Meibutsu: The Economic and Cultural Significance of Traditional Japanese Products

Foreigners visiting any airport or tourist destination in Japan are often impressed by the sheer quantity of colorful treats and souvenirs marketed to Japanese travelers. Why are there so many varieties of unique products, and why are they in such high demand? Indeed, Japan’s tradition of meibutsu, or famous regional products, is unique and unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Not only is it an integral part of the Japanese culture, but it also provides much-needed benefits to rural economies.

The Meaning of Meibutsu

Japan’s diverse cultural traditions, business structures, and regional economic clout are apparent through the country’s primarily domestic meibutsu economy. While meibutsu means literally “famous item,” in practice it refers to the widespread distribution and usage of various regional products and goods. But what exactly does meibutsu represent? In examining Japanese prefectures such as Kyoto, Hokkaido, Miyazaki, and Wakayama, it becomes evident just how varied these products are.

Kyoto, famous for its nama-yatsuhashi sweet bean confections as well as its traditional Japanese craftwork, differs completely from Hokkaido, which is renowned for its milk-based products, beers, and herbs such as lavender. Similarly, Miyazaki’s mangos and oranges are extremely popular, while Wakayama’s umeboshi sour plum products can be found in almost any convenience store in Japan.

The meibutsu economy is uniquely Japanese and has characteristics that are very different from many other countries’ takes on regional specialty goods. Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has its own unique meibutsu that enjoys continuously developing markets and consumers. In the U.S., for example, famous products are created for different popular tourist destinations. Furthermore, another unique aspect of meibutsu is its dynamic nature and its mix of old and new, which relates closely to broader themes in Japan’s cultural, historical, and socioeconomic spheres.

While the term meibutsu does have certain nuances, it generally includes unprocessed regional agricultural products and crafts. Yutaka Mukai, a member of the Ise City (Mie prefecture) Chamber of Commerce and Industry, defines it more specifically: “In order to be meibutsu, something has to be a special product; it has to require specific skill or knowledge for creating it that is possessed by people in a certain region. This skill or knowledge is often passed down in families from generation to generation, thus preventing those from outside the region from gaining the ability to produce the meibutsu.” For instance, the Yubari melons of Hokkaido are some of Japan’s most cherished. These flavorful melons require special growing techniques and are subject to strict regional collective trademark standards to prevent their cultivation and branding in other regions.

The meibutsu industry revolves around several groups of people. Producers range from farming cooperative associations to large consumer-goods manufacturers. In addition, government agencies — such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries — oversee quality control for processed products, while the Japan Patent Office helps producers comply with regional trademark policies. Consumers are generally domestic Japanese tourists who often perceive meibutsu as unique specialty items exhibiting high quality and other traits from the producing region.

Another concept that is essential for understanding the popularity of meibutsu is highlighted by the tradition of omiyage, or gift-giving. Many Japanese rely on meibutsu in their gift-giving culture, so these goods are often sold in major department stores and various souvenir shops located throughout even the most sparsely populated regions of the country. Omiyage is now written ???, which literally means “earth product,” i.e.,  a product from a specific region. However, according to Mitsuhiro Okamoto, a Nara city cultural expert, omiyage used to be written as ???, which literally means “coming down from the shrine.” This alludes to the old tradition of people offering food and other goods to the temples of Shinto gods and then, after a few days, taking those same items back home to eat and enjoy.

The fact that the Japanese people have forgotten the origin of omiyage and have even changed how it is written to reflect only its regionality shows that the concept has changed over time. This may imply that the Japanese people are focused on, or even obsessed with, how omiyage and meibutsu are limited to a region, and that artificial value is created when regional limitation, as opposed to pure quality or taste, is valued so highly.

In addition to regional limitation, the popularity of various meibutsu products depends on many factors such as seasonality, advertising, and other economic issues. With regard to seasonality, some meibutsu ingredients are most popular at certain times of the year, so consumers often flock to purchase them during their period of availability. For example, lavender blooms mainly in June and July in Hokkaido, so lavender-related meibutsu such as lavender-scented bath salts and incense benefit then from increased consumption. Meibutsu’s popularity is also affected by recent trends in advertising, specifically through the increasing numbers of “antenna shops” (satellite shops that sell regional items) in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. These shops cater to a particular prefecture’s meibutsu, selling only products related to that region. This has effectively increased the reach of various prefectures’ meibutsu to a broader base in Japan.

The Origins of Meibutsu — Tradition vs. Practicality

First-time visitors to a historic Japanese city might mistakenly assume that all the goods they buy reflect hundreds of years of the city’s history and traditions. These visitors would be surprised to learn, for example, that the most popular Kyoto meibutsu, the nama-yatsuhashi, has been around for only about 30 years. This illustrates how practicality often trumps tradition for many meibutsu products in Japan.

