Pocari Sweat is hard to miss in vending machines throughout Japan and elsewhere in its distinctive blue and white bottles and cans. By the 1990s, the rehydrating sports drink became the first Japanese non-alcoholic beverage with shipments topping US$1 billion. Photo: Shutterstock
Pocari Sweat is hard to miss in vending machines throughout Japan and elsewhere in its distinctive blue and white bottles and cans. By the 1990s, the rehydrating sports drink became the first Japanese non-alcoholic beverage with shipments topping US$1 billion. Photo: Shutterstock

Pocari Sweat: how the iconic sports drink, huge in Asia, became one of Japan’s most successful beverages

  • Despite English-speaking media mocking the name for years, Pocari Sweat has grown to become one of Asia’s most popular sports drinks
  • The drink is formulated to replenish the water and electrolytes that are lost through perspiration and contains a number of ion-heavy ingredients
Topic |   Stories behind top Asian brands

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Pocari Sweat is hard to miss in vending machines throughout Japan and elsewhere in its distinctive blue and white bottles and cans. By the 1990s, the rehydrating sports drink became the first Japanese non-alcoholic beverage with shipments topping US$1 billion. Photo: Shutterstock
Pocari Sweat is hard to miss in vending machines throughout Japan and elsewhere in its distinctive blue and white bottles and cans. By the 1990s, the rehydrating sports drink became the first Japanese non-alcoholic beverage with shipments topping US$1 billion. Photo: Shutterstock

For a drinks brand with a name that borders on the unappetising, Pocari Sweat has fared well. An argument could even be made that this Japanese sports drink owes some of its success to the head-turning name on the brand’s distinctive blue-and-white bottles.

Jeffrey Gilbert, head of public relations for the pharmaceuticals division of Pocari manufacturer Otsuka Pharmaceutical, insists there was a completely different motivation behind the naming of one of the firm’s mainstay products.

“‘Pocari’ does not have any specific meaning, but it conveys a light and bright feeling in Japanese,” he told the South China Morning Post. “And ‘sweat’ is a reminder that the beverage replaces the important water and ions that are lost through perspiration.”

That has helped to make the brand a household name in Japan, and given it a solid footing in a number of important markets around the world, Gilbert says. Hong Kong was one of the earliest international launches for the brand, back in 1982, followed by Singapore the following year and South Korea in 1987.

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“English-speaking media mocked the choice of name for years,” Gilbert admits. “But it now seems to have developed some cachet. And there must be something to it because we receive inquiries from around the world on a regular basis from distributors who want to market the drink.”

While Pocari Sweat may be the most instantly recognisable of Otsuka Pharmaceutical’s brands, it was not the first successful product to emerge from the company’s laboratories.

The firm traces its roots back to Busaburo Otsuka, who came from a family of farmers in rural Tokushima prefecture, on the southeastern Japanese island of Shikoku. The family took a huge leap of faith and sold its land to finance the start of the business. Founded in 1921, it started out by manufacturing magnesium carbonate for pharmaceutical products from bittern, the liquid that is left after taking the salt out of salt pans, which were common along the coast of the prefecture.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical’s Oronamin C vitamin drink was introduced in 1965.
Otsuka Pharmaceutical’s Oronamin C vitamin drink was introduced in 1965.

With a staff of just 10 in the early years, Otsuka initially expanded into other raw materials for pharmaceuticals before diversifying further, into ointments for minor complaints, intravenous solutions and, in 1965, the Oronamin C vitamin drink – all of which it still produces.

With demand growing, Otsuka began to branch out into different, and increasingly innovative, directions. In 1968, it was the first company to introduce plastic pouches for IV solutions, and the same year its food division, Bon Curry, launched the world’s first commercially available, ready-to-eat food served in retort pouches.

But Otsuka Pharmaceutical really began to take off in the 1970s. At the start of the decade, the company set up its own factory to manufacture pharmaceutical products and, the following year, created its first drug research institute.

An undated vintage Pocari Sweat advertisement advising how to stay hydrated.
An undated vintage Pocari Sweat advertisement advising how to stay hydrated.

The company has devoted much time and effort into searching for a cure for tuberculosis, a disease that primarily afflicts the world’s poorest and is unlikely to earn a large profit. About 600,000 new cases of drug-resistant TB are estimated to occur worldwide each year. All forms of the illness cause an estimated 1.3 million deaths annually.

The genesis of Pocari Sweat is also rooted in the 1970s, Gilbert says.

“Nearly 50 years ago, an Otsuka researcher named Rokuro Harima was on a business trip to Mexico when he was hospitalised due to diarrhoea. The doctor told him to make sure that he got enough water and nutrition, but just gave him a regular carbonated drink,” he says.

