How Inflation In The US Is Affecting A Favorite Snack Food In Japan

In a world of people who love to snack, Japan might take the cake for its creative and readily available offerings. This is a country where you can stroll into a 7-11 and grab an onigiri, order imagawayaki with red bean paste on a street corner, or purchase a can of corn soup from a vending machine. Japanese snacks have infiltrated every corner of the globe, such as with Pocky, the thin chocolate-dipped cookie sticks that fly off shelves worldwide to the tune of about 500 million boxes each year (via Pocky).

Snack culture is so strong in the country that there's even a word for it — dagashi — which Tokyo Treat explains refers to cheap candies and snacks comparable to penny candy in the U.S., the type of inexpensive sugary bites that schoolchildren pick up after class lets out. Perhaps the most famous Japanese dagashi is Umaibo, a cylinder of puffed corn that's available in a huge range of flavors from cheese to chocolate to beef tongue. An instant classic since the snack first went on sale back in 1979, Umaibo is about to undergo a big change — which its Japanese manufacturers are blaming on U.S. economics (via the Guardian).

Rising corn prices are leading to a first-ever price hike on Umaibo

One of the most popular and recognizable packaged snacks in Japan, Umaibo translates to "delicious stick" and is a nosh of choice among the country's school-aged children, who indulge in flavors like chicken curry and salami and delight in the snack's iconic, brightly colored foil wrapping featuring the cat mascot Umaemon. First marketed back in 1979, the Guardian reports Umaibo has always sold for just 10 Japanese yen, or about nine cents. But in April, the snack will undergo its first-ever price hike, to ¥12, an increase the manufacturer, Yaokin, ascribes to the rising price of imported U.S. corn, Umaibo's main ingredient.

Although the price of U.S. corn tends to fluctuate, last year it went up by nearly 35%, according to AgWeb. Yaokin says those price increases forced their hand on the price of Umaibo — and people across Japan are taking notice. The Guardian shared a tweet from Japanese rock musician Atsushi Osawa, "We're witnessing a turning point in history. The price has started to diverge from the lyrics." Osawa's band, Uchikubi Gokumon Doukoukai, famously "called out the snack and its low price in a 2010 song."

"There's nothing we can do," Takeshi Nemoto, a Tokyo snack shop buyer, told the Guardian. "From the manufacturer's point of view, they can't stay profitable unless they raise the price."