Friday, August 13, 2010

Variety Friday: How Japanese People Snack

Click any picture to load a larger one with more detail.

Before I dive into this topic, let me say that I am not an expert on anything, nor am I a novice. I'm going to write based on my copious amounts of firsthand experience and reach conclusions based on obvious indicators. I feel obliged to write that first because any time one asserts anything about Japan or Japanese people, there will be people with different experiences who will come forward to argue.

My experiences are based on living in Japan for 20 years, asking many people about their lives and habits, and working in a Japanese office for 12 years. My experiences are very far from limited, but they are also far from exhaustive. I don't want to get into quibbling matches with people who have anecdotal experiences which differ from mine. I'll grant that I am speaking generally and not about every individual in Japan. However, there are some things that are clear based on marketing as well as observation, and that is something of which I'm pretty confident about at this stage of the game.

I know how many snacks are put on sale and how much shelf space is devoted to them. I know that there are shops which specialize in selling nothing but snacks and that they are on offer in a greater variety of shops than other types of food. In fact, except for specialty shops, nearly any place which sells food will offer sweets and salty treats.

These things alone are strong indicators that Japanese people snack a fair bit. If they didn't, there wouldn't be more space devoted to candy, sugary beverages, alcohol, and salted junk food than there is to dairy products, rice, and fresh produce in some markets. Shops don't offer goods which don't sell well. In particular, supermarkets which have a narrow enough profit margin do not waste shelf space on goods that don't move, and all markets in my neighborhood devote at least both sides of one aisle to snacks. Most offer more than that.

It is important to separate Japanese snacking into at least two separate categories. The first is otsumami, or snacks that are marketed and consumed with beverages. Those foods aren't always consumed with alcohol, but they often are. There's a survey on "What Japan Thinks" which says that it is unclear if snacks like cookies, cakes, etc. that are designed to be served with drinks like tea are included in the category of "otsumami", but my experience makes me believe otherwise (note that this is a speculation on the part of the translator, not a part of the survey itself).

A snack bar at Inokashira park with familiar snacks on offer including hard candy, milk and black sugar caramels, "Shigekix" gummi candies and Mentos.

Based on my experience with the way in which foods are marketed (and I've read a lot of labels by now), manufacturers only consider food that is to be served with booze or soft drinks to be otsumami. I have never seen a sweet snack labeled as such and often see foods which are salty with such labels. Mainly, savory items like dried fish, nuts, chips, pretzels, rice crackers (sembei), etc. are placed in the otsumami sections of various shops.

When speaking with Japanese people about their consumption of such snacks, those that are labeled otsumami appear to be much more popular than other types. Most of my students, for instance, go home and have beer and nosh on sembei or chips. Far more of them will buy potato chips or something like them than they will sweets. That's not to say they never buy sweets or eat them, but they seem to snack on them far less often in the evenings at home. Japan is a country of voracious drinkers, though not voluminous. A great many adults unwind at night with a can or two of beer and some salty thing or another on the side.

In regards to sweets, there is another helpful survey on "What Japan Thinks". I mention these surveys mainly because they are scientific and objective ways of measuring snacking habits (rather than speculation based on anecdotes). Note that 25% people say they eat sweets everyday and about 75% eat them multiple times a week. This rather flies in the face of any notion that the Japanese are not a country of snackers, a supposition which is often made to explain how the Japanese stay thin, or that they aren't very keen on sweets. Certainly, they do snack, and they like sweets.

My experience has been that sweets are consumed mainly on the job when one becomes tired. In essence, they're seeking a sugar rush, but it also probably has something to do with the fact that people work late hours and eat lunch around noon. Around 4:00 pm, many Japanese offices have "tea time" and people will snack and sweets are fairly common. Often, salespeople or those who travel for their type of work will bring back boxes of "omiyage" (souvenirs) to share with coworkers. Omiyage are almost always food items.

Bean cakes, sembei, cookies, and chocolates are popular choices as souvenirs. It's one of the reasons Nestlé Japan makes so many regional KitKats. They know people who travel for a day to some city on business might find them appealing to bring back and share with coworkers. Regional KitKats are, in part, exploitation of the business culture and the near-obligation to bring back snacks for coworkers. It helps that, at 800 yen ($9.20) a box, they're relatively cheap.