“This led Harima to think how much better it would be if he had an easy-to-drink beverage that could supply both the water and the nutrients that he needed. Later, Harima saw a doctor drinking a pouch of IV solution to rehydrate himself after finishing surgery, which gave him the idea for a drinkable IV solution.

“Otsuka was – and still is – a leading company in the IV solutions business, so Harima had the expertise and the resources to turn his idea into reality.”

Pocari Sweat in a vending machine in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Alamy
Pocari Sweat in a vending machine in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Alamy

At the time, another section of the company was developing a citrus juice that came in powdered form. When it was added to the drink, the bitterness dissipated.

“Two candidates for the final product were selected: one with a low sugar content and one with a higher, juice-like sweetness that was normal for that time,” Gilbert says. “The researchers then actually climbed a mountain in Tokushima to test the drinks, and they realised that the lightly sweetened test product was easier to drink when a person was exercising.”

Pocari Sweat is formulated to replenish the water and electrolytes that are lost through perspiration and contains a number of ion-heavy ingredients, including sodium, chloride, calcium, potassium and magnesium. According to Otsuka, it is not carbonated or caffeinated, contains zero fat or protein, and has only around 25 kilocalories per 100 millilitres. And as it contains no chemical preservatives, a bottle should be consumed on the day it is opened.

Studies have shown that Pocari Sweat is absorbed by the body more rapidly than water.

The timing of Otsuka’s release was fortuitous. The now-familiar blue-and-white cans and bottles first hit store shelves across Japan in 1980, coinciding with a growing awareness among the public about the need for a healthy diet and exercise, which fuelled a boom in activities such as jogging and golf.

It was not, however, an immediate success.

“That was largely because consumers were unfamiliar with the taste and the odd-looking blue can,” Gilbert says. “That cool and simple label design was based on blue, suggestive of the ocean, and white for breaking waves, but blue was not considered an auspicious colour for beverage sales.”

The company focused its early marketing efforts on providing free samples at athletic events, and slowly the taste and brand design – as well as the health benefits – caught on. In the mid-1990s, Pocari Sweat became the first domestically produced non-alcoholic beverage in Japan to hit a cumulative shipment value in excess of US$1 billion.

How to stay cool, according to an undated Pocari Sweat advert.
How to stay cool, according to an undated Pocari Sweat advert.

More than 56 million cases, each containing 24 bottles, were sold in 2018, with the domestic market accounting for 53 per cent of the total and most of the remaining 47 per cent from the rest of Asia.

Domestic sales tend to fluctuate depending on the temperature, according to Gilbert, and the company anticipates “strong sales” for 2019.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical is constantly looking for opportunities to expand, and in April this year established a health beverage subsidy in Myanmar, where Pocari Sweat has been sold through local agents since 2015.

The company also works hard to ensure the brand remains in the public eye, particularly given the vast number of rival sports drinks that have emerged in recent years, Gilbert says.

“One secret to the brand’s success is that the product and name have become iconic,” he says. “It’s got to the point where they are almost synonymous with the summer season in Japan and elsewhere. But we also have to keep the brand vibrant and relevant through advertising that appeals to a new generation of users.”

The Otsuka Pharmaceutical logo is omnipresent on vending machines throughout Japan.
The Otsuka Pharmaceutical logo is omnipresent on vending machines throughout Japan.

In 2013, the company supplemented the brand with Pocari Sweat Ion Water, which is not as sweet as the original and appeals to consumers who want something lighter.

The outlook, both at home and in its established markets overseas, is bright, Gilbert says.

“In the Asia-Pacific region, the average annual growth rate for the sports drink market has been almost 9 per cent,” he says. “Leveraging new technology to make these drinks more functional – in terms of nutrition, muscle relaxation, anti-oxidation, blood circulation and so on – is one key trend. Another is more interest in the use of plant proteins, something that Otsuka is well positioned for.”

That brand name doesn’t sound so silly, after all.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The sweat taste of refreshment
American actress Uma Thurman wearing fashionable retro-look Onitsuka Tiger trainers in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. The marketing masterstroke enabled stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques to open in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul. Photo: Handout
American actress Uma Thurman wearing fashionable retro-look Onitsuka Tiger trainers in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. The marketing masterstroke enabled stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques to open in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul. Photo: Handout

Onitsuka Tiger: how Bruce Lee and actress Uma Thurman helped Japanese sports shoe brand become a global fashion must-have

  • The Japanese brand was a hit with athletes in the 1960s and ’70s; the name was retired after the company became Asics but has experienced a rebirth
  • The first shipment of Onitsuka Tiger shoes landed in the United States in 1963; the company set up to distribute them would later become Nike
Topic |   Stories behind top Asian brands

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American actress Uma Thurman wearing fashionable retro-look Onitsuka Tiger trainers in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. The marketing masterstroke enabled stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques to open in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul. Photo: Handout
American actress Uma Thurman wearing fashionable retro-look Onitsuka Tiger trainers in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. The marketing masterstroke enabled stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques to open in Japan, as well as Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul. Photo: Handout

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Take the curious case of Kihachiro Onitsuka.

