How did Kit Kat become king of candy in Japan?
February 2nd, 2012
10:00 AM ET
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A sweet-tooth in Japan isn’t hard to satisfy. The country’s convenience stores are stocked with a range of intriguing confectionery, but often you’ve got to be quick to catch them.

A short shelf life isn’t because products like Hokkaido cheese chocolate are snapped up by hordes of roving umami-hunters, but because perpetual revolution of a product range is the key to survival for brands in Japan.

As soon as chocolate Christmas cakes and New Year themed sweets disappear from the shelves, a slew of new and splendidly packaged products is ready to be unleashed on the public.

Yet for big Western brands, Japan is a particularly hard nut to crack. Given the unique nature of the Japanese market and home-field advantage, the top five brands for all packaged food products in Japan are domestic.

“Japanese consumers are the most demanding in the world not only in terms of the quality of product but also quality of packaging and visual presentation,” says Atsushi Morisawa, general manager for Mars Japan.

But among the hundreds of special editions and new products that are launched each spring and autumn, one old favorite from the West has managed to be big in Japan: Kit Kat.

But how did the chocolate wafer bar go from its humble origins in northern England in the 1930s to a perennial favorite among Japan’s faddy eaters? The answer has something to do with persistent investment from Nestle and a lot to do with great big dollop of luck.

To Nestlé’s amazing good fortune, the word Kit Kat sounds similar to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu”, which roughly translates to mean “surely win.” It’s a term of good luck often used by students before their exams, but to Nestle it has sounded more like “Ka-ching!”

Running with that tonal advantage and tapping into Japan’s love of novelty, Nestlé has produced over 200 special edition flavors of the chocolate bar since 2000, often sold as gifts rather than snacks bought on the go. From wasabi and green tea to flavors specific to regions of Japan (Hokkaido roasted corn flavor, anyone?), Nestle has kept up the innovation to make it a mainstay on the shelves of stores across Japan, even making souvenir editions around holidays and events.

Without any Japanese-sounding sweets, Nestle rival Mars has had to take the longer route to getting a foothold in Japan’s candy market, says Morisawa.

First there’s getting up to speed with new product launches and a very costly up-front investment. After sticking at it in Japan for 35 years, Mars has managed to get Snickers and M&Ms on shelves next to ever-changing Japanese brands. Often partnerships with domestic companies are the best ways to get your brand noticed, says Morisawa, but they don’t always work; the incentive for the domestic brand isn’t there.

Even if you can’t have a brand made to surely win, simply getting into Japan’s trend-happy market is worth the effort.

“It’s a challenge, but also a great opportunity,” says Morisawa. “If you could win in the Japan market, you could win the rest of Asia, also.”

See all our Japan Eats coverage and get more on CNNGo

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Filed under: Candy • Dishes • Feature • Japan Eats


soundoff (103 Responses)
  1. Travis

    Check out my site dedicate to Kit Kat flavors!

    http://www.kit-kat-flavors.com

    October 11, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  2. Kara

    I love Kit Kat , but I am sad that Pocky seems to have fallen out of favor as a big thing in Japan.... It's hard enough finding pocky over here in the states , now it seems I'm lucky if I can find any on jlist / jbox and other places online.....I've never been to Japan so I don't know how available it is anymore now that Kit Kat is the big thing there and lastly , I know the usual choices stores here seem to go for are still being sold – ( chocolate , strawberry , and sometimes almond crush .....good luck finding any other flavor ) – but what about all the other flavors? I hope Pocky and its many flavors are still going strong in Japan despite the Kit Kat craze. I also am still a bit annoyed that they changed dessert pocky around , seems that dessert pocky is even rarer than other flavors of pocky.....but I could be wrong....*shrug* I feel like I missed out on a lot of Pocky and will never be lucky enough to have tried all the other flavors I want to try but just haven't gotten to yet for a variety of reasons. If I remember correctly my favorite flavor is Marron ( chestnut ) but the store I used to get it from is no longer there and despite there being many small asian stores here and there in different places...haven't found the "right" one yet. *sigh*

    May 7, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
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    April 9, 2013 at 11:44 am | Reply
  4. lillylicious

    Reblogged this on Lilly's cafe and commented:
    i love green tea kit kat!!

    February 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  5. James

    Oh, it looks yummy, but I think it's too sweet.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:25 am | Reply
    • mmk

      Dear Japanese People: Dont fall for this trap....

      February 9, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  6. BDK

    American food will have the Japanese fat and lazy in no time. BWAHAHAHHAHA

    February 7, 2012 at 1:39 am | Reply
    • aj

      what a racist bigot

      February 7, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
      • Department of Redundancy Department

        racist = a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others.
        bigot = one who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.

        aj, don't be redundant redundant.

