How Taiwanese Bubble Tea Conquered the Taste Buds of The Japanese
The Reiwa Era’s First Hot Trend
Twenty years of hard work has earned the famous Taiwanese “bubble tea” a place in Japan’s highly competitive catering market. It’s now on its way to become the island nation’s favorite beverage.
Inside Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest railway hubs in Tokyo, as many as fifteen hand-shaken beverage shops vie for customers’ attention. Taiwan’s cold drink mania has invaded Japan.
“Average wait time: 6 hours.” A security guard holds up this warning sign in front of a popular shopping mall. Enthusiastic customers become crestfallen as reality sinks in. They’re late to the party.
It’s just past nine on the morning of May 29th. The JR Nagoya Takashimaya Department Store is not yet open, but 300 eager shoppers are already queued up at the entrance. Television reporters nudge through the throng to provide live coverage. The mall’s official website offers regular updates on the size of the gathering crowd. Shoppers who made it past the breach gleefully share photos of their conquests and trophies on social media, such as Instagram.
On this ordinary work day, the horde of shoppers is not here for an ordinary store. They are here for the opening of a Taiwanese hand-shaken drink shop: “The Alley” (鹿角巷).
This is actually the 23rd “The Alley” store since the Taiwanese brand entered Japan two years ago; it’s the fifth new store in a span of two months. Still, the crowds keep coming and coming.
“The Alley” is far from the only success story. Nearly forty hand-shaken beverage stores have sprung up in a three-kilometer radius around the Harajuku and Omotesando districts in Tokyo. In some areas, there seems to be a drink shop on every corner. Long lines gather in front of each and every one.
All in all, there are over 300 stores in Tokyo’s 23 wards, and every municipality has its preferred brand of bubble tea. Intensely competitive “hot zones” range from popular schoolgirl hangouts, to favorite shopping districts for working women, to even the residential areas. Demand is so high there is a shortage of the precious “bubbles” inside the tea, which are dark chewy balls commonly made from tapioca powder.
Getting your daily fix of bubble tea is so commonplace, teenage Japanese girls have invented a slang for it: “tapiru” (タピる). It’s the word “tapioca” converted to a Japanese verb. You can use it to convey whether you want bubble tea, are in the process of consuming bubble tea, or have run out of bubble tea and crave some more. Last year, it won first place in a survey of “Japanese slangs for middle school girls” (日本國高中女生流行語大賞).
The truth of the matter is, Taiwan’s refreshing cold beverages have been waging a secret war in Japan for the past twenty years. After three prolonged offensive actions, authentic Taiwanese bubble tea finally broke through and took the Japanese market by storm.
Taiwanese drink shops have been all the rage for the past couple years, and they show no sign of slowing down. Japanese media have described the trend as “unstoppable.”
Part One: The Early Years
Bubble tea first attempted to conquer the Japanese market as far back as twenty years ago. At the time, individual ventures and the now-vanished bubble tea brand “Quickly” (快可立) made an ambitious bid to win over thirsty Japanese customers.
The Taiwanese marketing campaign promoted the tapioca balls as “pearls,” but Japanese media came back with a verdict: “though the soft and chewy texture is amazing, the black balls look disconcertingly like frog eggs.” Quality and service were major sticking points, and eventually the Taiwanese offensive ground to a halt.
In 2013, another foray was made by Chun Shui Tang (春水堂), the self-proclaimed “forebearer” of Taiwanese bubble tea. It set up shop in Daikanyama, the mecca of Tokyo high fashion. A second bubble tea wave washed over Japan, reestablishing Taiwan’s position as an exporter of popular tea culture, but ultimately it failed to make a lasting impression.
The third wave that’s been sweeping through Japan these last couple of years seems to be the release of pent-up energy from the past twenty years. The eruption is still ongoing. More than a hundred bubble tea brands have established their presence across the nation. The total number of shops is over a thousand. During the last two months, a new store opened almost every week.
Taiwan is not the only player in the rapidly expanding market. Taiwanese brands like “The Alley,” “50 Lan,” “Gong cha,” “Chatime,” “CoCo,” and “Yifang” are fighting for their slice of the pie through joint ventures or franchising. They face competing brands from Japan, Korea, and China. Even players from outside the industry, such as convenience stores, vending machines, the coffee chain Tully’s Coffee, the donut shop Mister Donut, and conveyor belt sushi shops have taken up selling bubble tea.
