I thought I’d seen everything when I read the headline in today’s paper that Nestle was going to bail out Yubari city from its bankruptcy. As it always turns out with these headlines, it was slightly exaggerated but I really do have to take my hat off to Nestle. It turns out that Nestle has decided to donate 10 yen to the city of Yubari from every pack sold of its latest brand of Kit Kat. From next Monday, Nestle will begin to sell the “Yubari Melon Kit Kat” which as you guessed is filled with powder from the famous melons of Yubari.
Just in case you haven’t been following the news on the quaint city of Yubari, (not to be confused with Gogo Yubari), I’ll do my best to give you a ten second summary of why the largest food company in the world would be donating yen to a local government. Back in the Showa period, Yubari was a symbol of post-war Japan with a healthy population of over 100,000 people and a vibrant industry centered around the Mitsubishi coal mine. As I’m sure you’ll have guessed already, the canary died about twenty years ago – along with the mine – and since then the population has dwindled to about a tenth of its peak. In order to revive the regions economy, the local mayor decided to build an extravagant amusement park centered around the theme of Yubari’s famous cantaloupe melons. Say no more. The city could never repay the debt related to this and other extravagant projects and resorted to short-term high interest rate financing from the local banks. All of this became public last year and the city was officially declared bankrupt. (Just in case you care, here is a map of where Yubari is in the island of Hokkadio courtesy of the official Yubari City page.)
So, you may ask, why on earth should Nestle donate 10 yen to a bunch of amateurs who thought that they could turn a fruit into an amusement park? You’re absolutely right. It is just ridiculous. Except this is Japan, and the population clearly has a soft spot for the 0.01% of Japan’s population that is stuck still living in poor old Yubari. Nestle claim that their new product is answering the wishes of the people of Hokkaido who wanted to know if there was a way that they could help Yubari. Of course, they could just donate cash directly to Yubari’s “Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness” which is the official fund that the Yubari city has set up to help return the city’s debt. (Wow!) What if I don’t want to donate to Yubari but I still want to eat a melon flavoured Kit Kat? Do I get my 10 yen back?
Even better yet – and this is why I really do take my hat off to Nestle – apparently they are going to sell the new “Yubari Melon Kit Kat” for 150 yen – a full 30 yen higher than the price that they normally charge for Kit Kats. Can anyone tell me what happens to the 20 yen that they are not donating to Yubari City? I’ll guarantee that I can’t get that back.
Kampai to them. That is why they’ve been able to grow a business which is as large as their neighbour, Ezaki Glico who is famous for the Pocky line. (Nestle is in Kobe and Glico is in Osaka. Both had sales in Japan of about 2.5 billion US dollars last year). The last time Nestle was being “more Japanese than the Japanese” was back in 2002 when someone realized that Kit Kats could be sold to Kyoiku Mamas (教育ママ, overly protective Mothers who wanted their kids to study a lot) who had children sitting University exams. It turns out that if you pronounce Kit Kat with a Japanese accent, it sounds very similar to “You are sure to succeed” (きっと勝つ) and so the Mum’s thought it was a good omen to give to their jukensei (受験生, studying for an exam) children. This time it seems that the Kat in Kit Kat might be referring to what they should do to the salary of the local politicians in Yubari…
Update: This video report from Monacle was done on Yubari in Feb 2008. Adds some quite interesting insights into the town, its history and its plight. Click the middle of the movie to play: