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Uema Kashiten, a confectionery company in the town of Haebaru in Okinawa, is riding high after gaining nationwide recognition for its dried “ume” (plum) sweets — Kanbai Ichiban Suppaiman — without doing any widespread promotion.

Its phenomenal jump in name recognition was attributed to remarks made on television almost 2 1/2 years ago by members of the pop group SMAP.

Referring to SMAP’s unsolicited pitch for the candies, company executive director Masahiro Uema said the entertainers introduced the products to the public, and without the firm having to spend money on publicity, the name Suppaiman spread across the country. “Suppai” means sour.

The distinctive smell of plums permeated the company’s processing plant as he spoke.

Sweets made from dried plums have been popular in Okinawa for more than 20 years since they were first imported from China and elsewhere.

Uema Kashiten was established in 1966 as a wholesaler but found itself at a turning point in 1969 when the authorities banned the import of the sweets because the cyclamate used as a sweetener contained a carcinogenic substance.

It also had difficulty competing with big wholesalers that moved into Okinawa after the United States returned the island prefecture to Japanese rule in 1972.

The company gave up the wholesaling business in 1981 and decided to become a manufacturer of the dried plum sweets and find a safe sweetener for plums imported from China and other countries.

“We tried all kinds of sweeteners, including sugar and thick malt syrup,” Uema said. The company came across the natural sweetener stevia after three years of trial and error.

Its products became known by word of mouth, and tourists to Okinawa bought them as gifts.

Then in August 2000, SMAP turned the spotlight on the sweets during a television appearance, saying: “Suppaiman is a new discovery. It’s good for your health.”

Suppaiman gained explosive popularity. The company posted 900 million yen in sales in fiscal 2000, up 50 percent from the previous year.

The popularity also sparked unexpected spinoffs. The company’s commercial jingle, which had been a hit in Okinawa, went on sale nationwide in November. The singers, Iro & Taka, will be making appearances at kindergartens and other places outside the prefecture.

Uema Kashiten is planning to build a new factory this year to keep up with demand, which at present is running at 2.5 times its production capacity.

Success has, of course, bred imitation, and competition in the dried-plum candy business has intensified, as the number of rival companies has increased to more than 10 in Okinawa.

Uema is unfazed. “We are going to make use of the Okinawa brand,” he said, adding that his company has no plans to advance to areas outside Okinawa.

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