One meibutsu item that truly reflects centuries of Kyoto’s traditions and its artisans’ skills is senshoku (dyed textile), which includes products such as the kimono (literally “thing to wear”). Senshoku developed as a necessity for clothing the Emperor and the imperial family beginning in the Nara period (710-794 AD). However, for a modern tourist visiting Kyoto, buying a decent kimono made by Kyoto craftsmen would cost at least several thousand U.S. dollars, in addition to being difficult to transport and store given its fragility. What visitors to Kyoto opt to buy is not a true object of traditional Kyoto culture but rather a simple symbol of Kyoto that is cheap, simple to carry, and easy to give as a gift or share among friends. This has led to the development in the last few decades of Kyoto nama-yatsuhashi. In Hokkaido, similar needs led to the development of Hokkaido Shiroi Koibito (white chocolate cookies), while other prefectures and tourist cities developed other inexpensive types of meibutsu that could be mass-produced.

According to Akinori Fujita, store manager of the Hokkaido “antenna shop” in Tokyo, “In actuality, anyone can attempt to label a new product as a meibutsu, but if it is not produced in that region, then it is unlikely that souvenir shops will stock the product because they do not see it as a legitimate meibutsu.” Still, new and creative meibutsu items are constantly being released. For example, some regions claim very non-Japanese items as their own meibutsu, such as the Yokohama Navy Burger or the blueberry cheesecake-flavored Nestlé Kit-Kat bar, found only in the Koushin region (famous for its blueberries). In short, with regard to meibutsu, most modern Japanese pay only marginal attention to the historical origins and traditional values, focusing much more on the practical and novel aspects.

Social Impact

Such aforementioned traits, habits, and values of modern domestic Japanese tourists have shaped social norms within the country for decades and also carry significant potential for shaping the social economy and landscape even more. The most important social consequence stemming from meibutsu will most likely be the ways that its producers can help prevent the shrinking population problems facing rural Japan. First, it is necessary to understand the magnitude of this issue. Since the 1950s, rural communities have been plagued by the problems of internal migration. Urbanization — stemming from the migration of people from the countryside to the city and surrounding suburbs for better educational and employment opportunities — has led to severe depopulation in many rural areas. This has resulted in a large aging population, with few children or young people in the rural community. A continuation of this trend portends many troubling issues both for these rural communities and for Japan.

The increased promotion and sales of meibutsu can best help rural communities through increased employment opportunities, which can entice people to stay rather than move to the cities. Such opportunities will be available in both the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Most agricultural meibutsu products are grown on small, family-owned farms. Thus, increased sales will lead directly to increased revenues for these small businesses. As demand increases, the farms will require more employees to help with the agricultural production. In addition, businesses that specialize in meibutsu manufacturing should also see increased demand and thus be able to offer more employment opportunities. These factories offer the potential for employment growth in rural areas because many meibutsu items are produced in locales only a few hours away from the actual cities in which they are sold. For example, many of Kyoto’s renowned fabrics are actually made in factories in neighboring, and more rural, Fukui prefecture.

The increased employment opportunities are made possible because meibutsu plays such a large part in the Japanese social culture. The sheer number of meibutsu is directly related to the aforementioned tradition of giving gifts (omiyage) to friends, family, and co-workers after trips, whether personal or business-related. Any foreigner who vacationed with a Japanese friend will have noticed that the friend was constantly worried about buying enough omiyage to take home. The culture has evolved to the point where it is often socially unacceptable to not give omiyage, and some Japanese even travel secretly to avoid this social obligation. This activity is a major factor in meibutsu’s growth over the last few decades.

Various cities, prefectures, and regions have adapted their products to suit the unique needs of the visitors who are looking to buy meibutsu omiyage. The most popular meibutsu items are often small, easily packaged, and relatively affordable. They are sold not only at tourist attractions, but also at major transportation centers such as train stations. Therefore, not only is meibutsu a way to show you have visited a particular area, it is also a way for the recipient to enjoy a product that, through limited distribution, would otherwise be impossible or difficult to find elsewhere. Unfortunately, meibutsu also has negative consequences. According to Junko Kimura, the director of planning and sales at Kyoto-kan (an antenna store for Kyoto goods in Tokyo), “many meibutsu stores in Tokyo have seen patterns whereby married men and women come to shop for gifts for family to account for alibis of business trips to different cities. For instance, a weekend fling on the beaches of Okinawa staged as a weekend business trip to Kyoto can be accounted for by purchasing a box of nama-yatsuhashi, a defining souvenir of Kyoto.”