        February 7, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
      • harlequinben

        Not only that, but the original comment wasn't even racist. Over sensitive to racism much?

        February 7, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  7. jojopotatoes

    kitto katsu is kind of a stretch imo. my little bro says they are popular because of kuroki meisa and the cheesecake flavors.

    February 5, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Reply
    • rislim

      if you haven't seen the packaging for these kitkats, the wrappers on the small ones have a spot for you to write a message on them.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Reply
  8. Jake

    In LA, you can get Japanese Kit Kats at Japanese grocery stores. My favorite was the sweet potato.

    February 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  9. actorsdiet

    in chinese, "coca cola" translates into "thirsty/happy mouth." coincindence?

    February 4, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
    • MiGrant

      Yes. Coincidence.

      February 5, 2012 at 3:31 am | Reply
    • Ricky Gibson

      Not all such coincidences are happy ones. Chevrolet wondered why its Nova wasn't selling very well in Puerto Rico until someone explained 'Nova' means "won't go."

      February 5, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
      • ACS

        ...that's actually a myth; it wasn't a great car. Go check it out on Snopes.

        February 14, 2012 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • Jessica

      Actually, the name for Coca Cola in China used to be something else. The original meaning was nonsensical but it was pronounced closer to the original sound. Due to the questionable name meaning, it flopped when introduced to the Chinese market. It was later reintroduced with it's current name kekou kele. Which is translated as happiness for the mouth. Nobody wants to buy awkwardly named products for consumption.

      February 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
      • Arias

        @Jessica. Are you sure you're not confusing the Chinese market with the Japanese market Jessica? Being ethnic Chinese (but American born and raised) picking up Cantonese from enough time spent in Hong Kong with cousins from a young age the Chinese word used for Coca Cola is NOT kekou kele. However, having taken a few years of Japanese in high school that IS what it's called in Japanese.

        February 8, 2012 at 6:11 am | Reply
  10. Millie

    My favorite is the Green Tea flavor! I always get my friends to bring them back for me whenver they go out to Japan.

    February 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  11. Tokyoite

    My favorite was the banana kit-kats from about 5 years ago. They were great!

    February 3, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  12. Eddie O.

    Who loves Kitty?...LOL

    February 3, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  13. fredflintstone

    Get you some...............eat em up yum!

    February 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  14. Hershey employee

    Who checks these stories before their posted? KIT KAT is a Hershey's product not a Nestle product. Get your facts straight!

    February 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • Marko Kloos

      Yes, that's why the KitKat packaging in the picture says "Nestle".

      February 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • Traven

      Hershey's licensees KitKat for U.S. distribution from Nestle. Everywhere else in the world they are produced by Neslte.
      You work for Hershey's and you don't know that?

      February 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • Candy Man

      Actually Kit Kat is a Nestle product manufactured in the US by Hershey under license.

      February 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • hate hersheys

      and thats why KitKat tates like crap in the US...go nestle !!

      February 3, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
    • Someone from York

      Kit Kat is a Rowntrees product invented in York in the 30's Don't know when Hersheys started making them in the US but Nestle took over the Rowntrees Brands in the 1980's

      February 3, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Stacey

      Um, it is a Nestle product, as YOU CAN SEE ON THE PACKAGING IN THE TOP PICTURE.

      February 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • dion

      Better pop in a MOUNDS BAR in your mouth....

      February 6, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  15. us1776

    I was expected to see Hello Kitty-Kat candy.

    .

    February 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  16. ak2k

    I want some of those! They look awesome!

    February 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  17. Jerry

    Kit Kats from England are by far the best ones.

    February 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  18. Arelem

    Kit Kats are awesome candy bars..... every place but the U.S. Here, they are made by Hershey's and use their waxy, bland consumer chocolate. Every where else in the world, they are made by Nestle's and much smoother, more chocolatety chocolate, is used.

    I've had friends bring me Kit Kats from Canada and I've ordered them from Japan. They are soooooo much better than the Hershey made ones.

    February 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  19. Kathryn (Kathy) (Bogala) Calgary Alberta

    No surprises there ... one of the best chocolate bars!

    February 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      I agree. I wish the Dark Chocolate ones were more available here in the US. Since Hershey distributes them here instead of Nestle, they are hard to come by. I grab a bunch up when I do find them but they seem to only make them from time to time.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
      • 5555624

        You can buy a 24-pack of the dark chocolate (and white chocolate) Kit Kats on-line, from Amazon

        February 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
      • John N. Seattle, WA

        I wish ANY of the Japanese flavors were available here! What we need is a black market for Japanese sweets!

        February 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  20. Chuck

    I had a wasabi kit kat last year....it was delicious.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  21. Mildred

    At some of the local Asian markets, and particularly when I go down to Mitsuwa Center in NJ, there's a lot of different candy (including Kit Kats in at least regular chocolate and strawberry).

