Today, four independent Coca-Cola bottlers in the Greater Tokyo Region – Coca-Cola Central Japan, Mikuni Coca-Cola Bottling, Tokyo Coca-Cola Bottling and Tone Coca-Cola Bottling – announced plans to integrate as Coca-Cola East Japan Bottling Company next year.  Here is a short background on the history of Coca-Cola in Japan.

Japan has long been one of the most dynamic markets for The Coca-Cola Company, building on a heritage that has spanned more than 100 years.  As early as 1910, orders were received in Atlanta, from Japan, for Coca-Cola syrup to be sold at select soda fountain outlets in Tokyo.  From 1910 to the outbreak of World War II, nearly a million servings of Coca-Cola were sold in Japan.  Even poet Kotaro Takamura reflected on Coca-Cola in his 1914 poetry book Do Tei (Journey):

Come and blow,
Freezing wind of the Chichibu Mountains,
Come blowing down…
Coca-Cola, thank you very much.
Down the streets in Ginza, then to Owari-cho…
Another glass of Coca-Cola.

Business Foundations
During World War II, Coca-Cola sales ceased and did not resume until after the war.  At the invitation of the U.S. Army Exchange Service, and in keeping Robert Woodruff’s pledge that U.S. troops should be able to get Coca-Cola regardless of where they were stationed, The Coca-Cola Company re-entered Japan in October 1945. Between 1946 and 1952, six bottling plants were established from Sapporo in the north to Kokura in the south.  With few exceptions, production and distribution of Coca-Cola was limited to the U.S. armed forces.  One of the more notable exceptions occurred on October 12, 1949, at Tokyo’s Jingu Baseball Stadium.  On that date, all restrictions were lifted and Coca-Cola was sold at an exhibition match featuring the San Francisco Seals.

Tokyo's Jingu Baseball Stadium where Coca-Cola was sold at an exhibition match.

As the Japanese economy recovered from the war, civilian sales were not possible; however, by March 1957, a formal bottlers’ agreement was reached between The Coca-Cola Company, Coca-Cola (Japan) Co. Ltd. and the Tokyo Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Ltd.  One month later, the Japanese government allowed the limited import of Coca-Cola concentrate for consumer sales, which enabled our official entry into the market. Tokyo Coca-Cola Bottling started selling Coke with three route trucks to 101 restricted outlets.   The first delivery went to the American Club on May 8, 1957 — 71 years to the day that Coca-Cola was first served in Atlanta at Jacobs’ Pharmacy.

Over the next several years, Coca-Cola Japan opened new outlets, gained government permission to increase concentrate imports and identified potential bottling partners, such as Kinki Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Ltd.  By 1960, the restrictions on concentrate imports and number of outlets allowed to sell Coca-Cola were lifted.  There eventually would be as many as 17 bottlers operating in Japan.

A Story of Innovation, Growth and Resilience
The story of Coca-Cola’s growth in Japan is one of innovation, new products, strong marketing and resilience.  Between 1960 and 1970, case sales more than doubled every year.  The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games offered the perfect opportunity to showcase the drink to both the Japanese market and global visitors.  The Company and bottlers provided billboards, guide maps and a robust marketing campaign.  These efforts were repeated when Sapporo (1972) and Nagano (1998) hosted the Winter Olympic Games.

Store in Japan with 1964 Olympic Games display

Nagano Olympic Games Ad from 1998

While Japan’s first vending machine was installed in 1962, today more than 980,000 vending units are in the market.  Innovative technology has enabled the equipment to become more energy and coolant efficient.  For example, vending equipment being installed in 2013 will eliminate or reduce HFCs as well as minimize the use of electricity.

Japan vending machine from 1990

Packaging and products also continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of the consumer — family size bottles appeared in 1964 and cans were introduced in 1965.  Fanta was produced from the beginning; Sprite was added in 1970, followed by Hi-C (1973) and Georgia Coffee (1975).  Today, the Coca-Cola system in Japan produces more than 50 brands and 800 SKUs, with nearly one-third changing each year.

One of the first slogans in Japan, “Skatto Sawayaka Coca-Cola”, translated to “Crisp Refreshing Coca-Cola”.  In 1963, Coca-Cola Japan started using neon spectacular signs in highly trafficked areas. The Company was an early adopter of color television ads and featured two of the top singing acts of the 1960s: the Four Leaves, and Pinkey and the Killers, whose song, “I want to fall in Love, Coca-Cola” became a pop radio hit.  Additional partnerships marketing included sporting and entertainment venues, such as Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983.

Coca-Cola slogans and advertising in Japan generally have featured top celebrities, memorable music and contemporary styles.   Coca-Cola Japan also was on the forefront of the digital revolution for both vending and marketing.  Cashless vending mobile phone payments were introduced in 2002 and have continued to expand.  Today, Coca-Cola Park, the digital Coca-Cola community in Japan, includes over 12 million members.

Importantly, Coca-Cola in Japan has long dedicated itself to its community.  The Company was involved in the launch of “Keep Japan Beautiful” in the early 1970s, and has supported recycling efforts and environmental education via a youth fund and scholarships.

The Coca-Cola system also has supported Japan in some of its most difficult moments.   The system provided more than $31 million in aid to support the recovery effort from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.  When a strong quake rocked Niigata City in 1964, Coca-Cola Japan and the bottlers provided immediate relief, as they did when Typhoon Ida swept across Japan in 1966.

Our 980,000 vending machines nationwide were reprogrammed to cut energy use by 33 percent amid recurring blackouts.

Despite these challenges, Coca-Cola Japan has built a strong record of innovation and business leadership.  In 2011, the people of Coca-Cola Japan persevered through one of the world’s worst natural disasters, which was quickly followed by an energy crisis.  In response, Coca-Cola Japan developed industry-leading vending technology that decreased energy use.  Moreover, thanks to the incredible efforts our local colleagues, Coca-Cola Japan even won the Robert W. Woodruff Cup for 2011.  The award is named for our Company’s longtime leader and is the Company’s most prestigious award, presented annually to the top-performing business unit worldwide.

When I look at our 56 year history of independent operations in Japan, I am struck by how the Coca-Cola system in Japan has retained the entrepreneurial spirit that was required to build the business during the recovery from World War II.  Innovations in advertising, brands, packaging, and vending have been the hallmarks of this amazing country, as well as a commitment to persevering even in the most trying of times.  From the few thousand cases sold via the 101 outlets in 1957, today the Coca-Cola system in Japan has grown to become one of the giants of The Coca-Cola Company.

Ted Ryan is Director of Communications, Archives Department at The Coca-Cola Company.