One hot evening in the summer of 1951, Onitsuka was enjoying a salad of pickled cucumber and cold octopus. It is very possible he was pondering the future of a company that he had set up two years previously, but which was struggling.

Born in 1918 in Japan’s Tottori prefecture, Onitsuka had fought in the World War II and, in 1949, set up a firm that made shoes for youngsters. In later interviews he always said that he wanted to raise the spirit and morale of young Japanese people in those difficult days immediately after the war. He believed that the best way of achieving that would be by promoting healthy lifestyles through sport.

With Japan still under occupation and American sports gaining traction – particularly basketball, which was appealing to many youngsters because it required little in the way of expensive equipment – he had his heart set on getting a foot in the door of the basketball shoe market. Onitsuka’s primary motivation for developing basketball shoes, he always said, was that they are the most difficult to create.

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Kihachiro Onitsuka, who died in 2007, with a 1950s era basketball shoe. Photo: Handout
Kihachiro Onitsuka, who died in 2007, with a 1950s era basketball shoe. Photo: Handout

Onitsuka’s earliest attempts to devise a new and effective shoe flopped. But they did demonstrate that basketball players needed to be able to stop in a heartbeat, be in motion again just as quickly and be able to turn on the proverbial dime. And no basketball shoes that were available at the time gave athletes those advantages.

More attempts to create shoes for basketball players came to nothing, until that fateful evening when he sat down to his octopus salad and realised that the suckers on the octopus legs gave the creature a strong grip.

Onitsuka asked a local factory to produce rubber soles that replicated the concave suckers of an octopus and had them moulded onto the upper of a shoe.

The first attempt went a little awry when the players kept falling over because their feet were too firmly planted. But, after some tweaks to the design that made the suction cups smaller, the design worked. The high school team in Kobe that initially adopted Onitsuka’s shoes won a local championship.

Initially, Onitsuka did not have a distribution system for his creation, so he became essentially a travelling salesman, taking his shoes to potential clients and sleeping on benches in train stations to keep his costs to a minimum. The arduous schedule and his refusal to splash out on extravagances led Onitsuka to contract tuberculosis.

Plenty of choice in the Onitsuka Tiger store in Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport. Photo: Alamy
Plenty of choice in the Onitsuka Tiger store in Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport. Photo: Alamy

But gradually, word of Onitsuka Tiger shoes spread and, by the end of 1952, they were selling well. Within three years, the brand had spread across Japan and was operating a network of sporting goods stores.

The year after Onitsuka Tiger was launched, the company collaborated with marathon runner Kenji Kimihara – who represented Japan in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics – to develop a running shoe that would stop long-distance runners developing blisters.

Onitsuka himself also monitored the running of Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila and in 1957 suggested that he wore his shoes when he took part in a marathon in Japan. Abebe would go on to win the Olympic marathon gold in Rome in 1960 and again four years later in Tokyo.

The Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66. Photo: Handout
The Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66. Photo: Handout

Japan’s Olympic basketball team was similarly impressed with his state-of-the-art development that went some way to levelling the playing field when they took on the rest of the world. The entire Japan team wore Onitsuka’s shoes for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia – and narrowly missed out on qualifying from a group that included eventual winners the United States.

The brand was also attracting attention overseas. In the late 1950s, Philip Knight, a middle-distance runner at the University of Oregon, teamed up with Bill Bowerman, a coach known for tinkering with athletes’ shoes to make them lighter and more shock-resistant. Knight later travelled to Japan, contacted Onitsuka Co., and convinced the management that their product would find a market in the US.

In 1963, the first shipment of Onitsuka Tiger shoes arrived in the US and Knight and Bowerman each invested US$500 to set up Blue Ribbon Sports to distribute the equipment. This company would later become Nike.

