TOKYO — A beloved Japanese sweet eaten by generations and so iconic it even appeared in a hit anime film has fallen to the end of the road, a victim of rising commodity and energy prices.
Tokyo-based Sakumaseika Co. announced on Wednesday that it would shut down operations in January due to rising production costs, a labor shortage and a drop in sales of its main product, Sakuma’s Drops.
The discontinuation of its branded candy — hard, colorful fruit candies sold in a red steel tin — sent Japan into mourning.
“When I was in elementary school, we always had a tin at home,” said 53-year-old candy store owner Naoe Watanabe, recalling how he used to use a 10-yen coin to open the lid of the treat — a staple in corner candy stores for 114 years.
“It feels like a sign of the times. There are so many options now compared to when I was a kid,” he said.
Sakumaseika said it hasn’t increased the price of the product, which consists of eight flavors including strawberry and lemon, in years. Fearing losing customers, many Japanese companies are reluctant to raise prices at all or pass on rising input costs in full.
The future of Sakumaseika’s approximately 100 employees is uncertain, a company official said. The company declined to comment further.
Founded in 1908 by pastry chef Sojiro Sakuma, Sakumaseika produced the candies during the air raids of World War II, inspiring anime giant Studio Ghibli to immortalize them in their 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies.
In this film, set during the war, an orphan girl struggling to survive with her brother carries the red can of Sakuma’s Drops – one of the siblings’ few possessions after their home was destroyed.
THE AGONY OF CHOICE
Hiroshi Matsuzawa, owner of a snack shop on a popular shopping street in Tokyo, said Sakuma’s Drops are mostly popular with older consumers, while kids are spoiled for choice with a myriad of new products.
Teruyo Ishiguro, who runs a mom and pop snack shop “Dagashiya” – traditionally a pit stop for kids coming home from school – said she stopped wearing Sakuma’s Drops last year, noting that most shoppers tend to to be in their 50s or older.
“It’s very sad to see something that’s been around for so long disappear,” the 80-year-old, who has been selling snacks for more than 60 years, told Reuters.
Near-double-digit wholesale inflation and a weak yen have squeezed profits for many food manufacturers. In January, the maker of the popular corn snack umaibo raised prices for the first time since the snack’s debut in 1979, making headlines across the country.
Sakumaseika suffered a net loss of more than 150 million yen ($1 million) in fiscal 2021, according to credit survey firm Tokyo Shoko Research, which first reported the company’s shutdown on Wednesday.
However, all is not lost for the fans.
Rival Sakuma Confectionery Co., formed when its management split from Sakumaseika’s after the war, will continue to produce a similar product, confusingly named Sakuma Drops, in a similar tin but in green.
“As a competitor, we are saddened” by Sakumaseika’s exit, said a spokesman for Sakuma Confectionery. “But maybe we put more effort into trying new avenues, a new range of products.” – Reuters