As a result, the product itself has gone through a makeover. New features include a creamy foam on top, layers of different flavors in the blend, cloud-shaped cotton candies or sophisticated chocolat ganache added into the mix, colorful bubbles made from fruit instead of tapioca, even healthy “organic” ingredients…the inventions are endless.
Part Two: A Cup Costs Four Dollars Fifty, and Still They Come
The ubiquity of bubble tea has led to the creation of fan groups on social media. This in turn gave birth to internet celebrities who specialize in bubble tea. “Unboxing” videos where they review new blends are very trendy in the beverage aficionado circle, bringing in millions of unique views.
The two most popular bubble tea internet celebrities are “Nao” (奈緒) and “Karin” (華戀), two seniors from the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo. Together, they set up a social media account called “Tapilist,” and have reviewed more than sixteen hundred kinds of bubble tea over the last eighteen months. They spent all the money they earned from part-time jobs — around seven hundred thousand Japanese yen, or 6,500 US dollars — on buying bubble tea.
“Ever since I bought a drink from Gong cha in my freshman year, I’ve maintained the habit of drinking bubble tea every day!” The two twenty-one-year-olds appeared on the famed Japanese variety show “Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai” (マツコの知らない世界) to share their findings.
They brought along a detailed chart to compare the size, texture, and softness of tapioca balls from different brands. Their knowledge is so vast, they recommended “the ideal number of bubbles to ingest per sip for the optimal drinking experience.”
Their zest is born from a simple wish: “We hope more Japanese consumers can experience the deliciousness of bubble tea!”
To the Taiwanese, hand-shaken tea drinks are just part of daily life — nothing special. So, it may be hard to believe a cup of bubble tea costs upward of 500 yen (about 145 Taiwan dollars, or 4.50 US dollars) in Japan, which is more than what a Starbucks latte costs. Even so, they’re still flying off the shelves like hotcakes. What gives?
In a sense, the Japanese palate was primed to enjoy bubble tea. Taiwanese tea is fragrant, and the tapioca balls are chewy like Korean rice cakes, which the Japanese enjoy. Taiwan has been Japan’s favorite overseas travel destination for four consecutive years. The millions of bubble tea photos trending on Instagram, which is hugely popular in Japan, also contributed to the mania.
But the real trailblazer of the third bubble tea wave was the Taiwanese brand “Gong cha.” They looked at the Japanese beverage market many years ago and came to this realization: there were many coffee franchises, but nothing that served tea.
Part Three: The “Starbucks” of Bubble Tea
“Gong cha” originated in Kaohsiung, but the Japanese license was sold to “Korean Gong cha,” which in turned worked with Japanese private equities to create “Gong cha Japan” in 2015. They invited Ryosuke Kuzume (葛目良輔), a catering industry expert who had worked with Starbucks and McDonald’s, to be president. Kuzume was the mastermind behind the cross-industry alliance between Starbucks and Tsutaya Bookstore; if anyone knew how to establish a catering brand, it was this man.
“Gong cha” only opened ten shops during its first three years in Japan. This ballooned to fourteen additional shops last year, and then amazingly, twelve more shops opened in the first half of this year.
“Our target customers are people who don’t like coffee but love Starbucks,” Kuzume explained during an interview with Japanese media. Gong cha’s Japanese strategy is simple: follow Starbucks! Kuzume realized many Starbucks customers in Japan did not like coffee, but enjoyed the atmosphere inside coffee shops, and felt it was fashionable to walk around holding a cup of Starbucks coffee. This was why Starbucks’ hero product, the Frappuccino, was such a big hit among young girls.
“Tea is a very good substitute,” Kuzume realized. Tea fulfilled the unsatisfied demand of countless Starbucks lovers. Gong cha’s country of origin is Taiwan, which is seen as a guarantee of the tea’s quality by Japanese consumers. To appeal to younger customers, Kuzume added “katakana” (Japanese alphabet used for loanwords) to the name “Taiwan tea” (台灣tea) to make the brand seem more “hip.”
Within the shop, the menu is written in stylish white text on black plagues. Gong cha places great emphasis on giving customers the freedom to choose their favorite blends. Tea leaves, ingredients, the amount of sugar and ice…everything is customizable. In this way, thirty basic types of tea can be turned into 2,000 different combinations.
