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

This photo taken in Osaka's Kita Ward on May 7, 2021, shows various flavors of Umaibo. In addition to its standard 14 flavors, limited edition and local products are also sold. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida)

Japan's beloved cylindrical corn snacks "Umaibo," literally meaning delicious stick, have stayed at 10 yen (about 9 cents) for the 42 years since they first went on sale. How do they do it? The Mainichi Shimbun took a look into the product's history, and just how its manufacturer manages to keep the price so low.

    Umaibo are a household name in Japan that could even be called a national snack; they are enjoyed widely, including among children and as something for adults to have with a drink. With its crispy texture and various flavors, 700 million of the corn snacks are sold annually -- enough for every person in Japan to eat 5.6 of them a year.

    Umaibo are sold by Yaokin Co., based in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. The product reportedly has its origins in a vegetable vendor in central Japan's Aichi Prefecture, where current President Masahiko Sumiya's grandparents began making signature snack shrimp crackers to sell with their fruits and vegetables. Sumiya's father, his predecessor as president, founded Yaokin in 1960 after coming to Tokyo following World War II.

    Umaibo were invented in 1979, the same year that popular anime series "Doraemon" started on TV and arcade game Space Invaders took Japan by storm.

    Umaibo's corn potage flavor is seen in this photo taken in Osaka's Kita Ward on May 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida)

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

    Though similarly shaped snacks existed, it was standard back then for mom-and-pop candy stores to sell unwrapped products. Umaibo became popular because they were individually packed, making them easy to carry and also more resistant to damp.

    For quality preservation purposes, the packaging changed a few years later to aluminum-processed film. Koji Tanaka, 44, Yaokin's head of public relations, 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 attracted to its variety of flavors. Worcestershire sauce came first, followed by five more including salami, curry, cheese and vegetable salad flavors. The mentai seasoned cod roe flavor released in 1982, after a Yaokin employee was inspired by some karashi-mentaiko spicy cod roe at a meal with a client during a business trip to Kyushu in southwest Japan.

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

    Fourteen flavors are currently available, including takoyaki octopus dumpling, yakitori skewered chicken, and shrimp mayonnaise -- which came about from a public call for new suggestions. The corn potage flavor is reportedly the most popular, followed by cheese, then mentai. Also sold are premium versions coming in 10 cylinders-bags costing 200 yen (about $1.80), limited editions and other region-specific variants.

    Many flavors have also been discontinued, including the hard-to-imagine "marine beef" and "mamerikan" flavors. Apparently, powdered squid was kneaded into the dough and beef flavoring added for marine beef, while peas were introduced to the mamerikan dough.

    Yaokin has also capitalized on trends, such as when it launched its sumo-wrestler meals themed "crab chanko" flavor in 1991 amid the wild popularity of sumo champions the Hanada brothers.

    Umaibo's mascot character Umaemon is seen in this image provided by Yaokin Co.

    Since Umaibo's launch, its mascot "Umaemon" has been depicted on its packaging doing a variety of activities, including singing, popping out of 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, this is an alien," Tanaka added. Originally the character was nameless, and children gave him a number of nicknames including "Umaemon," "Umai Boya" and "Umai Boy." In deference to this, Yaokin has not officially named the character. Still, "Umaemon" appeared to have settled by 2017, when his younger sister returned to Japan from the state of Umaiami. But the siblings have no resemblance. 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 is still just 10 yen. Is everything all right at Yaokin? Tanaka said: "Honestly, it's tough." In the 42 years since launch, material prices, personnel expenses and other costs have risen.

    Yaokin's so-called "Team Umaibo" partnerships with related companies help overcome those hurdles. The company doesn't have a factory, so manufacture is handled by Riska Co., headquartered in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture. To keep the price at 10 yen, various companies cooperating on everything from material procurement to distribution are making efforts in areas including production automation, packaging loss reduction and logistical efficiency.

    They work so hard because they value the product's perception among kids; at 10 yen, they can still think of it as obtainable with their own money, or as more fun to buy many flavors of than just getting one snack at 100 yen. Tanaka added, "Of course we want to make delicious products, but we also want to offer fun and surprises, too."

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

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