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West Japan city touts role as sole maker of popular snack through 'hometown tax' offering

The special packs of "Karl" snacks made in collaboration with the city of Matsuyama are seen in this August 2022 photo provided by the city's government.

MATSUYAMA -- Demand has been overwhelming for special packs of a tasty treat made only in this west Japan city that began to be offered through the "hometown tax" public donation system this spring.

    "Karl" curly corn puffs are well-known for their line of ads with a catchy jingle. While the city went into the idea with light expectations, an official said their hopes have been raised thanks to the "Karl effect."

    One of the city's goals was to raise awareness of its overlooked status as currently the only place where the snacks are made, which even few locals knew. As well, since the product is currently only sold in western Japan, orders have been pouring in from the eastern part of the country.

    According to Meiji Co., which makes and sells the item, Karl was launched in 1968 as the first bagged corn snack in Japan. The light, crispy treat caught on with the public, and at its peak in the 1990s, yearly sales were around 19 billion yen (roughly $136 million).

    The country's only factory that produces "Karl" snacks is seen in the city of Matsuyama in this photo provided by Meiji Co.

    However, sales slowed due to factors such as competition with newly-introduced potato-based snacks. The company even considered ending the snack's production. However, as the manufacturer felt strongly about Karl, it decided only to limit sales to western Japan from 2017 onward. After considering logistical costs and other factors, Meiji also decided to consolidate production of Karl from five factories across the country to just Shikoku Meiji Company Ltd.'s plant in Matsuyama.

    The city started its Karl publicity campaign in full force last August. Teaming up with Meiji, packs of the snack featuring the city's famous sightseeing spots were put onto souvenir store shelves and elsewhere. The designs, which proved popular with tourists, include Matsuyama Castle, the Dogo Onsen hot springs, and a rendition of the snack's eponymous mascot Karl Ojisan (Uncle Karl) as the protagonist of Natsume Soseki's Matsuyama-set novel "Botchan."

    On April 26, 5,000 packages each of two flavors of the product -- mild and cheesy -- were made available through the city's "hometown tax" system, which allows residents and others in Japan to support regional communities with tax-deductible donations while receiving various items as gifts.

    Donations of 6,000 yen (about $43) yield 10 bags, while those who donate 18,000 yen (roughly $130) will receive 30 bags of the puffy snacks. The city said that it has received many orders for both flavors from Tokyo and other prefectures in the Kanto region since the first day they were offered, exhausting supply by the end of May. As such, an additional batch of the goodies is already in the works.

    As of the end of May, hometown tax donations for Karl snacks are said to have reached around 8 million yen (around $57,200). A city official stated, "We didn't expect this kind of response," unable to hide their surprise.

    The city stated that it did not expect the items would sell out so quickly, and would like to consider adding more items to its hometown tax lineup.

    The city of Matsuyama has been doing well through the hometown tax program. Previously, the city received approximately 660 million yen (approx. $4.72 million) through the system in fiscal 2021, topped the following fiscal year with a record high 980 million yen (approx. $7 million).

    (Japanese original by Akiko Hirose, Matsuyama Bureau)

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