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Tapioca Boom or Bubble? New Migrants Making Food Fashion

In every global city, immigrants bring new culinary trends, and Tokyo is no exception. With low barriers to entry, bubble tea – or tapioca milk tea – has become a rapidly growing niche for migrants from Taiwan and mainland China. In the summer, teenagers congregate on busy Tokyo sidewalks sucking on thick plastic straws, slurping up glutinous balls of starch suspended in colorful sweet liquids. Nishi-Ogikubo, with its foot traffic of high school and college students, now has its own bubble tea hangouts. At Panda Tea, nearby the Seiyu entrance of the JR station, you can spot young women, often high school or college students, snapping photos of their drink cups with its logo of a prone panda longingly gazing at a cup of tea. Why tapioca? Why pandas? And why Nishiogi? Why had to ask.


Usually, there are two young staff members at Panda, one in charge of making milk tea and one dealing with the cash. Mr. Fang, the owner of Panda, is often in the shop as well. Originally from Liaoning China, he came to Japan in 2017 as a student in his mid-twenties. “After I graduated from college, I worked in a government office [in China] for three years, but the work there was boring with a relatively low salary. I wanted to earn more money. Besides, I was always interested in Japan. I have always enjoyed Japanese anime and variety shows since childhood. So I came here. I meant to go to study at a commercial manga school at first but after one year studying in language school, I realized that it would take several years of study and accumulating experience before I could earn a living. But I am not so young anymore. Just then, I noticed that bubble tea was becoming popular in Japan. So I decided to catch that wave and open this shop.” Fang came to Japan in July 2017, but he has put aside his dream of anime production for the time being. “Maybe I will learn it in the future,” he said. For now, he is in the bubble tea business.


When it comes to the background for jumping into this business, Fang laid out his reasons concisely. “I set up the company in October of 2018, prepared for opening and opened the Panda in March of 2019,” he said. “Bubble milk tea got popular in the winter of 2018 and became a hit in the summer of 2019, in addition, I have related experience of working in a milk tea shop in China, so these factors pushed me to seize the chance. In my opinion, coffee was introduced to Japan for decades and became a mainstream drink, milk tea was introduced to mainland China from Taiwan and after a few years also became popular. I thought this experience could be replicated with bubble tea in Japan. What’s more, this stuff is tasty.”


Fang is proud of creating not only a shop but his own “Panda Tea” brand. Japanese like pandas, he explained. “The “panda” makes my shop special, and it stands for China,” He believes that the milk tea could be regarded as the label of Chinese culture export for it has been popular on the Mainland for decades, even though the original is from Taiwan.


He is also concerned for the quality image of his brand, he said. “You have to use quality ingredients. You can’t be thinking of cutting costs. The quality must be insured. I just started in this business, and I have to make a good product. That’s the only way to have long-term success.”


According to Fang, the chewy “bubbles” themselves are purchased from a Taiwanese company that has a factory in Japan and owns many of its own bubble tea shops in Japan as well as supplying ingredients to smaller competitors. The white “bubbles,” purchased frozen, are then boiled, becoming chewy black spheres. They are then soaked in brown sugar before being added to various sweet concoctions.


Actually, Nishiogi was not Fang’s first choice for a location. As a foreigner, he found it difficult to get a prime location in the central city. “I started looking for a site when I set up the company in 2018, but for all sorts of practical reasons, I could not find a desirable place. I needed to open the shop before high season [summer]. In the end, I chose this place [in Nishiogi]. I wanted a place only one minute from the station, and there aren’t many in Tokyo. The main reason is that I used a Chinese real estate company, and they didn’t have many resources. It is difficult for a foreigner to find real estate in Japan since you have a foreign nationality. There are a lot of restrictions. Some of them don’t want foreigners. Some don’t want any food and beverage establishments. Some don’t want heavy-use [stove, fryer, etc.] food and beverage places. So if you talk to five of them, for example, only two will be even up for discussion.”


Although people of all ages stop by, Fang said, most of the guests are young people, especially students from the Tokyo Women’s University. High school students are another group, though some high schools discourage students from patronaging shops on their way to the station. About 70 percent of customers are women. “Women like sweet drinks,” Fang said. One of Fang’s goals is to build customer loyalty. “We have a point card, which can be used for exchanging the goods from Panda.” said Fang. Fang hopes these special offers and the point card can help him compete with other shops that opened nearby.


The seasonality of the beverage business has a big impact on his shop, Fang said. “We do have hot drinks, but guests buy fewer drinks than in the summer. For example, on the summer weekends, people lining up from morning to evening.” In the high rent districts of the city center, however, many shops have gone out of business, Fang said. These could be signs that Tokyo’s “bubble tea” bubble is bursting, or at least flattening in the winter cold.


Now with the spread of coronavirus in Japan, the return of the patronage from students may be delayed even further. One employee we spoke to in early March thought the Chinese ownership of the place might have slowed down business during the early days of the outbreak when the new coronavirus was seen as a Chinese disease, but he felt this was no longer the case now, with the bigger problem being the decline in foot traffic from people outside the neighborhood, particularly students. It's too early to know what will happen next.


We carried out our interview with Fang entirely in Chinese. For Fang, who has only been in the country for a couple of years, the biggest obstacle to running a business in Japan is language. “I didn’t study so hard at the language school,” he said. “I can only handle simple conversations. So I have all this paperwork, I can only speak simply. For something difficult, I have to use translation software. It’s not like English. If you go to an English speaking country it is easier because, after all, we have all been learning English since we were little. Here you have to start from zero.”


It is not easy to start a business abroad, but Fang also had advantages. His parents provided his start-up capital. But he also emphasized his own preparation. “Chances come to these who are ready,” he said.


Unlike with many other restaurant owners we have spoken with in Nishiogi, finding staff has not been difficult for Panda. Fang is able to use his Chinese networks, and most of the staff are Chinese students in language schools or universities. “Yes, they all are Chinese students,” Fang said. “Because my Japanese is not good enough, so I feel better communicating with Chinese staffs. As long as your location is not too remote, it is still easy to find Chinese staff. There are many public accounts [gongzhonghao on the Chinese platform Wechat]. You just have to post an employment ad and people will contact you.”


All along, Fang’s goal has been not only to run one bubble tea shop but to create a brand. He already has two franchisees. To develop the brand, he chooses people he trusts, he said. “They learn the making methods of our bubble milk tea,” he said, “and I visit their shops sometimes. I don’t believe these owners will cut corners for more profit. We are all in areas where you depend on regular customers. If you are in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro, you can survive with a mediocre product. But we are in residential areas. You have to pay attention to quality to survive.”


When asked about his future, Fang said he wants to open more franchises and build up the Panda brand. Now he is looking for a new location for a more expansive “flagship” shop. For the under-twenty population, Nishiogi’s adult-oriented dining scene offers few obvious attractions. With a keen eye for global food fashions, Fang treated this lack as an opportunity. And like many young immigrant entrepreneurs, he is ambitious to expand his vision beyond a single shop and beyond Nishiogi. (James Farrer and Kang Yijin March 8, 2020)


(Interview by James Farrer and Kang Yijin Feb. 7, 2020; transcription by Kang Yijin; Japanese translation by Sage Farrer; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer all rights reserved).

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