Archive for January, 2010

What’s in a name? The business behind Japanese product naming
January 27, 2010

As an ALT in Japan, we are all more than aware that our gaijin neighbors won’t be with us forever. Each year, new waves arrive and seasoned veterans go back to Western reality. My good friend Carol is a volunteer for Kitami’s Red Cross hospital. She has been here for 2 years, the maximum for volunteers, and heads back to England in February. As she was selling and giving away her worldly possessions, I headed for the bookshelf. I’m a prolific reader, and finding English-language bookstores isn’t so easy (and I prefer instant-gratification to waiting for Amazon Japan).

I came across a small tome of bizarre Japanese news stories by the name of Tabloid Tokyo, compiled by Mark Schreiber. It has been a very entertaining between-classes read.

One chapter, which discussed product naming, was particularly interesting to me. Pocari Sweat is my favorite drink in Japan. When I came here on a La Salle travel study in 2006, we joked about how Pocari Sweat must be made. Surely, there is a mythical creature called the Pocari, roaming the backcountry of Japan. They are herded and either frightened, heated, or squeezed to render the delicious Pocari Sweat, which is then bottled and distributed around Japan. We had a lot of drunken jokes on this topic, but we never got down to why it must really be called “Sweat.”

This article doesn’t explain the naming of my favorite Japanese (non-alcoholic) beverage, but it does provide insight into the method behind the madness when it comes to assigning a name to a product here in J-Land.


dacapo (February 19, 2003)

Melty Kiss. Sweat. Pocky. What gooey, goofy environment begot these syllables? And attached them to consumer products — a chocolate treat, a drink and a chocolate-topped stick-shaped biscuit, respectively? And expected them to sell? And was right?

A product name is a mysterious thing, dacapo finds. It can be as blandly descriptive as “Green Gum,” as lovely, if meaningless, as “Saran,” and as devoid of meaning and beauty alike… as “Walkman.” Walkman — therein hangs a tale.

When Sony’s portable tape player debuted in 1979 it was called Stowaway in the U.K. and Soundabout in the U.S. Both names yielded to the drab pidgin-English Walkman, its Japanese appellation. Now you can look Walkman up in some dictionaries and find it defined, a mere name no longer.

This next story takes us back to 1958, when Japanese product naming was a prosaic matter of identifying the merchandise. Haguromo Foods’ Sea Chicken (an unacknowledged variation of the American “Chicken of the Sea”) broke the mold. Sea chicken? What on earth was that? At first, sales of the canned tuna went nowhere; the idea of an imaginative product name was ahead of its time. But — thanks in no small measure, dacapo says, to the cute cartoon “sea chicken” that starred in the ads — the times soon caught up, and sales rocketed.

What’s in a name? Product success or failure, that’s what. In 1985 Itoen surmounted numerous technical difficulties to produce the world’s first canned green tea. Its name was Kan-iri Sencha — Canned Green Tea — and it flopped. In 1989, the name was changed to Oi-ocha, derived from “Oi! Ocha!” — a husband’s curt but typical demand to his wife for a cup of tea. Sales soared.

Is there a pattern? A standard? Euphony, one might think — but Walkman? The message, perhaps — but Pocky? On second thought, maybe Glico did have a message in mind when it dreamed up Pocky. It comes, the magazine says, from pokkin — not a word but a sound, the sound the stick-biscuit makes when bitten.

“Ad budgets are shrinking,” explains an analyst the magazine consults. “If you can’t advertise a product, the name itself must be the advertisement. It has to have instant impact.”

If a random survey of your neighborhood convenience store turns up names wackier than most, the reason is clear. Convenience store cash registers keep track of what items sell and what items don’t. Those that don’t are swept out — no appeal, no second chance. If your product name is selling your product, you better make it good.

Many sound-names are word fusions, some ingenious, some tortured. AIBO, the dog-robot that went on sale in 1999, comes from AI, artificial intelligence, and a slice of the second syllable of “robot.” Cray-pas is “crayon” plus “pastel.” Kobayashi Pharmaceutical’s intestinal medicine Gaspitan pairs intestinal “gas” with “pitan (quick stop).”

