When living in another country it’s only natural to miss some of the tastes of home. In my case, the extreme rarity of root beer has been a source of sadness. Time to time I’ll come across a supermarket or import shop that carries it and am sure to pick up a can despite its often exorbitant price of around 200 yen (US$1.69).
The reason for the absence of the drink on the Japanese market is obvious though. Although root beer has its share of detractors even in its home of America, the sheer number of people who can’t stand the stuff in Japan is huge. What is it that makes root beer so overwhelmingly disgusting to Japanese people?
■ Okinawa: Land of root beer
Recently our reporter Nakano made the trip down to Okinawa to get a taste of the frothy brown soft drink for the first time. Okinawa was the one enclave of Japan where root beer could flourish thanks to the presence of American military installations there.
Nakano figured he’d do it right and went to an A&W restaurant for a fountain style glass of it. On researching root beer, he found that its reputation in Japan was that you’d either get completely disgusted by it or completely addicted to it on the first sip.
It turned out he was firmly in the completely disgusted camp and could barely finish his glass. He offered it to his travel companions who gave their opinions as “Aw, this is sh*t! F**k you!”
■ Empirical Studies
In my many years living in Japan I have offered drinks of root beer (A&W mostly) to as many Japanese people as possible, well over a hundred. Although I haven’t recorded the reactions for a solid figure, I can say with confidence that about 90% of people who tasted it were immediately turned off.
Kids and teens tended to show a slight preference for it, but into adulthood there seems to be no correlation between age and a hatred of root beer. By far the most popular reason for disliking it is that “it tastes like medicine.” By a wide margin most people I’ve talked to compare it to the scent of a shippu which is a chemical hot or cold patch used for muscle aches and injuries. Nakano mentioned a popular comparison to a pain-relief patch by the name of Salonpas “with just a hint of sugar mixed in.”
■ Off to the drug store
I could understand the comparison to medicine in the sense that root beer does use various roots (hence the name) that might be used in medicines such as licorice. There are also hints of mint and wintergreen but hardly enough to remind me of medicine. Furthermore, I’ve never encountered any medicine that even remotely reminded me of root beer. At best some cough syrups have that sickly attempt at a cherry flavor that some associate with a Dr. Pepper (also fairly hated in Japan), but nothing like an A&W.
So I went down to the local drug store and picked up a pack of Salonpas that Nakano mentioned for a smell test. Sure enough right upon opening up the sealed plastic back I was hit with a whiff that smelled just like root beer with slightly more mint to it. I actually found myself taking deeper and deeper sniffs attracted to the sweet flavor but then realized that inhaling a medicinal patch probably wasn’t good for the old brain cells and stopped.
Suddenly it all added up. People in Japan would likely associate the smell of root beer to the inedible pain-relieving patch and perhaps even on a deeper level to the painful situation that came along with it for an extra kick of negativity. On the other hand, I found Salonpas pads to have an utterly delightful smell and would recommend them for anyone who loves root beer and has stiff shoulders. It also kind of explained why kids didn’t mind the taste as much since they were less likely to use Salonpas.
■ Different floats for different folks
There are likely other factors at play in the widespread dislike of root beer in Japan. Perhaps its flavor doesn’t mesh well with the standard cultural tastes of the land, but in a country that embraces natto, fermented beans which smell like a turd wrapped in a sweaty sock, that seems unlikely.
There’s also a chance of a genetic factor in Japanese people’s sense of taste which makes something in root beer stand out as particularly unpleasant. However, judging by people’s overwhelmingly popular comparisons to medicine it would seem that is the culprit here.
This leaves the question of why Salonpas smells like root beer. The ingredients listed on the box say that it has “added scents” suggesting that the fragrance was chosen deliberately by the makers. Regardless of whether this scent was designed to be like root beer or merely a coincidence, it seems to have really put the kybosh on the drink’s popularity in the entire country.
UPDATE: As Kim Pennebaker pointed out in the comments, it appears that wintergreen oil (methyl salicylate) is the common scent between Salonpas and root beer rather than any added scent. Methyl Salicylate is the active ingredient in highest content in Salonpas and tends to have a pungent scent. It’s used in other medicines and foods as well, but in the case of Salonpas and root beer it appears to be all in the amounts.
Read Nakano’s full report in Japanese on RocketNews24