Friday, June 1, 2012

Variety Friday: Happy Meals in Japan

The offerings for Happy Meals toys in Japan at this time cater to both cute-o-philes and car lovers. All images pilfered from McDonald's Japan's web site

There has been a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in the United States over the past decade or so about nutrition. The devil in most cases is luring you beneath the yellow arches and trying to convince you to inflate your belly and clog your arteries with his salty, fatty patties and starchy fried sticks of death. Nowhere is there more concern than when it comes to what is marketed toward children and what their parents purchase for them. Won't somebody please think of the children!

In America, the way in which the children have been thought of has encompassed a variety of changes at McDonald's including offering sliced apples instead of fries and soda being replaced by milk (low-fat, naturally). For reasons that I'm sure are logical to people who actually have children, they also decided that toys had to be taken out of American Happy Meals. Perhaps, they want to be sure that kids aren't nearly as happy as they could be about a Happy Meal and are therefore less likely to want one. Certainly, no one thinks that the toys are making kids fat, do they? Well, maybe they do. Sometimes the logic of some people escapes me and, for all I know, plastic crap made in China may be transmitting contact calories.

I had several discussions with various Japanese people with children about food at McDonald's and the "Happy Meals" in particular. Incidentally, "Happy Meals" are called a "Happy Set" in Japan. By no means are the people i spoke with a representative sample of parents and their opinions of McDonald's food or the inclusion of toys with said sets. However, the fact that the toys were displayed prominently in front of my local Mickey D's for years would seem to be an anecdotal indication that there wasn't a public outcry against using them to market fast food to innocents. 

As for what my conversations seemed to reveal, not one person felt that toys were the proverbial apple leading children out of the gustatory Eden of traditional Japanese cuisine. While they did believe that the toys may make kids want to buy the meals in order to get the toys, they said that it was the parents responsibility to make a choice about what to do. In fact, they said that, if they wanted the toys for the kids, they could simply buy the food to get the toy and throw the food away if they were so worried about the nutritional content of fast food. Indeed, many of the parents felt the kids weren't all that interested in the food in many cases anyway.

Menu options for a "happy set" in Japan. Click to see a larger, more legible version. 

The usual "happy set" in Japan does not offer the same "healthy" options as American "Happy Meals". In fact, it arguably offers less healthy options as you can choose from among a hamburger, cheese burger, chicken nuggets of small ("petit") pancakes as the main part of the meal. I can only imagine the cries of protest if pancakes were to be an option in America. As the side dish, one can choose fries or sweet corn and the drink options are any small beverage including soft drinks, tea, milk, juice, and milkshakes. Of course, you can also choose a toy option. Currently, people can have "Hello Kitty" toys or "Voov" miniature vehicles. The 15-second promotional commercials for these toys are very stereotypical in that only little boys are shown with the cars and mainly little girls are with the kitty-chan toys. You can view these commercials on the lower right hand side of the "Happy Set" page at present (but I'm sure they'll vanish in the future after this promotion ends). 

(Warning: Subjective conclusions and editorial commentary ahead!) One of the things that I concluded about living in Japan is that overall food culture as opposed to specific aspects of that culture is extremely powerful in shaping the health and bodies of the people and that the causes of the lifestyle problems in the U.S. which relate to lifestyle diseases (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) are not the result of the presence of unhealthy or fast food. There is a load of equally unhealthy food in Japan. When Americans try to fix childhood obesity by offering kids apples instead of fries, milk instead of soda, and taking away their toys, they're fixing a broken finger by putting a band-aid on a stubbed toe. Sure, they're both on the body, but one doesn't fix the other. The problem isn't the presence of empty calories being marketed with things kids will nag their parents to get them. The issue is an overall food culture that sees the frequency and volume as such things as being much higher than can support a healthy body. The Japanese, at least for the time being, are still in a place food culture-wise where they don't eat too much of such things too often. Parents don't care about the contents of a Happy Meal/Set because they care about food otherwise. They're not looking at taking their kid's to fast food places often enough for it to be an issue. They're looking at the whole day and entire composition of their children's diet. That's not to say that they never will care, nor that obesity rates aren't increasing in Japan, too (they are). However, for now, the kids can keep their toys, their fries, and even have pancakes if they want them and no one is going to scream "won't somebody please think of the children!"


Susie Eichel said...

What?! No toy?!?!?!?!

Obviously I don't frequent McD's often.... but when I have I ALWAYS get the kids cheeseburger meal. For the toy and because the smaller portions of fatty sodium sit better with me than larger portions of fat attack. Oh sad days! When I was a kiddo we got to go to McDs once in a blue moon and we loved the kids meal!

You know what else makes me sad, the took away the frosty from the kids meal combo at Wendy's. :( Now what am I gonna dip my fries in?! Ketchup?? pfft I want my frosty!

Orchid64 said...

I actively dislike fast food on the whole, though I preferred Mos Burger to all other options when I was in Japan. I would occasionally forget that I disliked the food and have McDonald's about once a year and then remember and not have it again. Since I don't eat hamburgers (not a fan of any sort of beef), the pickings were slim anyway. It was usually the smell of those fries that lured me and then eating them repelled me.

The toys in Japan with the Happy Sets are generally pretty awesome things and definitely worth the price of the set for collecting sorts (which I'm not). It is sad that they took away the toys in the United States, though my parents never took us to get such things and I don't have any memories.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Susie Eichel said...

So... I made my yearly run to McD's and whaddya know mine has yet to pull the toy (cheap plastic crap) from their Happy Meal. But I was very shocked to see the fries... in the teeniest container I have ever seen in my life! I will have to post a photo later and refer you to it, you will laugh.

Orchid64 said...

Thanks,Susie. It could be that I misunderstood the situation based on the utter lack of information about toys on McDonald's American web site. It could be that the toy is still there, but they do not in any way use it to promote the Happy Meals because of the parental uproar.

If others have experience with this, I'd be curious to know.

As a contrast, I will say that, while the U.S. site says nothing about toys, the Japanese site for "Happy Sets" makes it harder to find the menu than information about the toys that you get with the set. ;-)

Sharon said...

Actually, instead of pulling the toy completely, they added a ten cent toy surcharge so that the toy is no longer "free". That is why they still include them in the happy meals

Orchid64 said...

Thanks for that information, Sharon. It is an interesting way of dealing with their detractors. I wonder how few parents opt not to spend the extra dime on the toy. ;-)

Jessie said...

My seven year old son wasn't a huge fan of Happy Meals back in the States, but he cannot get enough of them now that we are here. He loves the pancakes, it's always what he gets when we go there. He doesn't really care about the toys, I think it's more aboutbeing able to eat something different for him.