The main difference between the way Japanese folks snack and Western ones do is in volume. In my experience, most Japanese young women working in offices eat sweets or snacks nearly everyday, but in very small quantities. One small cookie with a cup of tea or one big or a few small rice crackers tend to be the extent of such snacking. That being said, I have known people who will go to a hundred yen shop and buy cheap salted snacks and eat the whole bag at night with beer. And trust me when I say they are just as slender as most Japanese people.

I don't want to weigh in (no pun intended) on the chorus of explanations about why Japanese people tend not to be fat, but I can provide some anecdotal experiences that may relate to this point. One of my students has told me that she has consumed copious amounts of beer and food on multiple occasions. And when I say "copious", I mean she eats enough for 3 people and drinks enough for 2 burly men. Sometimes she does this, but at other times she doesn't eat anything much at all, especially after a big night of boozing and binging.

Japanese people quite often spend entire days (or weekends) sleeping all day in an off and on fashion to recover from a long week of overtime. In fact, it's quite amazing to me that they can sleep so much. On those days, my student will eat one rice ball (onigiri), drink some bottled tea, and consume nothing else. She sleeps so much that she simply doesn't remember to eat. My guess is that her eating habits on such days even out her higher calorie consumption on days when she eats a lot such that she doesn't gain weight. A day where she eats 5000 calories isn't of much consequence when she eats about 250 the following day, especially when her job requires her to be on her feet all day.

Are there Japanese people who never touch a sweet and never snack? Sure. Are they common? I don't believe so. I think that like many Western folks, there are people who eschew sugar or fried foods in the interest of pure health concerns, but they are even fewer and far between here than in Western countries where people are even more fanatical about health in some ways due to the high incidence of obesity and more extreme and malleable notions of what constitutes "healthy" eating.

Lots of booze, but only edamame (beans) as a snack.

Japanese folks tend not to be extremists about food and seem to practice moderation in nearly all things, though some do go overboard with alcohol consumption. I've never known a teetotaler here, for instance. People only give up alcohol for medical reasons and alcoholism is defined medically, not psychologically, in Japan. The idea that one should give something up in an effort to preempt potential health issues (rather than deal with an actual present one) is not very common here, so deciding not to eat sugary treats or salty snacks isn't something most people are going to do unless a doctor tells them to quit. Considering the fact that most Japanese people visit the doctor at the drop of a hat, I'm guessing they figure any incipient problems will be caught and proper advice will be forthcoming.

So, yes, Japanese people stay thin and they snack. They eat between meals, but usually not more than once or twice per day (tea time and with drinks in the evening) and in quite small portions. Frankly, I feel this is a pretty sensible way to approach food on the whole, and does more for ones health than tossing all treats out the window in an act of radical diet extremism.


Marvo said...

Most of my experiences with Japanese snacks are with KitKat and one of the major difference I see between KitKat from Japan and KitKats here in the US is the way they are packaged. With US KitKats all four fingers are wrapped together, while Japan KitKats are wrapped in sets of two fingers. When I open a US KitKat, I feel compelled to eat all four fingers in one sitting, but with Japan KitKats, since there are two sets of two fingers, I can eat one set now and easily save the other later.

What's my point? Um...

I'm not 100% sure of this, but packaging sizes and the way things are packaged differ from the US and Japan. The US has potato chip bags that are the size of a toddler. I haven't seen anything like that from Japan. Although, I have seen some pretty huge bottles of sake.

Orchid64 said...

I think your point, and it's an important one, is that the packaging reflects the desired consumption level of a particular food by the people who buy the it. Japanese people eat sweets alone, but share salted snacks with friends when drinking, and they drink a lot. The big amounts of alcohol reflect the high consumption rate. The small packages of sweets reflect their desire to eat a little at once.

I've said before that I think M & M's haven't taken off here as they might because the bags are too big and not in a container which is easy to close. Japanese people want be able to easily eat what they want and put the rest away. Marble Choco comes in tubes with a sliding top. Choco Babies come in plastic containers with a flip-top. It's easy to eat a little and put away the rest.

