It is a classic image of a Japanese weekday morning: Steeling himself for the commute to work on packed trains or hoping to clear his head after a few too many the night before, the male office worker stands at a station kiosk downing a drink in a finger-length bottle.
Consumption of these medicinal, or genki, drinks is not restricted to mornings nor to "salarymen." People from all walks of life consume the highly popular beverages, which usually come in brown bottles. Stores allocate prime shelving to a great array of these drinks, which proclaim such effects as invigorating tired bodies, soothing stressed minds, alleviating hangovers and even promoting blemish-free skin. The benefits derive from a hodgepodge of active constituents, including amino acids, turmeric and royal jelly, and also stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine.
These drinks are no recent phenomenon. "In the early 1960s, Japan was building its country, and people worked extremely long hours," says Paul Yamaguchi of nutritional research and consultancy firm Paul Yamaguchi & Associates. "Taisho Pharmaceutical tapped into this demand and in 1962 brought out Lipovitan D, the nation's first medicinal drink, to give a boost to this army of workers."
Medicinal drinks were initially sold only at pharmacies, but this changed in 1999 with deregulation, permitting their sale at such places as convenience stores and supermarkets. According to Taisho, annual total market revenue in fiscal 2008 from medicinal beverages was about ¥210 billion. The market has dropped off slightly in recent years, but makers have managed to ride the economic storm by diversifying their ranges for new and existing clientele.
Taisho's Lipovitan series leads the way, picking up revenue of ¥75 billion in fiscal 2008 - about 70 percent of which was reaped from sales of Lipovitan D, which aims to relieve physical and mental fatigue. "We research customer sentiment in various ways," says Atsushi Eto of Taisho. "We have about 1,000 direct salespeople nationwide who visit stores to sell the drinks. We market the drinks and hammer out a strategy based on the information they provide."
In August, the company launched Lipovitan Ace 100ml - the latest in its range of 14 drinks. The beverage contains 11 active ingredients, including L-form arginine hydrochloride, believed to improve circulation, and a vitamin B1 derivative, reputed to alleviate fatigue. "Its sharp bitter flavor is aimed at our traditional market of enervated office workers," Eto says.
SS Pharmaceutical is one of several competitors playing catch-up with Taisho. The 13 drinks in its S-Cup range brought the firm sales of ¥9.5 billion in fiscal 2008. "S-Cup drinks contain vitamins such as B1 and B2 that help boost energy," notes the company's Erika Nakajima. "They also have constituents such as taurine, an amino acid that enhances the metabolism. Our latest product - S-Cup G - contains arginine and branched-chain amino acids that revitalize people who can't find time to exercise."
Pharmaceutical companies traditionally targeted medicinal drinks at businessmen, but with sales having plateaued, firms are switching their marketing tact to professional women by concocting drinks containing dietary iron, fiber and minerals in which many women are perceived to be deficient. Takeda Pharmaceutical's Alinamin R is a drink aimed at helping women unwind after a hectic day. "It replenishes nutrients for people who are fatigued," says Takeda's Hisako Nagata. "Alinamin R gives off a fragrance of lavender and grapefruit to help consumers freshen up and relax. It doesn't contain caffeine, so you can drink it before going to bed."
Those fond of a tipple can find relief in numerous beverages. Sato Pharmaceutical has reformulated its OTC Liverurso brand of tablets for cirrhosis treatment as a medicinal drink, and House Foods has bucked the trend of stagnant sales with its Ukon no Chikara ("turmeric power") product, a beverage that can be taken before imbibing. The drink pulled in revenue of ¥24.5 billion in fiscal 2008, its success partly coming through TV commercials featuring pop star Masahiro Nakai and that focused on the product's taste. "House Foods was originally a company dealing with spices, and we wanted to market a drink containing turmeric, a spice with many health benefits," comments Sotaro Maezawa of Health Foods. "Because of its bitter image, we developed Ukon no Chikara as a drink that removes the bitterness and is easy to drink. We've also developed a drink flavored with cassis and orange to attract female customers."
The market for these drinks has changed considerably in the past, and Yamaguchi believes that further change lies ahead. "Energy drinks will probably lose popularity over the next 10 to 15 years," he notes. "They're likely to be replaced by drinks focused on health and beauty - both qualities highly valued by the Japanese."