Japanese Swarm to Sword Beans as Cure-All

Marketers Pack Products From Tea to Toothpaste With Ingredient Said to Prevent Variety of Illnesses

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All hail the mighty sword bean.

In their extreme and unending search for healthful products, Japanese consumers are embracing the sword bean, or nata mame, in everything from tea to toothpaste. Its claim to fame is its ability to stop bad breath, but in Japan the sword bean's credits include preventing pneumonia, strengthening the immune system, reducing diabetes risk and relieving hay fever.

A sword beans website
A sword beans website
The sword bean has traveled a long road in Japan. Once considered a good-luck charm on extended journeys and commonly eaten as a pickled vegetable, it has become the so-called miracle ingredient in toothpaste, soap, bath powder, and health drinks and supplements that appeal to an aging population.

"[Japanese] people like convenience and things they're used to, which is why sword-bean tea is our main product and top seller," said Takashi Yoshitome, president of Yoshitome Natamame Manufacturing Co. in Kagoshima, where the sword bean is grown. Its second best-selling product is sword-bean toothpaste.

The Japanese are courteous and self-conscious. Marketers take advantage of those qualities in promoting sword-bean products as a way to avoid the impoliteness of bad breath.

A video created by BBDO Fukuoka on Natamame's website shows distraught middle-aged women covering their mouths to prevent exposing others to their unpleasant breath. Ads by the agency feature groups of senior citizens or mothers and children, and describe the health benefits and history of sword-bean products. The ads include pictures of sword-bean farms and farmers.

Sword beans masks
Sword beans masks
Other marketers of the products offer similar ads that rely on words such as "refreshing," "healthy," "prevention," "history" and "delicious."

That's effective marketing language in a country where the government encourages citizens to be active about preventing illness and local media regularly report lifespan rankings of various prefectures. Japanese want "not to live just a long life but a healthy one," said Mr. Yoshitome.

Another tactic is to harp on the fixation with sickness. The Japanese love nicknames, and one marketing trend is to attach byou, which denotes disease or illness, to a word to indicate an addiction (somewhat like "-aholic" in, for example, "workaholic"). Byou is used even more freely and frequently, however.

The byou tags are sometimes taken as a joke, such as kotatsu byou, an addiction to using an electric table heater during cold winters. But of course none of these "addictions" are diagnosable.

A current phrase is seikatsu shukan byou, or lifestyle-related illness, covering such things as poor diet and lack of exercise. Marketers are exploiting the byou trend by promoting sword-bean products as a way to overcome such conditions.

"Periodontal disease leading to loss of teeth and bad breath is a big issue right now, especially for people over 30," said Mr. Yoshitome.

Personal hygiene is another essential part of Japanese culture. "Toothbrush kits" consisting of toothbrush, toothpaste, face towel and gargle cup are essential supplies that children bring to school and use daily. Students brush their teeth at a designated time after lunch—signaled at some schools by music over the loudspeakers. Lifelong habits are formed, and adult Japanese office workers often grab their toothbrush kits after lunch.

If Japanese marketers have their way, the sword bean is ready to take on the world.

"Asian countries such as Korea and China also have a prominent tea culture," said Mr. Yoshitome. "We have high hopes of success in nata mame tea for Asian countries and in the toothpaste for Western countries."

And if sword beans aren't your cup of tea, consider other popular Japanese health drinks made from kale (aojiru), turmeric (ukon) or black vinegar (kurozu).

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