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Candy in Pithy Packaging

Fans of sweets from Japan say the wrapping and quirky English sayings are hard to resist.

October 31, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one can quibble with the enduring popularity of American confections like Snickers and M&Ms. But to some of us who have gorged on that familiar stuff Halloween after Halloween, Japanese candy is an intriguing alternative, at least on the outside.

"I'm a big fan of standing in the aisle at Mitsuwa and staring at all of the candy and figuring out what I want to buy," said Samantha Sackin, 31, a public relations executive whose offices are close to the Little Tokyo supermarket. "Usually I buy one item I've had before, like Pocky, and something new that strikes my fancy because of the packaging."

Part of the allure of Japanese sweets is pure exoticism--the boxes are covered with Japanese script, sometimes translated, but more often not, the result of which is a certain degree of mystery about the contents.

And when English translations do grace the packages, the results can be humorous. Take Doraemon, chocolate-covered balls the size of Milk Duds: "Please remember me," the package reads. 'My name is Doraemon, a catlike robot from the 22nd century of the future." A chocolate bar called Fire reads, "Rest your mind, warm your soul and feel the fire," suggesting something better suited to the bedroom than the snack room.

"The idea is English looks cooler than Japanese. So they use it without the proper knowledge of English grammar," said Tokyo native Tomoyuki Isoyama, a USC graduate student in Japanese linguistics and an artist. His artwork, titled "Orange Candies ver. 2.0" (featuring more than 20 types of Japanese candy) is on view at UCLA's New Wight Gallery. "This happens a lot, not just with candy, but with T-shirts."

Some of the product names themselves are curious. Take "Men's Pocky," one of several varieties of the popular Pocky confection--skinny biscuit sticks coated in one of about a dozen candy coverings, the classic being milk chocolate.

"To Japanese," Isoyama explained, "the connotation of the word 'men' is for people who understand bitter taste, people who care for sweet, but not too sweet."

Also, he said, Glico, the company that makes Pocky, is probably trying to expand its customer base by marketing to men. And it's had some success. "When you go to a bar and drink whiskey or something here," said Isoyama, "you would be served nuts. In Japan, you might be served Pocky. Inside a wineglass they might put 20 pieces of Pocky. It's not only for kids."

Kiss Mint gum is another unusually packaged confection. Its varieties include: "for refreshment," "for skin fresh breath," and most miraculous of all, "for etiquette."

"When I chew the etiquette gum," said Sackin, who often carries a package of Kiss Mint in her purse, "I feel the need to stand up straight. You can't slouch and chew etiquette gum." She even chews more delicately, she said: "It's hard to chomp a gum for etiquette."

Even without the Japanese script and the hybrid "Japanglish," Japanese candy packaging has it over American candy on a purely aesthetic level. "The Japanese are so into wrapping things," said Brian Kito, owner of the two Fugetsu-Do sweet shops in Little Tokyo. "In Japan, packaging is so important, so much more advanced than it is here, even down to the candies."

The result is that many Japanese candy packages look more like toys or accessories than edibles. Quite a few of the packages, in fact, contain Cracker Jack-style miniature toys or stickers. Even more feature adorable characters, such as the catlike robot, Hello Kitty, Pikachu or a smiling wide-eyed burger on a box of tiny chocolate cheeseburgers called Every Burger.

Some of the candies marketed to adults have a luxury look unlike that of American candy. Fran, for example, a high-end Pocky knockoff, comes in an elegant gold box that could give Godiva a run for its money.

Despite this bounty of Japanese confections, Japan has yet to fully embrace Halloween. "The sweet industry is trying to promote Halloween," said Isoyama. "But compared to Christmas, it's nothing."

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