One of Japan’s best-loved snacks is to go up in price – by a whopping 20% – for the first time since its launch more than four decades ago,
But Umaibo – literally “delicious stick” – will still be a steal for schoolchildren at just ¥12 apiece (US10c, not including sales tax), up from the current ¥10, when the change goes into effect in April.
The crunchy corn snack’s producer, Yakoin, blamed the rising price of corn imported from the US for the hike, the first since Umaibo went on sale in 1979.
Although the figures involved are tiny, the increase – less than 2c – is symbolically significant in “inflation-resistant” Japan, where firms have been reluctant to pass rising raw material costs on to consumers.
Noriko Eda, a 59-year-old Tokyo resident, said she was “surprised” by the news. “Umaibo have been the same price for so long, so a ¥2 increase is a big deal.”
A fellow Tokyoite, Naomi Hosaka, said it was a “bit sad” that the impact of inflationary trends in the global economy were affecting the cheapest items, including children’s treats.
The cylindrical snacks, wrapped in aluminium film, come in more than a dozen flavours, many based on Japanese food, such as spicy cod roe and takoyaki octopus balls, with cream of corn soup the biggest seller.
Around 700m of the sticks are sold annually – the equivalent of about five and a half for each person – both in packs and individually.
Umaibo’s low price and colourful wrappers featuring its hyperactive mascot Umaemon have earned the snacks a special place in the affections of schoolchildren looking to make their pocket money go as far as possible, and among older people craving a fix of sweet-shop nostalgia.
In the past, Japanese companies have countered rising costs by shrinking packages – Umaibo lost a single gram in weight in 2007 – but price increases could become a more regular occurrence.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Takeshi Nemoto, a buyer for a Tokyo snack shop. “From the manufacturer’s point of view, they can’t stay profitable unless they raise the price.”
Celebrity fans mourned the looming demise of the ¥10 price tag and, possibly, the loss of Umaibo’s status as Japan’s “national snack”.
“We’re witnessing a turning point in history,” tweeted rock musician Atsushi Osawa, whose band, Uchikubi Gokumon Doukoukai, referenced the snack and its “miracle” price in a 2010 song. “The price has started to diverge from the lyrics,” he said.
Umaibo’s roots can be traced to central Japan, where the grandparents of Yakoin’s current president, Masahiko Sumiya, started selling shrimp crackers at their fruit and vegetable shop. His father founded the company in 1960 when he moved to Tokyo after the second world war, according to the Mainichi newspaper.