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Robbing the little guy of life’s pleasures

by Philip Brasor

Following the government’s eleventh-hour decision to forgo a planned increase in the tax on happoshu foamy liquor the Asahi Shimbun ran an editorial cartoon showing a happy man sitting at the kotatsu and hoisting a can of the beerlike stuff in tribute to his TV, which showed Koizumi father and son toasting the tax-plan failure.

The inclusion of Kotaro Koizumi is easy to understand, since the newly minted “actor” made his debut in October in a commercial for Suntory’s new low-calorie happoshu beverage, Diet. His father, the prime minister, of course, does not appear in the commercial, but as the cartoon implies, he wasn’t exactly upset that the tax measure was put off.

Cynics might infer that Koizumi was protecting his son’s career (Kotaro has had no other job offers), but the prime minister’s no-interest stance is in keeping with his populist image. Happoshu is the beverage of the masses for the simple reason that it is cheaper than beer. Bringing its price closer to that of domestic beer would rob the little guy of one of his “small pleasures in life.”

That last quote is from another Asahi Shimbun editorial written by novelist and ex-yakuza Joji Abe, who reminds us that Japan already suffers from high taxes and that the current recession simply makes life more difficult for the average household. The emergence of happoshu in the ’90s “was like the arrival of rain during a drought.” He takes to task “Grandpa” Shiokawa, the finance minister, who said on Nov. 16 that the tax on happoshu was not comparable to the tax on beer, and therefore needed to be “corrected” through a revision of the tax laws. It was Shiokawa’s use of the word “corrected” that offended Abe, since it showed that the finance minister “doesn’t think about the public at all.”

Would Abe have been less incensed if Shiokawa had framed his views in terms of fiscal necessity rather than bureaucratic compulsion? Obviously, it’s not a point Abe wants to address, but in any case the government estimated that it could raise 250 billion yen for its dwindling coffers by increasing the tax on happoshu.

That estimate, however, is not reliable, since it assumes a rate of happoshu sales equal to current levels. Abe makes the point of saying that “happoshu sells well because it tastes good,” but most people understand that the main reason it sells well is that it’s cheap. As the price goes up, it would seem to follow that sales will go down.

Happoshu’s genesis had nothing to do with the brewing arts and everything to do with nomenclature. The tax bureau defines “beer” as a beverage with a certain percentage of malt content. Since the malt content of happoshu (literally, “foamy liquor”) is lower, the high tariff placed on “beer” does not apply, which is why it cannot be called “beer.” Happoshu is cheap not because the cost of making it is cheap, but because it isn’t subject to the same high tax rate that beer is subject to.

As such, happoshu fills a cultural niche in Japan that malt liquor fills in the United States. Many states have laws which limit the alcoholic content of beer to within 5 percent. Anything higher has to be called “malt liquor.” And just as malt liquor in the States is considered the alcoholic beverage of the lower classes, happoshu, as Abe so sentimentally points out, has become the drink of the “little guys” in Japan.

When the tax is enacted — and it’s only a matter of time before it is — happoshu will become the victim of its own success. Raising the tax on happoshu negates its reason for existence, which was to get around the beer tariff in the first place. If happoshu prices become similar to that of beer, then it will have to compete with beer.

Asahi Breweries was the last of the big four to market happoshu, and since its debut, Honnama has become No. 1, even winning a slot in Nikkei’s annual list of “hit products.” One of the reasons for its success is the straightforward way it’s been advertised. In one of the cleverest, and probably cheapest, TV campaigns of the year, a shopper in a convenience store keeps picking one can of Honnama after another from the refrigerated case, making excuses to himself and his wife for taking so many. The implication is that you can drink a lot because it doesn’t cost as much.

If the price goes up, Asahi will have to rethink this image. Suntory already has. They also make an indirect claim that you can drink a lot of Diet, but for a different reason. Diet, as the name implies, contains half the calories of normal happoshu. The government has already given Suntory a “verbal” warning that they must not give consumers the idea they can lose weight by drinking happoshu. What Suntory is really saying is that you don’t have to worry as much about putting on a gut.

But the most resourceful marketing strategy is that of Sapporo’s new Fine Lager, a happoshu beverage that appropriates the name and even the label design of Kirin Lager. Kirin has said they are confident that customers will not confuse the two, but Sapporo is essentially stealing 130 years’ worth of marketing efforts that have made Kirin lager the national beer of Japan. Fine Lager comes closer to “beer” than any other happoshu, if only in the minds of consumers. That, in fact, is the whole point. A brew by any other name would still give you a buzz.