Retro Boom in Japan is Cool! by Mike in Tokyo Rogers

I think there’s been an ever accelerating trend all over the western world (and Japan) to get back to “old-fashioned ways.” I think evidence of this can be seen nearly everywhere you look: The trend towards healthier lifestyles, more natural foods, the return of the popularity of canning foods or making your own jams and jellies at home, the popularity of retro fashions, designs, music and films….

It seems there is a hunger for the more “down to earth” ways of the past. Perhaps this is due to a bad economy or just due to a feeling that we’ve been heading down the wrong road through all these years of mass consumerism.

A photo from a Yakitori in Asakusa circa 1969

I even think that this desire to return to the old ways is a catalyst for many of the political and social protest movements like Occupy Wall Street or even the wonderful popularity on the Ron Paul movement in the US election; People think things now aren’t as good as they used to be. They want to get back to better times.

Recently, I’ve noticed this movement in Japan too. Did you know that some products that were very popular 40 or 50 years ago, yet near their death-beds in the late 80′s and 90′s in Japan have had a massive return in popularity over these last 5 years or so? Yes. It’s true.

One of the items that used to have a very uncool image amongst the young people 30 years ago was Hoppy. Back in the fifties and sixties, a cold glass of beer was a luxury for most Japanese businessmen. The solution? Hoppy. Hoppy is a non-alcoholic beer-tasting drink that, when added with Sho-chu (cheap) Korean liquor tastes like beer and gets the job done quite well, thank you. Hoppy was hugely successful before and during the days of Japan’s Economic Miracle. It was still popular until about 1979 or so…

In the late seventies and early 80s, a new drink came on the market that just destroyed the competition and that was called “Lemon Sour” or “Chu-hi.”  Lemon Sour is lemon juice and carbonated water with sho-chu. It is quite easy to drink, cheap and didn’t have an old fashioned image like Hoppy, so all the young people started drinking that. I used to drink those too.

In those days, of the early 80s, Hoppy was considered a stale old drink from stinky old men, that is, up until about 5 years ago. That’s when the old man who ran the company that makes Hoppy retired and put his daughter in charge of the company as president. She is one smart woman and she set out to revitalize the company and the image of the drink. And what a job she’s done! Hoppy sales have exploded in Japan and is now being drank by younger people. Why? Well Lemon Sour and Chu-Hi actually are high calorie drinks with lots of sugar in them. Hoppy is very low calorie and almost no sugar. So, since Hoppy is very low calorie (lower than Lemon Sour or beer) and so is Sho-chu, so you can drink Hoppy and be feeling great at a few dollars cheaper per glass and at a fraction of the calories of beer or Chu-hi.

The new president of Hoppy turned the company around and became a star of the business world

On a diet yet you want to drink but still want to look better? Hoppy it is!

This “healthier” image has done wonders for the company and the drink. In fact, it is my personal drink of choice now as Hoppy is very low on purine so it is best for drinkers who might suffer from gout or other drink related illnesses.

These sorts of old style drinking places are everywhere and resurgent in Japan.

I’ve marked where it says, “Hoppy” so you can try it next time.

Another thing that has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity is… Hi-Lite tobacco. Now, in this day and age, a resurgence in popularity in tobacco seems and impossibility, but with the Japanese government continually raising the taxes on cigarettes, many of the western brands, like Marlboro or Lucky Strike have gotten very expensive in Japan. It seems to me that I have witnessed, over these last two years, a high resurgence of younger guys smoking Hi-Lite cigarettes.

Hi-Lite has a similar story to tell as Hoppy does: After the war, premium cigarettes were prohibitively expensive. Then people smoked cheaper brands. And the most popular of the cheapest brands (and strongest nicotine and tar – 14mgs!) was Hi-Lite. Hi-Lite was by far the best bang for the buck. Hi-Lite’s package design hasn’t changed in years and is very uncool. It’s so uncool that it today fits in well, design wise, with the retro boom happening in Japan.

If I were this guy, I’d be drinking Hoppy and smoking cigarettes too… Maybe things weren’t so bad for “ojisan” after all…

Another thing that has found a return to popularity and success in Japan is the kid’s drink Ramune. Ramune was one of Japan’s first “soda-pop” drinks. When the british brought over lemonade before 1870′s, the Japanese thought they were saying, not “Lemonade” but “Ra-mo-ne.” Some enterprising Japanese businessmen then decided to make Ramune and it first went on sale in 1870. Over the years, there have even been wasabi and curry-taste tasting Ramune….

Today there’s all sorts of flavors of Ramune that kids like. My son loves it.

Ramune has been around all these years, and always available at festivals and matsuri season in Japan, but only in the last 5 or 6 years or so, has Ramune really gotten popular again. You might recognize Ramune by the unique shape of the bottle and, when you open it, a glass marble drops down inside the bottle too (never could figure out the reason for that). Ramune is even being sold in restaurants and grocery stores nowadays. I even saw it in a convenience store the other day!

Besides these three small examples, I see a resurgence of retro style and of people wanting things to get back to the way they were before. I see parents of small children wanting their kids to go do more traditional Japanese things and to enjoy the things those parents enjoyed when they were kids.

It was a time when things were simpler than now and life seemed just a little bit better.

Oh, how I wish we could get back to the way (some) things used to be: Friendlier neighborhoods, less crime, lower taxes, less stress… Maybe our grandparents did suffer through a lot, but I think they can also be envied for living something that us folks today only dream about.

What sorts of “getting back to better times” type of things do you see where you live?

Thanks to marketing expert and promoter Asami Shishido