What’s in a name? The business behind Japanese product naming

January 27, 2010 - One Response

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 - Leave a Response

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 - Leave a Response

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 - One Response

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 - Leave a Response

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!)

School lunch that I actually enjoy: Installment #2

December 16, 2009 - Leave a Response

Meatball curry and naan. So far, the best school lunch this year. Oishii!


December 16, 2009 - Leave a Response

The Colonel conquers Christmas

November 17, 2009 - Leave a Response

I know, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and I’m writing about Christmas. Well, too bad. Even in Japan, the songs are playing and the lights are being hung. But, there is a major discrepancy…

When I think of Christmas dinner in America, I think of a big ass turkey and/or ham with all the trimmings, lots of alochol, and lots of crazy family members gossiping around a candlelit dinner table…

In Japan, however, Christmas is associated with fried chicken. Kentucy Fried Chicken.

Although it exists, turkey isn’t common in Japan, and it certainly isn’t associated with Christmas. Colonel Saunders and his massive advertising campaigns have embedded “KFC = Christmas” into the minds of most naive Japanese. I say ‘naive’ because Christmas in Japan is purely commerical with no religious strings attached. Therefore everything the Japanese understand about Christmas has been fed to them through TV, radio and magazines, including commercials for chicken.

I wonder how much money KFC rakes in over the holiday season in Japan?

KFC is so prevalent in Japan that many Japanese unknowingly consider it to be a Japanese Company. On Christmas day many families (who have made reservations weeks in advance), have their traditional Christmas dinner at KFC. Colonel Sanders has become somewhat of a cult figure in Japan. Not only is there a life-sized statue of the Colonel in front of every KFC, but his memorabilia like wind-up toys and figurines can be found at many toy stores throughout Japan.

Allegedly,  a very prominent Japanese baseball club is said to be cursed by the Colonel, himself.

Anyone from Philadelphia can tell you about the William Penn curse that was righted by placing a small statue of Penn on top of the Comcast Center, thus leading to a 2008 World Series Victory. Well, the residents of Osaka are still looking for pieces of their statue…

In 1985, much to Japanese people’s surprise,[3] the Hanshin Tigers faced the Seibu Lions and took their first and only victory in the Japan Series, largely due to star slugger Randy Bass,[4][7] a gaijin (foreigner) player for the team.

The rabid fan base went wild, and a riotous celebration gathered at Ebisubashi Bridge in Dōtonbori, Osaka. There, an assemblage of supporters yelled the players names, and with every name a fan resembling a member of the victorious team leapt from the bridge into the waiting canal. However, lacking someone to imitate MVP Randy Bass, the rabid crowd seized a Colonel Sanders (like Bass, the Colonel had a beard and was not Japanese) plastic statue from a nearby KFC and tossed it off the bridge as an effigy.[4]

This impulsive maneuver was to cost the team greatly, beginning the Curse of the Colonel.[1] Urban legend has it that the Tigers will not win the championship again until the statue is recovered.[5] Subsequently, numerous attempts has been made to recover the statue, often as a part of variety TV show. Most of the statue was recovered in March, 2009.[8]

Parallel universes

November 13, 2009 - Leave a Response

Even in my small Japanese town, random places and objects remind me of Philadelphia. Here are some things I spotted in Kitami that make it feel a bit more like home…

Across the train tracks from my apartment lies the 北見しんきん (Bank of Kitami).

It is the only modern architecture to be found among the drab and decaying buildings that make up my city. My office, called the Parabo building, might actually be the biggest eyesore in town.

Kitami Shinkin is covered in color-changing LEDs, and reminds me of a miniature version of the Amtrak building, which often lights up with Philadelphia team colors and logos. I can see it glowing in the distance on the bus coming home from Sapporo, much like I used to see the faraway sparkle of the Amtrak building while driving south on 95.

While riding my bike home from Koizumi Junior High last week, I spotted another familiar Philly landmark, albeit a bit bastardized in usage. The Love Park symbol is being used for some kind of Pachinko (Japanese gambling parlors) campaign called “Love Juggler and Love Sea Story.” Interesting…

I’ve also seen the LOVE Park symbol on student’s pen cases and notebooks.

Even at work, I bump into things that take me back to Philly, like…

A poster for La Salle High School in Hakodate. I did a double-take when I spotted this at one of my junior high schools.

School lunch that I actually enjoy: Installment #1

November 12, 2009 - Leave a Response

I don’t eat fish. I don’t eat sashimi. I don’t eat sushi. There, I said it. I live in Japan and sushi makes me vomit. Get over it, people.

This will begin a weekly (hopefully multi-weekly) installment of Japanese public school lunches that I not only tolerate, but actually really enjoy.

Today’s fine piece of mass-culinary magic (Japanese school lunches are made in school lunch factories and delivered by tractor trailer every morning — I am dead serious) is udon and shrimp shumai, with a side of cheese balls wrapped like candy. This is one of my favorites, and usually comes around once or twice a month.

(Sorry for the vertical photo, my iPhone equilibrium isn’t so great).