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From Bulgaria to East Asia, the making of Japan’s yogurt culture

One of Japan’s biggest food trends right now is Bulgarian yoghurt. City foodsters/Kakigōri Kanna/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Yogurt has travelled from Bulgaria to Japan and back, channelling identities and national pride as it goes. The sixth article of our series Globalisation Under Pressure charts its course.

Japan has a new food fad: yogurt. Its artful display is the latest craze on Japanese tables, and yogurt is one of the trendiest foods in the country.

Today, millions of Japanese include yogurt in their daily diet, and the market is growing steadily. And Meiji Holdings, a Japanese company that has a subsidiary specialising in dairy products, is the biggest domestic producer in an industry valued at 410 billion yen ($US3.7 billion) annually, according to a March 6 article in the online newspaper Shokuhin Sangyou Shinbun.

How did yogurt go from being a food alien to the Japanese, a substance often considered distasteful or even inedible just 35 years ago, to being a daily necessity and a symbol of health and well-being?

Plain Bulgarian yogurt has become a symbol of good health. Ned Jelyazkov/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

A new superfood

That was the question underlying the fieldwork I conducted from 2007 to 2012, for which I examined both dairy companies and consumers (available here in English and also in Japanese). I traced this commodity through time and space – from Bulgaria to Japan – watching it transform.

I asked people: what do you think you’re actually eating when you consume yogurt? Is it a specific bacterium, a cool trend or a health-boosting substance?

Turns out, yogurt’s current standing in Japan as a scientifically proven, evidence-based health food was created by a sophisticated marketing campaign that brought consumers to this non-traditional product through mythologist branding.

Meiji’s yogurt commercials extol the Bulgarian origins of their product, presenting the eastern European nation as the sacred birthplace of yogurt. In Bulgaria, they tell consumers, dairy production is an old tradition, and “the wind is different, the water is different, the light is different.”

Bulgaria, the sacred birthplace of Japanese yogurt.

What triggered the Japanese Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt company, which now boasts 43% market share and 98.9% brand awareness, to invest in this product?

The quest for longevity

Meiji started considering how to develop Bulgarian-style yogurt for the Japanese market in the late 1960s.

At the time, the only type of yogurt available in Japan was a sweetened, heat-treated fermented milk with a jelly-like texture. Brands such as Meiji honey yogurt, Snow brand yogurt and Morinaga yogurt were distributed in small 80-gram jars and consumed as a snack or dessert, according to Meiji’s company history.

Sweet Morinaga yogurt was around in the 1960s. Morinaga Milk

Plain yogurt with living Lactobacillus bulgaricus, like what is popularly consumed in Bulgaria, did not exist. One member of Meiji’s Bulgaria yogurt project told me he still remembered the shock of trying the plain yogurt presented at the Bulgarian pavilion at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka. It was weird, he said, and astonishingly sour.

But plain yogurt had a powerful draw: the promise of increased longevity. At the dawn of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916), developed the theory that ageing was caused by toxic bacteria in the gut. He pinpointed lactic acid bacteria for its ability to neutralise these toxins and thus slow the ageing process.

Metchnikoff touted the unparalleled effectiveness of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, isolated from homemade Bulgarian yogurt, for this task and recommended eating it every day.

Metchnikoff feeding his good bacteria to the elderly. Revue

That myth remains today. During my fieldwork in Bulgaria, I heard the same story many times: how powerful the local bacterium was; how it made delicious and healthy yogurt.

One elderly woman attributed her daughter’s recovery from breast cancer to homemade goat-milk yogurt.

“It is the bacillus that makes our milk, my girl”, she concluded. “It is unique. When I was young I didn’t eat much yogurt, but now that I take it every day, my blood pressure has been normal and I feel so energetic!”

From inedible to irreplaceable

Meiji realised that, technologically speaking, it would not be difficult to produce plain yogurt with living Lactobacillus bulgaricus. In 1971, the company launched its innovative product in Japan, simply calling it “plain yogurt”.

Consumers hated it. Some took its sourness to mean that the product had gone bad while others doubted its edibility.

Yogurt was associated with good health, before good taste. Ignat Gorazd /Flickr, CC BY-SA

But Meiji persevered. In 1973, after making an agreement with the Bulgarian state-owned dairy enterprise to import yogurt starter cultures, the company received permission to rename its product Meiji Bulgaria yogurt.

The idea was to market authenticity, making full use of the Bulgarian rural idyll: pastoral scenery, herds of sheep and cows, bagpipers in traditional garb and healthy elderly people living in harmony with nature.

In the 1980s, the company combined this strategy with further microbiological research and closer cooperation with the Bulgarian side. In 1984, Japanese consumers saw a new Meiji Bulgaria yogurt with sleeker packaging, helping build its market presence.

Meiji Bulgaria yogurt in its nice new package. LB Bulgaricum

Meiji got another boost when it acquired the right to put the government-issued Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) seal on the label of its Bulgarian yogurt in 1996. Health benefits have been the focus of its yogurt branding and marketing ever since.

Branding the holy land of yogurt

Imbuing their Bulgarian brand with new meanings, images and values, Meiji has not only turned a nice profit but also created in Japan a beautiful picture of Bulgaria as “the holy land of yogurt”.

Back in Bulgaria, the media is fascinated by the popularity of a Japanese-made Bulgarian yogurt. In one 2015 article, Japanese consumers claimed that Meiji’s Bulgarian yogurt was more popular than Coca-Cola.

Almost every story about Japan, whether travelogues about dining or economics articles, mentions the Bulgarian yogurt success story. This narrative is even used by companies and politicians in post-socialist Bulgaria to invoke national pride.

In Bulgaria, preparing yogurt from goat’s milk. Maria Yotova

To many Bulgarians I met, the new Japanese identity of their local yogurt embodies the very spirit of Bulgarian collective traditions. At the same time, they feel more connected to the modern world by its adoption as a symbol of health and happiness in one of the world’s great economic powers.

Globalisation may have shaken cultural values across the world, but yogurt’s transformation has been a miraculous one, becoming a source of health and nourishment for people in Japan and a salve for the Bulgarian national soul.

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