Sales of meibutsu are assured as long as there are domestic travelers. And domestic travel within Japan is almost certainly guaranteed given the Japanese people’s social and regional interests. The proliferation and importance of this tradition are most evident in the tests on the subject given to Japanese schoolchildren. Many of our interviewees recalled elementary-school quizzes in which regions on a map of Japan would be matched up with the appropriate meibutsu — e.g.,Kyoto yatsuhashi, Kishu umeboshi, and Hokkaido Yubari melon. In addition, Japan’s widespread gourmet food culture has spawned many TV shows and magazine articles that detail the various regional specialties found throughout the country. In fact, TV shows focused on food account for a whopping 35%-40% of domestic programming in Japan. Specialties that are found only in a particular area are profiled and naturally spur discussion and interest in that region.

While meibutsu has increased social interest in various parts of Japan, it is also important to note how its producers have changed proactively to suit new cultural norms. For example, Pagong, a subsidiary of the famous Kyoto Kimono Yuzen Company, has a new spin on yuzen, a traditional method of dyeing fabric. Although yuzen has traditionally been applied to more formal Japanese clothing, in recent years Pagong has taken the lead in adapting these traditional patterns to eastern clothing, such as polo shirts. It is interesting to note how meibutsu evolves to fit social needs — in this case, combining the sophistication of the kimono with the easy-to-wear style of western clothing.

The aforementioned nama-yatsuhashi is another example of how meibutsu has evolved. Originally, one of Kyoto’s defining regional products was yatsuhashi, a baked confection made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. As the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto has always played host to various tour groups, including middle school and high school students’ week-long field trips. It is unclear how yatsuhashi came to be sold in raw — or nama — form, but by the 1980s unbaked nama-yatsuhashi was the most popular food souvenir from Kyoto in terms of units sold, especially among these students. In essence, school children pioneered the popularity of a new food, which has now become the defining meibutsu of Kyoto for people of all ages. Thus, it is not far-fetched to anticipate new social issues changing meibutsu in other regions of Japan. As healthy eating habits and organic products become a priority for consumers, it is likely that new forms of healthy meibutsu may appear in various regions.

These examples illustrate how social norms affect meibutsu and how this tradition has changed and can continue to change as a result. In fact, the entire life cycle of meibutsu — from production within rural areas to sales at tourist sites — has the potential to affect not only the social norms, but also the social structure of Japan.

‘Home of Wasabi’

The economic importance of meibutsu lies primarily in its ability to create identity and branding for local goods, thus allowing for comparably higher pricing, the creation of derivative industries, and direct contribution to regional tourism. These benefits have been of increasing importance for regional economies, where agriculture plays an important role as one of the largest employers. Even as Japan faces growing competition from foreign agricultural producers and pressure to reduce agricultural subsidies, the development of meibutsu has created a path to greater value and demand for goods that might otherwise be considered mundane. The case of Yakurai wasabi in the northeast region of Japan highlights these points.

The northeast region — comprising  Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, and Fukushima prefectures — is one of the regional economies most heavily reliant on the primary sector of economic activity, defined in Japan as agriculture, lumbering, and fishing. According to the 2005 census of Japan’s working population, the region is home to approximately 5.9 million — or 9.6% — of Japan’s 61.5 million working population. Although the majority of these residents work in the primary sector (compared to the national average of 4.8%), their contribution to regional GDP is only 2.7% of the total. Furthermore, it should be noted that the workers in this sector are, for the most part, from lower income groups. Specifically, agricultural families in the sector earn an annual average of 3.7 million yen (US$43,400) versus the national average of 4.5 million yen (US$52,800).

In essence, an improvement in the earnings and economic power of the northeast region’s primary sector would clearly benefit the lower-income segment of the economy. And this situation is certainly not limited to this region. Yakurai wasabi is a particularly relevant example of meibutsu’s benefits to the economy.

Yakurai wasabi has achieved success through strict identification with the area of production and brand image around the region’s history. In addition, it emphasizes the fact that this wasabi is produced by local farmers. With the branding power thus afforded to it, its producers have been able to sign deals with restaurants that highlight the use of the product in their dishes. In addition, the products are sold in about 50 specialty stores, where the average customer spends approximately 10,000 yen (US$117). The producers have also developed derivative products in the form of wasabi dressing and wasabi seaweed. Currently, a “Home of Wasabi” attraction is in development, focused on promoting tourism. Yakurai wasabi represents a case where the use of a local name and the image associated with it have provided a company with the opportunity to upgrade its image. This is a unique situation, given that wasabi is not indigenous to Yakurai, but is actually from Sendai.