For years, Japan’s top-selling car was Toyota’s Corolla, suggesting flower petals. In 2002 it was overtaken by Honda’s Fit, suggesting… what, exactly? Fitness? Fits?

Fuji Film’s disposable cameras looked like cardboard boxes. “Honto ni utsuru no? — Does this thing actually take pictures?” a skeptical customer might ask. The affirmative answer became the product name: “Utsuru’n desu.”

As with product names, so with corporate logos. Staid is out, cute is in. Would you trust your savings to a bank named Tomato? When Sanyo Sogo Bank became the Tomato Bank in 1989, it seemed a bit flaky — but people were growing tired of the solid but chilly dependability conveyed by traditional names. Depositors laughed and gave it their blessings. So now you’ve got banks with names like Sakura (cherry blossom) and Mizuho (vigorous rice plants).

Well, why not? It’s harmless, fun, in tune with the times. With subatomic particles sporting names like strawberry quark, why shouldn’t a bank call itself  Tomato? Or a drink, Sweat? Or a magazine, dacapo? (MH)

Carol, you will be missed… much like I will be missing Pocari Sweat when I return to America.

A new record
January 19, 2010

The downtown thermometer hit a new low over the weekend…

It has also been snowing quite consistently, as you can see. Hopefully hitting the slopes this Saturday.

Axolotl, aka ウーパールーパー, aka my new pet
January 19, 2010

So, folks, it happened. I had my mid-first-year-on-JET crisis. But I didn’t run out to buy a red convertible sports car… Nope. My impulse buy was only 8000 yen and it involves a living creature. A very, very weird living creature.

It’s winter. Hokkaido is cold and lonely, and I needed some companionship. My friend Greg returned from his vacation to Korea and asked if I wanted to join him for some shopping and dinner. He needed a new snow shovel, so we headed for Homac, the Japanese equivalent of Walmart.

I contemplated getting one of those badass beetles from the “Japanese Bug Fights” videos on YouTube. I was shocked to find out that they cost over $80 a piece. And worried about what I would do if it escaped…

My first job ever was at an aquarium store. When I was in junior high school, I kept about 4 different aquariums with all different kinds of exotic fish inside. So, I headed for the extensive Homac aquarium section. And that’s where I found him.

I didn’t end up with a fish, although my new pet does live underwater (he’s an aquatic amphibian). His cage was emblazoned with Japanese that translated as “The darling of our store.” How could I resist?

ウーパールーパー became famous in Japan after a series of UFO brand cup ramen television commercials showcased them. All I can say about the commercials is, “Only in Japan…”

He’s currently residing in a 5 gallon mini aquarium until he gets bigger. He is really low maintenance, eating frozen bloodworms (the red stuff in the photo below) that only cost ¥300 (about $3) for a month’s supply.

Coming from the guy who has , at one time or another, had geckos, a hedgehog, pacman frogs, a chinchilla, and a mice-eating killer fish… I figured going different was the only way to go….

To live and die in Kitami: The end of my favorite restaurant
January 14, 2010

This week has been difficult in multiple ways. First of all, my office sent me to volunteer at the local daycare center. I absolutely adore children, but I was thrown into the job without any knowledge of what it entailed… The boss literally dropped me off on the doorstep and said, “Ganbatte!” Couple that with a staff that speaks zero English (and a volunteer with basic-at-best Japanese), and you have a recipe for dire frustration.

Secondly, there has been an insane amount of snowfall this week. For snowboarding, it would be perfect… However, I walk to work everyday. In Japan, you are pretty much screwed for footwear if you are over a size 10.5 US. I’m a size 12, which translates as a 30 in JP size. I haven’t seen bigger than 28.5 (except for sneakers, which were a 29 and had to be ordered from another city in a size 30) since I got here. What I’m getting at is this: I only have assorted sneakers, boat shoes, and a pair of Nike SB high tops. I didn’t pack winter boots because I moved here in 90-degree August. I have wet feet every single day. This is all specific to my unhappiness this week because my loving mother sent me a pair of Dr. Martens high top boots that were supposed to arrive yesterday… Thanks for the continued wet feet, Japanese Post Office.

