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Sunday, July 27, 2003

IMAGE OF REALITY?

Bottlers ride a 'purity' wave


Staff writer

Japanese people have for generations believed that whatever the times have in store, life's essentials such as water and safety would always be theirs for free.

News photo
But what's in the bottle?(Satoko Kawasaki Photos)

Well, things ain't what they used to be in safety terms -- certainly not if you believe what sensationalists in the media and politics have to say. And as for water -- the booming bottled-water business speaks for itself.

In fact, Japan's consumption of mineral water (both domestic and imported) reached 1.37 million kiloliters in 2002, up 10.2 percent on the year before and a whopping four times the 1992 level, according to Tokyo-based trade organization the Mineral Water Association, which estimated the market's value at 116.4 billion yen last year, compared with 34 billion yen in 1992.

Interestingly, too, the biggest percentage boom over those 10 years was in imported mineral water, which gushed almost sixfold from 45,000 kl in 1992 to 264,000 kl last year -- more than 19 percent of the total market. Of this, nearly 70 percent came from France, though suppliers from many other countries are lapping up the Japanese market, too -- even from as far afield as the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, and the Chilean Andes.

How has this come about in a country where water was traditionally regarded as a free gift of the gods, with what came out of its taps unquestionably and eminently potable?

It's not even that bottled mineral water is a novel idea in Japan. A Briton named J.C. Wilkinson started the ball rolling by selling carbonated spring water from Mount Rokko in Hyogo Prefecture to foreigners in 1890. For decades, however, the bottled-water business remained merely marginal.

When, in 1929, the Yamanashi Prefecture-based Horiuchi Corp. became the first Japanese company to sell spring water -- under the name Fuji Mineral Water -- its market was still almost entirely hotels hosting international conferences. And even after the Osaka-based beverage giant Suntory started bottling mineral water in the late 1960s, it was still mainly being used as a mixer in bars.

But then, in the late 1980s, came the groundswell, when reports began to emerge about pollution in rivers, reservoirs and poorly maintained water tanks. With that, the nation's famously cleanliness-conscious citizens pricked up their ears and began to question whether what came through their pipes was safe to drink, and started complaining that it smelled of mold or chlorine. To make matters worse, according to MWA Director Takuya Hanahara, it was around that time that stories began circulating about the hazards of trihalomethane, a carcinogen created in a chemical reaction at water-filtration plants.

However, allied to a growing health consciousness spurring the bottled-water market, there was also the economic bubble -- a time when many Japanese first started traveling overseas. The result was that in 1990, for the first time, the consumption of mineral water by households exceeded that for business and commercial use.

"Since then," Hanahara says, "as concerns over the quality of tap water have persisted, and as more Japanese are going overseas, they are getting used to paying money for drinking water, like people do in many foreign countries."

Last year some 80 percent of the total mineral water consumption, about 1.11 million kl, was by households.

But the demand for bottled water isn't just a negative reaction to tap-water concerns, Hanahara says. Consumers now also feel that minerals and calcium in the bottled water are good for their health.

And whether or not such beliefs are well-founded, the market now is surging, with more than 500 brands on the market from 400 companies, including 50 imports, and suppliers ranging from food and drink makers and bottlers to local governments, railway companies and even a record company and dam-construction firm.

"Supply creates its own demand," according to an economic rubric known as Say's Law of Markets and (backed by copious advertising) that would be hard to contradict in this case. But does the market's buoyancy necessarily mean that what people are buying is as good for their health as it's touted to be?

Not so, says Kazuhiro Matsushita, director at the Water Institution for Life and Natural Science. According to Matsushita, to help maintain a healthy bodily condition, water should have a balance of calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium, and be weak in alkaline with a pH of 7 or 8.

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Clearly different, but do you know how, or why?

But after testing natural spring water from many sources in Japan, Matsushita found only a few could accurately be termed "mineral water."

"Japanese spring water used to be clean and safe enough before 1960, but due to acid rain and water pollution, most of it is now acidic and contains too many germs," he says. He explained that European mineral water typically comes from sources as deep as 200 meters underground that are less affected by such environmental changes, whereas Japanese sources are generally only about 50 meters down.

"It is difficult to put such water on the market without chemical or physical treatment," he says.

In Japan, though, there are no clear regulations or standards for mineral water. Instead, there are merely "guidelines" set out in March 1990 by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. However, these are neither legally binding on producers, nor do they classify natural mineral water in the same way as other countries.

Standards deviation

In the European Union, for example, the label "natural mineral water" is permitted only when water is bottled straight from the ground, without being processed in any way. The water must also contain certain specified mineral levels.

In order to satisfy these criteria, European producers go to great lengths to protect their sources from contamination and to maintain mineral content, frequently buying up surrounding land and hiring "green police" to keep people away.

By contrast, Japan's guidelines on "natural" mineral water allow precipitation, filtration and pasteurization treatments, and also its bulk transportation by tanker from the source to the bottling plant.

"Mineral water" can even be labled as such if the minerals are added later, or if water from several sources are mixed after sterilization.

All this is despite the fact that, in 1996, the Codex Alimentarius Commission -- an international organization created by the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organisation -- set international standards for mineral water based on the strict European standards.

There have been no moves to bring Japan's guidelines in line with these standards. Instead, this country's attitude is summed up in the words of an agriculture ministry official: "In establishing international guidelines, each country's particular conditions should be taken into consideration."

He claimed that "the most important thing is the safety of the product," and explained that Japanese people tend to react negatively if water is not sterilized. Furthermore, it is almost impossible in Japan's limited space to secure such large areas to protect water resources.

Perhaps he's right, because according to Gen Saito, water-business manager at Suntory Ltd., Japanese people have different expectations of mineral water. "We tend to look to taste or safety, while Europeans think the therapeutic aspect is most important," he said, pointing to the French mineral water Contrex as a good example. "Contrex contains a lot of minerals, so it tastes unusual. Though it might not be suitable for use in tea, coffee or cooking, it is popular in Japan because people drink it as a mineral supplement," he explained.

This, he says, is in line with Japanese people's view of imported mineral water as a kind of health drink, with different characteristics from Japanese mineral water that derived from the soft-drink market.

Whether as a health drink or a soft drink, though, sales of mineral water in Japan continue to rise despite the recession.

And the market shows great promise. At present, per-capita annual consumption in Japan is only 10 liters, which is less than a tenth of that in France and only a third of that in South Korea. Mineral water still accounts for less than 7 percent of the soft-drinks market, says Ha- nahara at the MWA.

With so much sales potential still clearly untapped, and the growing worldwide trend toward more healthy and natural products, it's hardly surprising that, as Hanahara says, "producers of mineral water still have great potential for growth."

And in Japan, at least, that seems to be the case whatever's in the bottle.



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