    February 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • dee

      I LOVE Mitsuwa! It's a land of Japanese goodness! Now I have to see if they still have the shuttle from Port Authority...

      February 2, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  22. bspurloc

    my brother brought home bags of these.... never believed it till I saw it.... no clue why they dont offer it here yet.... blueberry kit kats! wasabe!

    February 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  23. EEE

    I roomed with a few Japanese girls in Spain for 6 months and all they ate were Kit Kats. They would complain that the flavors weren't as good there as they are in Japan. I always thought they were crazy as there was only 'one' flavor of Kit Kat. Thanks for finally clearing that cultural confusion up for me!

    February 2, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
  24. Peter

    When I lived in Japan, I really enjoyed the Milk Tea, Shoyu (soy sauce), and sweet potato flavors. I thought the mango flavor was way too sweet though. I hardly had a regular Kit Kat the whole time I was there. I did have generic brand ones though.

    February 2, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
  25. palintwit

    That candy is probably radioactive. Just like their Toyotas. They glow in the dark so they quit putting headlights on them.

    February 2, 2012 at 11:07 am | Reply
    • Cobra

      you think youre funny? i weep for the people around you.

      February 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
      • Chocolate Kit

        Cobra, those that matter already know.

        February 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
    • Miso

      Ah, the dulcet snarky tones of palintwit. Trolling again, I see, you azzhat?

      February 2, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
      • Chocolate Kit

        Yet here you are, feeding the troll. KUTGW.

        February 2, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Michael (15Q)

      You realize Toyotas are actually made from more Americans parts than American makes Chevy and Ford, right?

      February 2, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • CN Red

      Keep them coming palintwit! LMAO!

      February 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  26. edge

    When I hear something crazy about Japan, I usually say "Gimme a break"...

    February 2, 2012 at 11:03 am | Reply
  27. Joanna

    I have tried green tea kit kats before and they are amazing! I wish I could get the Sakura green tea one... Sigh... Kit kat needs to go back to nestle here too...

    February 2, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  28. Michael

    I live in Japan and the amount of snack food types is incredible. There are literally millions of vending machines, selling everything from hot or cold canned coffee to pancakes with syrup flavored beverages. If I'm cold while waiting for the train, I can plunk down 120 yen for a can of corn porridge or potato and cheese soup, both hot. Not too bad. I would love to have that type of option in the States. All we get back home are coke or pepsi products.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
  29. k

    You won't see any of these flavors in the US because Hershey produces Kit-Kat for the US

    February 2, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • lordshipmayhem

      Sad, that, because I'd give the "Strawberry Tarte" or "Sakura Maccha Latte" a try.

      February 2, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • uhm no.

      Nestle produces KitKat worldwide. They are a competitor of Hershey.

      February 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • bspurloc

      u can buy them on ebay or amazon easily.... that is what I do

      February 2, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • hana

      We can find them sometimes in the asian markets for sale. Usually just the green tea ones though.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • nup

      Nestle, not Hershey.

      February 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  30. johnkeating

    Kit Kats' chocolate taste somewhat similar to the hazel-nut flavoured chocolates made by Ferrero - sort of smooth buttery tasting. The wafer adds a nice crisp texture. The candy is shaped like gold bars that are attached to each other side-by-side. If they add chopped [almonds] to it, I think it would be close to perfect. I'd like to try all the exotic flavours as well

    February 2, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
  31. Diane

    I emailed the US Kit Kat folks a while ago asking if they'd consider making/distributing the green tea ones here since green tea is getting a lot of hype lately and that people were snapping them up from Japanese sites that send things to the US and that they sell out often due to the demand. They sent me a dismissive response saying they had no plans and that it was only foreign markets. Not too bright, IMHO

    February 2, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  32. Leigh

    This is very fitting. Japan has an atrocious record in regards to animal rights and respecting wildlife and KIT Kats are the candy bars no one should be eating, because the palm oil used in them is destroying the orangutans habitat, threatening their existence. Keep it real Japan – between this and your whale murdering ways, you could really leave your imprint on our world!

    February 2, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • rislim

      Seriously?

      February 7, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
    • brian

      omg LOL! and would you every say that about Iceland and Norway, or Denmark's Falkland Islands? Nah, they're white.

      February 7, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
      • ACS

        ...sorry, but the Falklands are British. Maybe Argentinean soon tho...

        February 14, 2012 at 6:03 am | Reply
  33. Binky42

    I'm surprised they haven't renamed them "Hello Kitty Fun Family Time Super Amazing Happy Choco Bar"

    February 2, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
    • Chocolate Kit

      Have you met Jim?