There are the “little things” as well. I allegedly hurt my eyes in Niseko when I did a few runs sans goggles (they fogged up). I’ve been on eye drops all week and can’t wear my contacts. I love my huge Wayfarer glasses, but I definitely prefer the contacts. I also left my snowboard in a friend’s car, so I was unable to hit the slopes on Monday…

Anyway, finally, on to the bane of my week…

My favorite restaurant has gone out of business (insert sad face here).

B&T Curry Cafe, the most incredible Indian/Nepalese curry that I have ever encountered, permanently shut its doors on January 9th after only 3 months of business.

I have only lived in Kitami for about half of a year now, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand what did them in. B&T has 2 other operations, one in Sapporo and one in Kushiro. The Kitami branch was the 3rd B&T in Hokkaido. They set up shop in a very nice location, one block off of Ginza Dori, the main drag downtown. Ginza Dori is nothing but various restaurants/izakayas, karaoke, bars/nightclubs, and snack/hostess establishments (there will be another post explaining these, but essentially, bars with pretty waitress dressed in skimpy dresses where you pay to be flirted with). At night time, regardless of day or weather, Ginza Dori always attracts clientele.

However, Ginza Dori takes a long time to come alive. The streets are generally bare until post 10 or 11pm. B&T shut its doors for the night at 7pm, 7 days a week.

Additionally, Ginza Dori is a place where people go to consume vast quantities of alcohol… food is just a bonus for most patrons. B&T didn’t offer alcoholic drinks until about a month ago, and there were only 4 or 5 selections to choose from.

On my first visit to B&T, my friends and I were served by a handsome Nepalese man who spoke fluent English and Japanese. I believe he said that he spoke 5 or 6 languages. We never saw him again. In the next weeks, young Japanese girls took over as servers. The client base is probably 99% Japanese, so this was a perfectly acceptable change. Unfortunately, in the last month, all of the Japanese workers disappeared.

The entire staff (except for back-of-the-house) was replaced by one, very odd, middle-aged Nepalese man. His English was better than his Japanese, which was still nearly impossible to decipher. On several occasions, he very creepily attempted to ask me to help him find a second job. I explained that there was nothing I could do, especially since I’m also a foreigner, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I made the mistake of sharing my cell phone number with him (he had promised a discount if I helped him with his English), but he only used it to continually inquire about job prospects…

Last week, I enjoyed my final bowl of B&T Tikka Masala with naan. I went for #9 on the spice scale (out of 11). The creeper was the only person working, doing all of the cooking and serving. I tried to convince myself that this fantastic little restaurant could make it, but what I should have been doing was eating slowly and savoring every bite, knowing it would most likely be the last.

I walked from the day care center to B&T on Tuesday and Wednesday, but was greeted only by closed blinds and a locked door. Hesitantly, I dialed up the weirdo to confirm that this was, in fact, the end… then immediately erased his contact information from my cell.

I think you were the final nail in the coffin, asshole

I’ve got Seoul but I’m not a soldier
January 14, 2010

The best thing about being a teacher, aside from the fact that we enlighten young minds, is the myriad vacation time… I had no idea how many national holidays Japan has!

I spent late November roughing it in South Korea, thanks to a generous friend from La Salle and some amazing couchsurfers.

The food was cheap and delicious (but they really overdo the kimchee), and the sights were quite Blade Runner-esque. I even had the pleasure of joining one of my couchsurfing hostesses, Jung, for an international Thanksgiving dinner (with all the trimmings… and then some).

I thoroughly enjoyed myself (especially on “Club Day”), but was happy to return to my “home” in Hokkaido (and nurse my liver back to health).


(P.S. – Sorry for not posting in such a long time, to those of you who keep up with this blog. The work really caught up, and I did a bit of traveling, but I promise to stop slacking now that the holidays are over!)