Saturday, March 7, 2015

Adventures in the Asian Supermarket: Faux Japanese Foods (Part 1)

In the last few years, I've noticed a big trend emerge at my Asian grocers. There are increasing numbers of foodstuffs (fresh foods, snacks, you name it) that are carrying Japanese language branding and badging. Like this product:
At first glance, a rather innocuous-looking product from Japan, complete with Engrish typo.
Here's why.

People associate Japan with many things, and one of those in this day and age is quality. When it comes to issues of food safety, matters that may seem quite trivial or commonplace to you and me could easily result in a scandal in Japan. (In 2014, McDonald's Japan was the latest high-profile company to get hit after it was discovered that a Shanghai-based chicken supplier got into the Japanese supply chain. Profits were decimated for the year.)

So what about about this cheese-flavored "Castilla" is weird? (Having spent time in Asia, you develop a a healthy immunity to bad translations and misspellings.) It's a Japanese import, so having writing in Japanese is totally expected, right? Let's take a look at the back:

More Japanese writing. It's an explanation of what a Castella (<-- the proper spelling) is, and if you're wondering, it's pretty much in-line with the English portion. And in typical Japanese fashion, they completely neglect to say that this "traditional Japanese" dessert (日本の伝統デザート) is actually by way of Portuguese traders half a millennium ago. But I digress. Let's take one last look:

Whoa! What the what?! Imuraya, a real Japanese company if you were concerned, actually made this deceptively Japanese item at their Chinese subsidiary, Imuraya (Beijing) Foods Co., Ltd. So this 500-year-old tale of globalization has now seen this Portuguese export going to Japan, then to China, and end up here in a Asian supermarket in California. Not bad!

There's only one problem and it really bothers me. All that Japanese writing... who is that for, exactly? I can tell you point blank that this packaging is not eligible for sale in Japan. The nutrition info, English, and UPC code more than give it away. This was a product that was always meant to be exported to the US. And despite what you might think, I can tell you that Japanese speakers in the US are a very rare group. So the only thing that I can think of is that all that Japanese writing that virtually nobody is going to bother reading is actually meant to lead (and I dare say mislead) unsuspecting consumers into thinking that this is actually a Japanese import. The ones most at risk? East Asian immigrants who can easily tell that the written script is Japanese, but can't read that much English. Even this perfectly legal and properly-labeled package won't help them out here. And for those of you who are reading this and whose English is fine, ask yourselves: would you have noticed this whopper of a marketing gimmick? Take a CLOSE look the next time you visit your Asian grocer. Make sure you know what you're buying.

See Part 2 for my investigation into fake mochi...

P.S. Just to be clear, I did not purchase the Castella cake, but as far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with the quality or safety of this product.

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