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In a country where tap water is safe and the soft drink market is saturated by an incredible variety of products, Japan’s mineral water consumption has stayed relatively small.

But since the debut a year ago of Asahi Soft Drinks Co.’s hit product Sanso-sui, or Oxygen Water, value-added bottled water products such as those with extra oxygen, dietary fiber or a special aroma have become the latest craze among health-conscious consumers.

“It’s refreshing,” Kyoko Terada, a 31-year-old bakery worker, said of the OxygenO2 mineral water she has been drinking for the past two months. The product, distributed by Saitama-based Kyodoshoji Corp., contains 15 times more oxygen than regular mineral water.

Terada is one of those consumers constantly looking for something new. And beverage makers are busy rolling out new products one after the other to slake their thirst for water products, just as they do for other soft drinks.

According to the Mineral Water Association of Japan, people here consumed an average of 18.4 liters of mineral water in 2006, more than double the 2000 level. Production jumped 26.2 percent from 2005 to 1.8 million kiloliters, while many other bottled products, including soda, green tea and coffee, saw year-on-year drops, the association said.

And there still could be room for further growth, as mineral water consumption in Japan is still small compared with other advanced countries. In 2005, the latest year when data are available for an international comparison, Japanese consumed 14.4 liters of mineral water per capita, while the figure was 80.6 liters for the U.S. and 156.2 liters for France, the association said.

Kenji Baba, who heads up Coca-Cola (Japan) Co.’s water marketing group, said mineral water has finally caught on in the Japanese market because consumers have become more health-conscious; housewives have started to use it for cooking; and it has become a fashion item among young people to carry around.

And water itself has a particular allure, Baba said.

“When people are exhausted, what do they do? Many people say they go to a Jacuzzi, go to an aquarium or do some water-related activities to heal themselves,” he said.

The oxygen water fad coincides with a boom in so-called oxygen bars, where customers are served with oxygen masks or lie down in capsules filled with a high concentration of oxygen — both for relaxation.

Despite hopes that water with extra oxygen provides some sort of health benefit, there is no scientific proof so far, according to a report on the benefits of oxygen water compiled by the National Institute of Health and Nutrition.

Dai Matsuzaki, a spokesman for Asahi Soft Drinks, admitted the health benefit of oxygen water is unknown but said the product is winning the hearts of stressed-out people.

“We’d like consumers to feel refreshed and relaxed,” he said.

Asahi Soft Drinks sold some 1.28 million cases of Sanso-sui, which contains five times more oxygen than regular mineral water, between its launch last May and the end of March, surpassing its forecast by as much as 30 percent. One case generally contains 12 1-liter bottles or 24 500-ml bottles. Later this month, Asahi is set to roll out a new version of Sanso-sui with 7.5 times more oxygen.

For calendar 2006, Asahi sold 5 million cases of Fujisan no Vanadium Tennen-sui. The natural water from Mount Fuji contains a high level of vanadium, a mineral thought to curb rises in blood-sugar levels.

Asahi is aiming to sell 7.5 million cases this year.

Kirin MC Danone Waters Co., a Kirin Beverage Corp. subsidiary, sold 19 million cases in 2006 of Alkali Ion no Mizu, up 39 percent from the year before. The ionized alkaline water has become popular for cooking. Kirin MC hopes to sell 24 million cases in 2007.

“The beverage sector has already rolled out many local specialty waters, so we now need to provide value-added water,” said Fumiyo Nakai, a Kirin Beverage spokeswoman.

To cope with the growing demand, beverage makers are gearing up for summer by expanding production capacity of mineral water products.

“In Japan, some 1,000 new soft drinks are thrown on store shelves every year, and only two or three new products can stay there longer than a year,” said Nakai of Kirin Beverage. “It’s a very tough market.”

Machiko Amano, associate director of Standard & Poor’s in Tokyo, said Japan’s soft drink market is totally different from other countries.

“The production cycle is extremely short and the number of new products released on the market cannot be compared with other countries,” she said.

Amano added that the power of major convenience stores is so strong that they sometimes order beverage makers to release new and unique products. And if sales of new products fall short of their targets, they disappear in a matter of weeks, she said.

Oxygen water may too be another product that dries up. While declining to give any specific numbers, Mayumi Ito, a spokeswoman for Seven & I Holdings Co., which operates some 11,000 convenience stores, said sales of oxygen water products have peaked.

Bakery worker Terada is also on the lookout for a new drink. “I recently decided to drink Aquarius with lemon taste,” she said. “Sports drinks look much healthier.”

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