Bite into a real bargain: How is popular Japanese snack Umaibo still 10 yen after 42 years?

Japan’s beloved cylindrical corn snacks “Umaibo”, literally meaning delicious stick, have stuck at 10 yen (about 9 cents) for the 42 years since they first went on sale. How do they do? The Mainichi Shimbun looked at the history of the product and how its maker manages to keep the price so low.

Umaibo is a household name in Japan that might even be called a national snack; they are widely enjoyed, including among children and as something for adults to drink with a drink. With its crispy texture and varied flavors, 700 million corn-based snacks are sold each year, enough for every person in Japan to eat 5.6 a year.

Umaibo is sold by Yaokin Co., based in Sumida Ward in Tokyo. The product is said to have its origins in a vegetable vendor in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, where the grandparents of current President Masahiko Sumiya began making shrimp crackers for sale with their fruits and vegetables. Sumiya’s father, his predecessor to the presidency, founded Yaokin in 1960 after coming to Tokyo after World War II.

Umaibo was invented in 1979, the same year that the popular animated series “Doraemon” began on television and the arcade game Space Invaders took Japan by storm.

Umaibo’s corn soup flavor can be seen in this photo taken in the Kita district of Osaka on May 7, 2021 (Mainichi / Satoshi Hishida)

When Yaokin introduced a puff machine to their manufacturing line that makes puffy snacks by applying heat and pressure to ingredients, the staff decided to create long, straight snacks. They named the new product Umaibo, on the simple basis that it was delicious.

Although there were snacks of a similar shape, it was common in those days for mom and dad candy stores to sell unpackaged products. Umaibo became popular because they were individually wrapped, which made them easy to transport and also more resistant to moisture.

In order to preserve quality, the packaging changed a few years later to foil treated with aluminum. Yaokin PR manager Koji Tanaka, 44, revealed: “Apparently they were told at the time that it was ‘outrageous’ from a cost perspective to use it on 10 yen snacks. . ”

Customers were also drawn to its variety of flavors. Worcestershire sauce came first, followed by five more, including flavors of salami, curry, cheese and vegetable salad. The flavor of mentai-seasoned cod roe came out in 1982, after a Yaokin employee was inspired by karashi-mentaiko spiced cod roe during a meal with a customer on a trip to business in Kyushu, southwestern Japan.

Premium Umaibo, from left, Japanese-style steak, mentaiko spicy cod roe, and flavors of mozzarella and camembert are seen in this image taken on May 7, 2021, in Kita Ward, Osaka. (Mainichi / Satoshi Hishida)

Fourteen flavors are currently available, including octopus takoyaki dumpling, yakitori skewered chicken, and shrimp mayonnaise – resulting from a public call for new suggestions. The corn soup flavor is said to be the most popular, followed by cheese, then mentai. Premium versions are also sold in 10-cylinder bags costing 200 yen (around $ 1.80), limited editions and other region-specific variants.

Many flavors were also dropped, including the hard-to-imagine “sea beef” and “mamerikan” flavors. Apparently, powdered squid was kneaded into the dough and a beef flavor was added for the sea beef, while peas were introduced into the mamerikan dough.

Yaokin has also capitalized on trends, like when he launched his “crab chanko” themed sumo wrestlers’ meals in 1991 amid the insane popularity of sumo champions, the Hanada brothers.

Umaibo’s mascot character, Umaemon, is seen in this image courtesy of Yaokin Co.

Since the launch of Umaibo, its mascot “Umaemon” has been pictured on its packaging doing a variety of activities, including singing, pulling out test tubes and going fishing. Does his name and round-headed design have anything to do with Doraemon? “It’s just a coincidence,” Tanaka said immediately.

“He (Doraemon) is a robot, he’s an alien,” Tanaka added. Originally, the character was unnamed and the children gave him a number of nicknames including “Umaemon”, “Umai Boya” and “Umai Boy”. Out of respect for that, Yaokin hasn’t officially named the character. Still, “Umaemon” seemed to have settled in 2017, when her younger sister returned to Japan from Umaiami State. But siblings are not alike. Sister “Umami-chan” looks like a character straight out of a current anime, and is even a YouTuber.

Umaemon’s younger sister, Umami-chan, is seen in this image provided by Yaokin Co.

A single Umaibo still costs only 10 yen. Everything all right at Yaokin? Tanaka said, “Honestly, it’s tough.” In the 42 years since launch, material prices, personnel costs and other costs have increased.

Yaokin’s so-called “Team Umaibo” partnerships with related companies help overcome these obstacles. As the company does not have a factory, manufacturing is handled by Riska Co., headquartered in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture. To keep the price at 10 yen, various companies cooperating on everything from material sourcing to distribution are making efforts in areas such as automation of production, reduction of packaging loss and efficiency. logistics.

They work so hard because they appreciate the perception of the product in children; at 10 yen, they can still think of it as obtainable with their own money, or as more fun buying many flavors than just having a 100 yen snack. Tanaka added, “Of course we want to make delicious products, but we also want to offer fun and surprises.”

(Japanese original by Satoko Suizu, Osaka Editorial Production Center)

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