All that being said, there are actually a lot of tiny chip bags in Japan. They are sold in long packs with perforated edges so that small portions can be eaten. They're about half the size of single serving U.S. chip bags. There are also chips sold which are the same size as the single serving bags that Frito Lay sells as well, but they're available in limited varieties. I've reviewed a few of those snacks (Heart Chiple, Corn Potage snacks) in small bags, but not many as I tend to stay away from chips in favor of other types of salted snacks.

One of these days, I'll try and buy and review one of the tiny snack things I'm talking about (the ones with small amounts and perforated edges), or at least sneak a picture of some on display. ;-)

Thanks for your comment! I think you raised some good points.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your "essay" on Japanese snacking! I agree that their portion sizes for snacks are the perfect amount for ideal consumption.

One thing that has really surprised me about the Japanese is how HUGE their meals are and how little vegetables they eat! Have you noticed this at all?

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Robyn, and thank you for commenting!

I'm not as familiar with dinner portions as I am with lunch since dinner tends to be eaten in the privacy of ones home and meals with guests are much more lavish affairs. If I dine with Japanese people, what I am served would not be representative of what they would normally eat.

In restaurants, I've noticed that the vegetables are anemic, the rice is freakishly big (and seconds are free), and the protein a moderate to small amount. However, just like in the U.S., food served in restaurants can't be seen as really showing what people usually eat since restaurants are offering whatever it takes to make people pay more to be served rather than cook for themselves. I have noticed that tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurants serve a heaping amount of cabbage and pretty much all the pickles you can eat... though I don't know how nutritious either of those are. Some of the stews are pretty vegetable-intense - they have a lot of daikon (Japanese radish), carrots, potatoes, and often seaweed.

I can't really speak to anything with any real authority, so I'm afraid my opinion on this matter is worth less than my notions about snacking. Lunch was the meal I witnessed the most and I saw women eat relatively small portions in their box lunches (bento) at work, and men often ate out or ate instant ramen.

I have noticed that the portion of vegetables is very small relative to carbohydrates in particular (rice), and that Japanese people love fruit, but some of them don't eat it regularly. Yesterday, a student told me that she and her two children never eat fruit! I was really surprised because it seems fruit is highly prized here and presented as something really special in many cases.

I have been told that a lot of Japanese people eat salads for breakfast the way we have them as sides for dinner. One of my students has lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion on toast with mayonnaise for breakfast. Others have told me they also have greens with breakfast.

Sorry that my answer isn't better. I think readers who live in a Japanese household can give a better answer to your question than me!

Unknown said...

Nice op-ish piece, Orchid! Yes, you can just tell from looking at the meticulous INDIVIDUALLY-wrapped pieces of candy, cookies, and cake that the Japanese folks seem to take portion-control to a whole new level.

I suppose if you look at the new Nabisco 100 Calorie Packs, we're making some progress here...That is, unless you eat five bags at once!

And that bit about one of your students: I'm not sure how old she is but it seems like that's the life of a college student! Partying/binging one day and sleeping in all the day next. Now, I don't think Americans on the whole practice this kind of lifestyle after college, else it'll just kill them at work.

I have noticed that this seems to be the case for many developed Asian countries, and I think South Korea is very similar (obviously).

Orchid64 said...

Hi, C, and thanks so much for your kind comment!

My student is actually a 30-year-old operating room nurse! She works hard, and she plays hard. In fact, she works so much that I often fear for her health and sanity, but she seems to know how and when to let off steam with some well-placed imbibing, getting massages, and being with her friends when she needs their support.

I've found more adults do that sort of binge and drink thing here than back home, because I think they work to excess so much that they need a bigger blow-out to blow off steam. ;-)

leesh said...

is it fair to say that I'm genetically inclined to snack? :) now, i can understand why my dad has a love affair with chips every time he comes home from Japan!

dangoodbaum said...

This is a great piece- please keep illuminating subtle cultural food differences- Toronto could learn a lot from Japan.

Anonymous said...

Nice read indeed! Thanks Shari.

But, WJT's surveys are not scientific at all because they are internet surveys (for various reasons that make internet surveys very unscientific) =)

Compared to anecdotal speculation and internet posturing though, they so give a much better picture!