      February 2, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
    • Nora

      LOL, you stole the thought from my mind.

      February 2, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
    • DR DETROIT

      LMFAO.. THAT'S GREAT:)

      February 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • ak2k

      LMFAO!!!!

      February 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  34. Dp

    You can also get a Kit Kat with your own custom graphic on the packaging.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
  35. Chris

    ...give me a break!

    February 2, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
    • Willy Wonka-"sure, here you go!"

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXUHM4RU4oU&w=640&h=390]

      February 2, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  36. Pennswoodsman

    DEATH TO NESTLE!! Evil bastards.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
  37. AleeD®

    I would love to stumble onto some of the Japanese-centric Kit Kat flavors and give them a try. They're definitely not your typical American flavor combinations, but they do sound interesting.

    ... the top-selling variety of Kit Kat in Japan is soy sauce ...

    Sweet: Berry wine, golden peach, custard pudding
    Savory: Grilled corn, miso, sweet potato, jacket baked potato with butter
    Beverage-inspired: Ramune soda, Earl Grey tea, caramel macchiato McFlurry
    Weird: Camembert cheese, pounded soybean paste, lemon vinegar

    Google *exotic kit kat flavors* and select the first item for the rest of this article. Photos of many other flavors were also on this site.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  38. Arturo Féliz-Camilo

    LOL! Nice! Keep squeezing it!

    February 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  39. Oodoodanoo

    In that case

    February 2, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  40. GonzoG

    Willie Wonka would be so proud.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:32 am | Reply
    • hecep

      Wonka-san, to you.

      February 2, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
      • lordshipmayhem

        Wonka-sensei to you. :P

        February 2, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • Arturo Féliz-Camilo

      LOL!

      February 2, 2012 at 9:03 am | Reply
  41. AleeD®

    I would love to stumble onto some of the more exotic Kit Kat flavors and give them a try. They're definitely not your typical American flavor combinations. But they do sound enticing ....

    These were listed on

    http://www.weirdasianews.com/2010/03/18/japans-strangest-kit-kat-flavors/

    ... the top-selling variety of Kit Kat in Japan is soy sauce ...
    Sweet: Berry wine, golden peach, custard pudding
    Savory: Grilled corn, miso, sweet potato, jacket baked potato with butter
    Beverage-inspired: Ramune soda, Earl Grey tea, caramel macchiato McFlurry
    Weird: Camembert cheese, pounded soybean paste, lemon vinegar

    Photos of many other flavors were also on this site.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
  42. t

    It would be cool to find some of these different flavors here in the U.S. I'm not that fond of the original, but that's all we get around where I live.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:00 am | Reply
    • AleeD®

      t, I found lots of Kit Kat flavors and posted a comment about it. I wish you could see it but, sadly, it's awaiting moderation ...

      February 2, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
      • Alien8

        You are being key-word blocked by a CLBUTTIC censor, also known as buttbuttination. In other words, something you said hurt the robot's butt. Rephrase it and look out for words inside other words.

        February 3, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
      • Jerv@Alien8-What the heck, I'll bu tt in.

        AleeD®@Alien8

        I keep getting a "400 Bad Request Request Header Or Cookie Too Large" screen on the Kit Kat thread. So, since I can't post over there, I'll post here: Thanks for the tips, Alien8 (love play-on-words). The comment I was referring to DID get thru on February 2, 2012 at 9:02 am in spite of whatever it was the modbots read. If you think I bu tt in too much, you really need to pay closer attention to how these open forums work, dude.

        February 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  43. Beefburger

    Wha? Who? Why?

    February 2, 2012 at 7:00 am | Reply
  44. Rethnk

    The reason the Japanese have to keep coming up with fashionable candy is because the Koreans keep copying it and marketing it alongside the Japanese candy. Just as Hyundai does with its cars.

    February 2, 2012 at 3:37 am | Reply
  45. Beefburger

    After all of that candy I sure am firsty.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:42 am | Reply
    • Jim

      You're a bigot, mate.

      February 2, 2012 at 6:19 am | Reply
      • Beefburger

        What? Who? Why?

        February 2, 2012 at 7:01 am | Reply
      • John

        you as well :)

        February 2, 2012 at 7:05 am | Reply
      • CN Red@Jim

        What the eff are you going on about Jim? It's freaking candy, mate.

        February 2, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
      • mike

        I believe "firsty" was in reference to being the first commenter, not making fun of their english pronunciation.

        February 2, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
      • Lise

        Jim, you need to take a deep breath and think before you type. I don't think Beefburger meant any offense. Like mike said, I think he was just commenting on being first. Besides, as a Japanese person, I believe if you are saying thirsty with an accent, it would be pronounced, "hursty". Just sayin'...

        February 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply

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