National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Double bubble, tapioca tea and garbage trouble

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Food and beverage fads come and go. On frequent occasions, “Gatten,” NHK’s health-oriented Wednesday evening program, used to present evidence that eating this food or drinking that beverage achieved seemingly miraculous results, including weight loss, lower blood pressure or relief from constipation. Soon afterward, retailers would report a run on that particular product.

Eventually, of course, demand would taper off, with sales returning to normal.

For 2019, the favored fad of Japanese urbanites, especially young women, is chilled milk tea containing black pearls of tapioca, which is also known as “bubble tea.”

The product itself is not entirely new. Shukan Jitsuwa (Aug. 15) reported that Taiwan’s Chunshuitang, meaning “hall of spring waters,” opened its first branch in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood in 2013. The menu in its shop lists 44 varieties of beverages, including a milk and oolong tea blend, tapioca in black tea with soya milk and a seasonal special, tapioca mango milk tea.

Over the past 18 months or so, however, growth in demand for the beverage has been spectacular. Tapioca imports, which had been fairly stable from the beginning of this century, last year suddenly jumped to 2,928 tons, a year-on-year increase of 142.6 percent over 2017.

“First is the boom in travel to Taiwan,” explained an analyst of the food industry. Japanese harbor generally amicable feelings toward the island, which was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945. He added that entry into Japan of several popular chains from Taiwan, including Chunshuitang, Goncha (2015) and The Alley (2017), helped raise the beverage’s visibility.

Tokyo’s Harajuku district has become ground zero for the tapioca tea boom. J-Cast News (Aug. 2) reported that with more than 20 outlets offering the beverage in the Harajuku area alone, litter from takeaway purchases has become a serious problem, with discarded cups, plastic straws and unconsumed drinks piling up on street corners.

The drink’s newfound popularity has even made inroads in the Japanese language. A person employed to prepare such beverages, for example, is referred to as a tapista. And a new verb, tapiru, has been coined, meaning to drink a tapioca tea beverage. (Its past tense form is tapitta.)

So popular has the beverage become this summer that from Aug. 13, a month-long “Tapioca Land” event selling various beverages and souvenir products was opened adjacent to JR Harajuku Station.

Weekly Playboy (July 8) noted that more than 300 shops now dispense bubble tea drinks in Tokyo alone and, nationwide, new businesses have been opening at the rate of 10 per day. When a new outlet opened in Nagoya, it was reported customers queued up for as long as six hours to be served.

Meanwhile, the beverages have also been added to the menus at family restaurant chains (Denny’s and Jonathan’s); hamburger outlets (Lotteria and Freshness Burger); at coffee shops (Pronto); conveyor belt sushi shops (Kappa Sushi); and curry restaurants (Thali-ya).

The Umakara Ramen restaurant near JR Takadanobaba Station — in an area close to many academic institutions — has been dispensing bubble tea since last March.

“Takadanobaba has become a battleground for tapioca drinks,” said manager Michinori Matsushita, explaining why his noodle shop offers an all-you-can drink deal for an outlay of ¥450.

Noting that larger servings with sweet toppings can easily run from 500 to 800 kilocalories, a middle-aged Weekly Playboy reporter, after several days of tapi-katsu (loosely translated as “tapioca living”), wrote that he had to be hospitalized for extreme fatigue and a weakened immune system.

Was it caused by overindulgence in the sugary drinks? Or psychological stress incurred by standing in long lines beside teenage girls?

While dozing as he was hooked up to an intravenous drip, the reporter had a nightmare in which he saw bubbles of tapioca inside the tube leading to his vein. Half jokingly he pointed out that the first two katakana characters used to write tapioca, tapi, resembled components of the kanji character for shi (death).

In a lighter vein, cartoonist Sadao Shoji, a veteran food writer for Shukan Asahi (Aug. 2), extolled tapioca drinks in his weekly column.

Maybe it was because of their black color, but when Shoji rattled his cup, the tapioca bubbles projected a somewhat disquieting air. Nonetheless he was pleasantly impressed by the oversized plastic straw packaged with the cup, which is needed to suck up the bubbles of tapioca.

“Something about it made me feel happy, although I didn’t understand why,” he wrote. “Right now only milk tea is flowing into my mouth, but at some point I can expect it to be joined by a semi-solid sphere of tapioca.

“Anticipating the imminent feeling of the tapioca grazing along the sides of my throat, I think, ‘Ah, now!'”

Shoji then waxes poetic, writing, “Since many Japanese had lived before tapioca drinks appeared and died without ever having tasted them, I consider how fortunate I am to be living in the Reiwa Era.”

The question is, when will the current boom go bust? A worker in the financial sector told Yukan Fuji (Aug. 14) he observed parallels with two past occurrences that suggest tapioca booms may be harbingers of an economic downturn.

“There were two earlier tapioca booms,” he says. “In the first, around 1992, white tapioca in a broth of coconut milk was popular. In the second, around 2008, many Taiwanese or Taiwan-style franchises serving tapioca and milk tea drinks opened. Now we’re looking at the third wave.”

He explained the two previous booms occurred just before the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in 1992 and the “Lehman Shock” in 2008.

The outlets are profitable for several reasons. Hardly any training is required for the part-timers working there and, at about ¥500 per serving, the beverage is said to be so profitable that tapioca has earned the sobriquet of “black diamonds.”

“A surge in businesses selling cheap items that rake in high profits is a characteristic predictor of economic contraction,” the financier warned.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.