When the cocoa dust settles and finally we learn who won control of Cadbury, one thing is certain: for the consumers who drive Japan’s 285,000-tonne-a-year chocolate market, it will hardly mean a thing. The giant British confectioner sells little in Japan apart from chewing gum, and of the other potential bidders, Nestlé may enjoy success with its limited edition, Japan-only Kit Kats, but Hershey’s Kiss and other lines seem dated in this market. Reflecting, perhaps, the company’s shallow interest in Japan, the Hershey line is still only offered in English-language packaging.
But you might forgive the big westerners for ignoring us here. The Japanese market is relatively small (2006 per capita chocolate consumption was 2.2kg, whereas the British ate 10.3kg and the Danish 7.7kg per person). There is also deflation and the fact that mainstream chocolate sales are stagnant. The tonnage of chocolate manufactured in 2007 was little changed from 2003, and imports for the same period fell.
Despite all this, domestic manufacturers compete relentlessly (Mars is also here, with its super-sweet Snickers, Milky Ways and M&Ms, packaged for Japan), and one of the joys of living here as a mainstream chocolate lover is that there is always something new.
“We get a new chocolate product about every week,” says the manager of my local 7-Eleven where, as in every other convenience store, a massive shelf bristles with hyper-coloured boxes and foil packages screaming “Eat me!”
Navigate your palate through a box of Mushroom Mountain (little chocolate domes on biscuit stems), masticate a Marching Koala (smiling-koala-shaped biscuit), slip your tongue around a ganache-like Meltykiss or into a ringed choc-filled Collon, then get down and Crunky (chocolate with specks of puffed malt) before landing on a bar of Ghana (one of the biggest sellers for Lotte, second in market share; Morinaga is third).
But it’s not only about everything new, all the time. “Adults who loved Ghana as kids still eat it now, 40 years on,” says Lotte representative Ichiro Nakamura. But what is always new is the formatting. Popular lines are constantly “repurposed”. Ghana is sold in tiny blocks, larger bars, as a biscuit coating, as a white chocolate with maple syrup in cup-noodle-style containers, and even in carefully dribbled bite-size pretzel shapes. Cultural factors also keep the industry ticking: a big hit for Lotte, and for Meiji’s Milk Chocolate, are the 28-piece, window-box packages (around ¥340 or €2.50) with tiny blocks wrapped in thick foil, like so many precious gold bars. These are often bought by corporate employees wishing to express gratitude, and left open in a common office thoroughfare, such as beside the tea urn, for colleagues to enjoy.
As with Japanese cuisine, seasonal themes in chocolate are constant, leading to limited-edition products. Nestlé Japan has decided for now that what winter wants is a Royal Milk Tea Kit Kat, in a tartan-themed package. The company can be proud of its 200-odd varieties of limited-edition versions produced for the past nine years, but it is also blessed with a name (Kitto Katsu) that, written a certain way in Japanese, can mean “You’ll definitely triumph.” Not surprisingly, Kit Kats are commonly seen at sports fields and exam rooms.
Lotte’s latest winter line includes Bacchus, and Rummy: Cognac-filled, and rum and raisin respectively. With an alcohol content of around 3 per cent per piece, the package advises: “Don’t drive after eating.”
“We will see more polarisation,” says Nakamura, on the future of Japanese chocolate. “There will always be those who want something safe and comfortable, like Ghana. But there are those who want something new, too, which is why the limited editions work so well.”
Another factor in Japan’s chocolate scene is the increasing presence of luxury European chocolatiers such as Godiva, Jean Paul Hevin, and a recent arrival – the Barcelona chocolatier and single-origin specialist Cacao Sampaka in Marunouchi Brick Square. This stuff is hardly mainstream – a box of 16 minuscule Jean Paul Hevin squares sells for around ¥5,500 (€40). My female friend Mika, a fashion stylist, says, “Women buy those chocolates as presents to themselves. The boys get given cheaper stuff.”