• One of Japan’s biggest food trends right now is Bulgarian yoghurt. (Flickr / City Foodsters)Source: Flickr / City Foodsters
Yoghurt has travelled from Bulgaria to Japan and back, channelling national pride as it goes.
Maria Yotova

The Conversation
30 Jan 2020 - 3:31 PM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2020 - 4:09 PM

Japan has a food fad: yoghurt. The Conversation

Its artful display is the latest craze on Japanese tables, and yoghurt is one of the trendiest foods in the country.

Today, millions of Japanese include yoghurt in their daily diet, and the market is growing steadily. And Meiji Holdings, a Japanese company that has a subsidiary specialising in dairy products, is the biggest domestic producer in an industry valued at 410 billion yen ($A4.9 billion) annually, according to a March 6 article in the online newspaper Shokuhin Sangyou Shinbun.

How did yoghurt go from being a food alien to the Japanese, a substance often considered distasteful or even inedible just 35 years ago, to being a daily necessity and a symbol of health and well-being?

A new superfood

That was the question underlying the fieldwork I conducted from 2007 to 2012, for which I examined both dairy companies and consumers (available here in English and also in Japanese). I traced this commodity through time and space – from Bulgaria to Japan – watching it transform.

I asked people: what do you think you’re actually eating when you consume yoghurt? Is it a specific bacterium, a cool trend or a health-boosting substance?

Turns out, yoghurt’s current standing in Japan as a scientifically proven, evidence-based health food was created by a sophisticated marketing campaign.

Meiji’s yoghurt commercials extol the Bulgarian origins of their product, presenting the eastern European nation as the sacred birthplace of yoghurt. In Bulgaria, they tell consumers, dairy production is an old tradition, and “the wind is different, the water is different, the light is different”.

Bulgaria is promoted as the sacred birthplace of Japanese yoghurt:

What triggered the Japanese Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt company, which now boasts 43 per cent market share and 98.9 per cent brand awareness, to invest in this product?

The quest for longevity

Meiji started considering how to develop Bulgarian-style yoghurt for the Japanese market in the late 1960s.

At the time, the only type of yoghurt available in Japan was a sweetened, heat-treated fermented milk with a jelly-like texture. Brands such as Meiji honey yoghurt, Snow brand yoghurt and Morinaga yoghurt were distributed in small 80-gram jars and consumed as a snack or dessert, according to Meiji’s company history.

Plain yoghurt with living Lactobacillus bulgaricus, like what is popularly consumed in Bulgaria, did not exist. One member of Meiji’s Bulgaria yoghurt project told me he still remembered the shock of trying the plain yoghurt presented at the Bulgarian pavilion at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka. It was weird, he said, and astonishingly sour.

But plain yoghurt had a powerful draw: the promise of increased longevity. At the dawn of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) developed the theory that ageing was caused by toxic bacteria in the gut. He pinpointed lactic acid bacteria for its ability to neutralise these toxins and thus slow the ageing process.

Metchnikoff touted the unparalleled effectiveness of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, isolated from homemade Bulgarian yoghurt, for this task and recommended eating it every day.

That myth remains today. During my fieldwork in Bulgaria, I heard the same story many times: how powerful the local bacterium was; how it made delicious and healthy yoghurt.

One elderly woman attributed her daughter’s recovery from breast cancer to homemade goat-milk yoghurt.

“It is the bacillus that makes our milk, my girl,” she concluded. “It is unique. When I was young I didn’t eat much yoghurt, but now that I take it every day, my blood pressure has been normal and I feel so energetic!”

From inedible to irreplaceable

Meiji realised that, technologically speaking, it would not be difficult to produce plain yoghurt with living Lactobacillus bulgaricus. In 1971, the company launched its innovative product in Japan, simply calling it “plain yoghurt”.

Consumers hated it. Some took its sourness to mean that the product had gone bad while others doubted its edibility.

But Meiji persevered. In 1973, after making an agreement with the Bulgarian state-owned dairy enterprise to import yoghurt starter cultures, the company received permission to rename its product Meiji Bulgaria yoghurt.

The idea was to market authenticity, making full use of the Bulgarian rural idyll: pastoral scenery, herds of sheep and cows, bagpipers in traditional garb and healthy elderly people living in harmony with nature.

In the 1980s, the company combined this strategy with further microbiological research and closer cooperation with the Bulgarian side. In 1984, Japanese consumers saw a new Meiji Bulgaria yoghurt with sleeker packaging, helping build its market presence.

Meiji got another boost when it acquired the right to put the government-issued Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) seal on the label of its Bulgarian yoghurt in 1996. Health benefits have been the focus of its yoghurt branding and marketing ever since.

Branding the holy land of yoghurt

Imbuing their Bulgarian brand with new meanings, images and values, Meiji has not only turned a nice profit but also created in Japan a beautiful picture of Bulgaria as “the holy land of yoghurt”.

Back in Bulgaria, the media is fascinated by the popularity of a Japanese-made Bulgarian yoghurt. In one 2015 article, Japanese consumers claimed that Meiji’s Bulgarian yoghurt was more popular than Coca-Cola.

Almost every story about Japan, whether travelogues about dining or economics articles, mentions the Bulgarian yoghurt success story. This narrative is even used by companies and politicians in post-socialist Bulgaria to invoke national pride.

To many Bulgarians I met, the new Japanese identity of their local yoghurt embodies the very spirit of Bulgarian collective traditions. At the same time, they feel more connected to the modern world by its adoption as a symbol of health and happiness in one of the world’s great economic powers.

Globalisation may have shaken cultural values across the world, but yoghurt’s transformation has been a miraculous one, becoming a source of health and nourishment for people in Japan and a salve for the Bulgarian national soul.

Maria Yotova, Lecturer in Food Culture, Kwansei Gakuin University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. lead image by City Foodsters via Flickr.  Yoghurt varieties image by Bert Kimura via Flickr. 

Yes to yoghurt
10 ways with yoghurt
Yoghurt can be under-utilised in the kitchen, simply for the fact that it's perfect on its own or with a puddle of floral honey. Here, Leanne Kitchen gives us 10 fresh ideas for cooking with this miracle of fermentation.
Yakult ladies: the Avon ladies of Japanese fermented milk drinks
In Japan, close to 40,000 women go door-to-door selling Yakult, the probiotic drink, every single day.
Homemade yoghurt

Once you start your own batch of homemade yoghurt you'll have an endless supply, as a few spoonfuls of the previous batch is added to warm milk to make the next. You can begin by using good-quality commercial yoghurt.