Another example of meibutsu’s importance for promoting otherwise mundane goods can be seen in the case of Ishiya, a sweets manufacturer from Hokkaido best known as the maker of the aforementioned Shiroi Koibito. Although there is no reference in the name of the cookie nor any ingredient unique to the region, the company has chosen to associate the brand with Hokkaido and to sell Shiroi Koibito and its other products as Hokkaido meibutsu. Ishiya’s shining-star logo is said to be a reference to Hokkaido, and even the company’s mission statement (“With reliability and safety as our first priority, we put our heart and soul into the creation of Hokkaido sweets”) is careful to distinguish that it wants to produce “Hokkaido Sweets” rather than just generic sweets. Ishiya’s commitment to Hokkaido helps distinguish the company from other sweets manufacturers, even as its commitment also benefits Hokkaido itself. Moreover, Ishiya, with over 9.2 billion yen (US$109 million) in annual sales, employs more than 400 people (plus temporary workers), all of whom are based in Hokkaido. Because of all the interest in Ishiya’s products, the company has built a miniature amusement park (Shiroi Koibito Park) that has already become a major tourist attraction, increasing the market for its meibutsu.

Cases like Yakurai wasabi and Shiroi Koibito have been noticed by both the national and local governments, which have taken steps to improve and develop the legal and business environments for meibutsu. This collaboration has come about with the support of groups like the regional farming cooperatives and enterprise cooperatives.

In 2005, the regional farming cooperatives and enterprise cooperatives began working toward developing legal protection for regional brands, registering 52 brands when the law was enacted in October 2006. Upon trademark registration, only farmers who are members of a given cooperative can produce goods with the official name. The law specifies what can or cannot be termed, for example, an Aomori ringo (apple). In addition, the law defines what types of products can be branded and the scope of a given brand name, and has made it possible for regional goods to gain identity and branding power while simultaneously reducing the risk of brand infringement and quality issues from copycats. As a result, local businesses have been able to expand the scope of their product offerings and create derivative industries.

As an example of an actively managed brand, in the latter half of the 20th century, Wakayama farmers developed a breed of ume (a Japanese fruit, related to an apricot, that is an important part of Japanese cuisine), whose thick, soft flesh is well-suited for producing umeboshi (pickled ume). The popularity of this new breed of ume was transformational for the region’s agricultural profile, as ume sales rose from 2.8 billion yen (US$32.9 million) to 15.5 billion yen (US$181.9 million) annually between 1980 and 1990, moving from the tenth to the second largest agricultural product in the prefecture. The farmers also began to sell the processed version. Sales of umeboshi in Wakayama rose from next to nothing to 5.1 billion yen (US$59.8 million) by 1995, but declined to 1.8 billion yen (US$21.1 million) by the time the Regional Branding System was developed.

According to Souji Yabumoto, chief economist for Wakayama’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, “after the Wakayama ume became popular, there were a lot of producers from outside Wakayama that started giving their products brands like Kishu umeboshi [which implies that they were made in Wakayama, historically known as Kishu] even if the product didn’t have anything to do with Wakayama. This competition from other places in Japan as well as from foreign imports was bad for the sales of umeboshi by Wakayama farmers.” Ume-producing regional farming cooperatives in Wakayama’s towns of Minabe and Tanabe cooperatively registered the Kishu umeboshi brand name with the Tokyo patent office. The towns were not only able to distinguish their product from their competitors, but they were also able to start marketing and licensing the brand more effectively. Today, the Kishu brand can be seen on umeboshi (e.g., rice balls) and umeboshi-flavored products (e.g., potato chips, candies, and soft drinks).

Cooperatives across Japan have been very enthusiastic about the government’s trademark policy, registering 347 regional trademarks since 2006. Although the government’s protection of regional brands is a relatively recent development, it recognizes meibutsu’s importance to different regions. Continued protection of regional brands is expected to be helpful in supporting regional economies. This policy is of particular interest to regions struggling with shrinking populations or lack of cost and strategic advantages within local industries.

The unique culture of meibutsu has significant implications for Japan’s economic, social, and cultural future. Its potential to affect various facets of Japanese society include not only increased demand for products via branding, but also increased employment, especially in rural areas, which can help stabilize or increase the overall population of those regions. It is evident that meibutsu is more than just a souvenir or a food. It is a social and economic tool that can be used to benefit Japanese culture and society for generations to come.

This article was written by Jerry Chi, Foster Chiang, Russell Gottfredson, Neeraj Maathur and Erica Sugai, members of the Lauder Class of 2012.

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