foreign imports (whether potatoes or butter), though not banned outright, have to deal with a lot of red tape to reach the market. The intention, of course, is ultimately to protect domestic producers. Corn, however, is widely imported, though this doesn't help Tokyoites who will soon need to ask their Kansai friends if they want to "find Kārl"!