OKINAWA – Okinawa rarely ventures into the minds of most Americans. The subtropical archipelago – actually closer to Taiwan than the Japanese mainland – comes to most folks in small snippets history and a few snippets of pop culture. The World War II battle scarred the region, destroying the prefectural capital of Naha. People in their 30s remember the fictional islander Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies, “The Okinawa Diet” is currently in vogue and the area remains a major United States military posting.
Yet the island chain provides an interesting cultural mix. Okinawa’s part of Japan, but it existed as the semi-independent Ryukyu kingdom from its development in the fourteenth century until its annexation in 1879. Locals worship by using the Chinese lunar calendar, developed a separate cuisine and traditionally imbibed their own liquor called awamori. Additionally, The United States occupied the prefecture between 1945 and 1972. Unlike the stereotypical view of urban Japan, Okinawa possesses a laid-back, bucolic lifestyle with clear-blue waters, coral reefs and the odd swaying palm tree.
With that in mind, here are 10 interesting brands found on Okinawa.
- Blue Seal Ice Cream: During the American administration, Foremost Dairies-today called Foremost Farms USA-opened parlors to serve military members. Though the corporate parent retreated in its territory, the spinoff became an Okinawan icon with local flavors including purple sweet potato and sugar cane. Mainland tourists bring back containers packed in dry ice as souvenirs for a little taste of the subtropics and the United States.
- Orion Beer: Pronounced “or-EE-on,” this brew differs little from the regular light lagers found in the United States and Japan. Began in 1957 as a premium beverage, finally found success when it switched to a more conventional style, acquiring half the Okinawan market. In 2002, Japanese giant Asahi bought a 10 percent share and began selling the Ryukyuan label with a campaign similar to Corona in the United States. Commercials feature blue waters, swaying palms and traditional music. Available, amazingly, at Trader Joe’s.
- Prison Break frozen shrimp: Found in the freezer section at a local fish market, this black-boxed food flummoxes the American visitor. A Google search turned up no direct matches, and heaven knows the item’s origin. The same situation occurred after we found Cat Smack-brand cat food.
- Kewpie Mayonnaise: At the risk of stereotyping, the Japanese are simply mad for mayo. They slather it on pizza, squirt it on some types of sushi and in 2007, Mayonnaise Kitchen opened in suburban Tokyo where patrons drink white stuff-rimmed cocktails and bottles for the table. Kewpie brought the French condiment-turned-sandwich topping to the country in 1925. As its own website says, “it would be no exaggeration to say that the history of mayonnaise in Japan was written by Kewpie.” The Kewpie is one of the last licensed characters from the 1909 series of wildly popular magazine stories that in the Ladies Home Journal.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken: In perhaps one of the great branding coups of all time, KFC became the Christmas Eve dinner in Japan. The association between deep-fried poultry, a commercial mascot and the Western world’s biggest holiday began soon after the chain opened its first store here in 1970. Various legends attempt an explanation-Colonel Sanders looked like Santa Claus, an American serviceman bought a box since he couldn’t find a turkey or an effective ad campaign-but there’s a sense of excitement when the different stores dress their statues of the Colonel in Santa gear, people start placing their orders on Dec. 1 and finally the giant lines form at the neighborhood location. The company, locally nicknamed “Kentucky”, receives extra, pop-cultural credit for “The Curse of the Colonel.” Look it up on your search engine.
- Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters: This name induces some serious giggles, so let’s set the record straight: The nickname’s “Fighters,” with no combat against pork products. Nippon Ham bought the club, previously the Nittaku Home Flyers, and slapped on the corporate name-just like corned beef on rye-in 1973. Still, it’s hard not to laugh at the retired Fighters mascot, “Fighty” the (literally) ham-headed, bicycle-riding, pink pterodactyl. The club conducts its spring training in Okinawa, but plays the regular season in frigid Sapporo in the nation’s far north.
- Shakey’s Pizza and Mister Donut: Back in the United States, these two exist almost as ghost brands. The former, mentioned on BrandlandUSA last year, shrunk from a national presence into a regional chain best known for being mentioned on South Park. The latter possesses a wonderful history. Mister Donut’s founder Harry Winouker was the brother in law of Dunkin’ Donuts’ creator Bill Rosenberg. Both established coast-to-coast chains across America and ventured into the Pacific Rim market. Where Dunkin’ Donuts outlasted Mister Donut in the USA, the opposite occurred in Asia. Mister Donut remains Japan’s biggest doughnut outlet with a strong market presence in the Philippines.
- Tulip canned pork: A few of you may have heard about the Okinawa Diet with its low calorie intake. Here’s a dirty secret: Genuine Ryukyuans love, love, love canned pork. Good ol’ American Spam ranks highly, but Denmark’s Tulip brand won the battle for the hearts, minds and stomachs of the islanders. Department stores and malls put up giant, island-themed displays of Tulip and Spam gift packs for holiday shopping. The grocery stores stock spam “sushi,” specifically onigiri which possibly has Hawaii origins. Even Okinawa’s traditional dish-goya champuru-an entrée with roots dating to the old kingdom’s fifteenth century days trading with Southeast Asia-usually uses Tulip along with the classic ingredients of goya, a bitter melon; tofu; and eggs.
- Pepsi Ice Cucumber: Released only in the summer of 2007, this special edition of the popular soft drink contained no actual cucumber flavoring. Soft green and with a slight melon flavor, the offering remained on the shelves in 2008.
Virginia historian and writer Matt Gottlieb, co-author of a scholarly article on the future of the toy industry for the American Journal of Play, is a former resident of Okinawa.