The global flagship store of Onitsuka Tiger in Shibuya, Tokyo. Photo: Shutterstock
The global flagship store of Onitsuka Tiger in Shibuya, Tokyo. Photo: Shutterstock

Onitsuka Tiger would also pave the way for decades of technical development of innovative footwear in Japan and the emergence of a global sporting brand. The basketball shoe that served as the foundation for the company’s subsequent success did not have a formal name, but that success encouraged it to put identifying names to its products – most famously the Fabre and Mexico 66 lines.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Onitsuka worked on innovative designs for tennis shoes, as well as footwear for volleyball and running. He remained hands-on into the 1980s, when the company that superseded Onitsuka released shoes with integral GEL material – a revolutionary cushioning technology that remains the choice of professional runners around the world. The company even designed footwear for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Bruce Lee and son wearing Onitsuka Tiger in the 1970s. Photo: Handout
Bruce Lee and son wearing Onitsuka Tiger in the 1970s. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong martial arts legend Bruce Lee was regularly pictured wearing Onitsuka Tiger shoes; claims that he wore a pair of the shoes in Game of Death, one of his most famous movies, are wide of the mark, however – though he did wear them on set.

Onitsuka Tiger made its debut on both the Kobe and Osaka stock exchanges in 1964, followed by the Tokyo exchange in 1972. In 1977, the shoe company merged with sportswear specialists GTO and Jelenk, a manufacturer of knitwear, with the new company assuming the name Asics, taken from the Latin phrase “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano”, meaning “a sound mind in a sound body”. The Onitsuka Tiger brand was retired in the late 1970s.

Asics evolved into a general sporting-goods maker, and turned its hand to baseball equipment, skiing, golf and swimming ranges, but of all the company’s products, it was its running shoes that were held in the highest regard by serious athletes. Those same shoes soon found a firm following as a fashion item.

Kihachiro Onitsuka, circa 1953. Photo: Handout
Kihachiro Onitsuka, circa 1953. Photo: Handout

Always looking to devise the next technology to give his professional athlete clients a competitive edge, Onitsuka was the first to recognise the potential applications for sports-shoe design of the air-cooling methods used in motorcycles. He used it to create vented shoes for marathon runners.

Asics has since expanded across the globe and has sales offices in Europe, the United States, South America, Asia and Oceania, with its shoes manufactured by partner companies primarily in Vietnam, Indonesia and China.

When Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1990 – the start of the downturn that has been described as Japan’s lost economic decade – Asics fell into the red; it took the company eight years to reverse the slide.

The Onitsuka Tiger Corsair sneaker. Photo: Alamy
The Onitsuka Tiger Corsair sneaker. Photo: Alamy

New lines and a solid reputation for quality helped put the company back into positive territory, and Onitsuka Tiger played a part in that recovery. Asics resumed producing sports shoes under the brand in 2002 to meet the demand for retro-look sneakers that was sweeping the European markets, in particular France and Italy.

Its shoes reached the pinnacle of fashion when, in 2003, actress Uma Thurman appeared in the hit Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill kitted out in a pair of yellow Onitsuka trainers with the unmistakable black stripes. From a marketing point of view, it was nothing short of a masterstroke, and the company was soon able to open 23 stand-alone Onitsuka Tiger boutiques in Japan, as well as stores in Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London and Seoul.

The Onitsuka Tiger wrestling shoe from 1955. Photo: Handout
The Onitsuka Tiger wrestling shoe from 1955. Photo: Handout

In 2008, Onitsuka Tiger launched a premium series, Nippon Made, which are made entirely in Japan; the top-line shoes have attracted much attention from fashion lovers at home and abroad. The following year, its flagship store opened on Tokyo’s Omotesando, arguably the most swish address in the city, to serve as what the company says is a “brand theatre” and to build a “genderless, ageless customer base”. In 2015, the company tied up with US-based design company Bait to create a Bruce Lee line.

In 2018, Asics restructured to focus its efforts on certain product categories. As part of the restructuring, the strongly performing Onitsuka Tiger division became an independent business section, effectively making it an in-house company. Today, the brand has 33 directly managed stores and six outlet stores in Japan, and 224 outlets in 33 countries around the world. The brand is particularly popular in China, Thailand and South Korea.

Sales in the 2018 financial year rose to 42.7 billion yen (US$395.4 million), continuing a gradual upwards trajectory, the company said.

Kihachiro Onitsuka died in 2007, at the age of 90, by which time the company he founded 58 years earlier had become the biggest athletic footwear and apparel maker in Japan and the fifth-largest in the world.

The company has continued to build on its founder’s principles and vision, with Asics still committed to providing athletes with the best sporting equipment available, while the Onitsuka Tiger brand has transitioned to a fashion and streetwear brand.

The company is proud that it remains true to Onitsuka’s desire to promote fitness and inspire younger generations through footwear.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The sucker hunch