The interior design is all metropolitan fashion. Counter stools stand in a row behind brilliant French windows, giving off the vibe of a Starbucks café which happens to serve tea. Kuzume explains the product value this way: “customers are spending 500 yen not for a drink, but for twenty minutes of relaxation and enjoyment.”
Gong cha is very picky about location. Shops only open in city centers where the daily foot traffic measures in the millions, or in transfer hubs on the city’s periphery. Kuzume says they only set up shop where Japanese commuters congregate on a regular basis. In this way, bubble tea becomes part of the daily routine, and not something people enjoy only once in a while.
Part Four: Using Visual Appeal to Attract Japanese Women
Another amazingly successful Taiwanese brand is “The Alley,” which had its customers queueing up for six hours just for a sip. “All of our recently opened shops attracted crowds like this,” founder and CEO Chiu Mao-Ting (邱茂庭) says without surprise as he reviews photos from Japan.
When it comes to exterior design and marketing campaign, “The Alley” is second to none among the myriad Taiwanese brands trying to make it big in Japan.
Unlike first-movers who penetrated the Japanese market by promoting themselves as the latest and hottest trend from Taiwan, “The Alley” ditched the cheap plastic look of other beverage shops and worked with Japanese restaurant design company Potomak to focus on visual appeal and “beverage aesthetics.”
From exterior to interior design, to the music being piped into the shops, every aspect was crafted with an artist’s mind. Japanese girls felt like trendy socialites even as they slurped bubble tea and played with their smart phones.
“A drink is more than a thirst-quencher. There is an aesthetic in the product that provides added value and emotional satisfaction for the customer,” explains Chiu during his exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine.
“In the past, bubble tea failed to make a splash in Japan, because the Japanese don’t generally eat or drink while they walk. We spent six months reevaluating the market, trying to find a way to change the market’s impression of the product, and to reestablish consumer confidence in bubble tea.”
Over a month before their first store opened in Japan in 2017, the one and only “The Alley” food truck was deployed in Shinjuku on a test run to explore the market. The truck has been touring Japan for the past two years, often as a precursor to the grand opening of a new “The Alley” shop.
“The Alley” also collaborates with the Japanese female idol group Nogizaka46 and various exhibitions and movie premieres through cross-industry alliances to promote limited-edition beverages and create hype around their products.
“The Alley” offers a combo-meal of bubble tea and pork belly buns in Japan. (Source: thealley.jp@instagram)
Even the Taiwanese “gua bao,” also known as pork belly bun, is reinvented as a western pastry with Japanese meat filling that’s sold exclusively in Japan. “Let’s enjoy an elegant and stylish luncheon here next time!” A Japanese businesswoman posted on Instagram with breathless excitement. “The Alley” clearly knows what young women want.
“We continue to adjust and develop our food and beverages. We do more than just sell drinks,” stresses Chiu. “We invested money and manpower to successfully establish brand awareness. Every new store we open makes its money back within six months, and then starts reaping profits.”
Part Five: What’s Next for Hand-shaken Drinks?
Bubble tea has been all the rage in Japan these last two years, and has clearly won over Japanese women, but what’s next for the market? Will bubble tea become the ubiquitous beverage for consumers of all ages and genders, as it is in Taiwan?
Matsuko Deluxe, the 46-year-old host of the variety show “Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai,” confessed during his segment on bubble tea that it was embarrassing to get in line with a bunch of young girls to buy tea. But after trying a few sips, he found that “chewing the bubbles gave me a lift, so it’s very suitable for bored and sleepy office workers.”
Some shops disguised the bubbly beverages by putting them in gracefully designed bottles. “In this way, salarymen would be less shy about purchasing these drinks, and they would make a suitable gift for guests,” observed Matsuko. He thinks bubble tea has huge potential for growth in the “grown-up sector” of the Japanese catering market.
Last year, Gong cha experimented with the older market segment by opening shop in a business building in the center of Tokyo for the first time. Ryosuke Kuzume told Japanese online media Nikkei Cross Trend (日経クロストレンド) during an interview last October, “If I can operate a tea shop like a café, the thirty billion yen (about 278 million US dollars) Japanese tea market could grow to a hundred billion yen.”
What’s next for the tale of Taiwanese tea making a splash in Japan? This is for the big bubble tea brands — whether it’s Taiwanese entrepreneurs finding their fortune overseas, or Japanese brands enjoying their home field advantage — to discover together as they vie for dominance.
Translated by Jack C.
Edited by Sharon Tseng