Sunday, August 2, 2020

Popeye Gold Flicker (パイ ゴールド フリッカー): a rare item from Nintendo's food history

This empty, rusty little tin may not look like much to the casual observer.

Still, it is one of the prize possessions in my vintage Nintendo collection, because of it's part in the company's history.

It is rather small, with a height of only 9.3 centimeters and a diameter of 2.4 centimeters. The top is opened, and it's contents are long gone.

The brand name on the front is Popeye Gold Flicker (ポパイ ゴールド フリッカー). When it was still new, some sixty years ago, the tin must have been shiny gold coloured. Part of this colour is still visible, though much has disappeared over time.

The company name on the front is not Nintendo, but San'ō syokuhin Co., Ltd. This company, started in 1961 when Nintendo's business was still going into multiple directions, was Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi's vehicle for entering Japan's food industry. For this Nintendo started a joint-venture with two partners: the University of Kyoto and the Omikenshi Company. This joint venture was called San'ō syokuhin.

The San'ō syokuhin company developped a number of products for the growing market of convenience food: instant rice, instant ramen and seasoning mixes. This tin is an item from their range of such seasoning products, that are called furikake in Japan. Hence the brand name Flicker, pronounced "furik-kaa" in Japanese.

An important part of the marketing of the San'ō syokuhin company was the use of licensed figures from America, in particular Popeye and Disney characters. A few years earlier, Nintendo already had acquired license rights for the use of these figures on their playing cards, and thus had the contacts to extend these rights for these food products.

Furikake had become increasingly popular in post-war Japan, as a way to add flavour as well as provide (believed necessary) food additives. Tasty and healthy, the ideal combination.

The promotional text on the back of the tin states in large font that it contains spinach (no surprise, with Popeye on the front) and in somewhat smaller font (large enough for parents to read and small enough for their children not to notice?) that it also contains vitamins and calcium.

It also mentions that we are dealing here in fact with a tin of furikake (ふりかけ).

The tin contains 35 grams of seasoning.

The bottom shows a table with the nutritional contents of this Popeye Gold Flicker, according to the Kyoto University Institute for Production Development Science (京都大学内生産開発科学研究所調), one of the three partners in San'ō syokuhin. Unfortunately it does not list the ingredients.

The nutritional contents are, based on weigth of 100 grams:
  • Water (3.2 g)
  • Protein (34.80 g)
  • Fat (20.24 g)
  • Carbohydrate (23.63 g)
  • Fiber (1.48 g)
  • Ash count (16.64 g)
  • Calcium (560 mg)
  • Vitamin B1 (0.21 mg)
  • Vitamin B 2 (1.62 mg)

The calorie value is 416 cal.

On the back of the tin, we find the company name San'ō syokuhin Co., Ltd in Japanese script (サンオー食品株式会社), as well as their address in Uji, Kyoto (京都府宇治市小倉町神楽田56).

The Uji location may ring a bell for people with knowledge of Nintendo's history. This site in the south part of Kyoto, near Kyoto University, was initially acquired for the San'ō syokuhin company. But after the folding of this food joint venture, Nintendo repurposed this location as factory for their growing toy business. It remained a key production site for Nintendo for many decades. Although believed to be no longer in active use, the building still carries a huge company sign with the well-known three kanji (任天堂).

Former location of the San'ō syokuhin company in Kyoto,
now still a Nintendo site (picture from Google streetview)

San'ō syokuhin products did not become a success and the company was active for only a few years.

Because of the limited quantities it was produced in, of which the vast majority was used and disposed of, it is very hard to find any San'ō syokuhin items that have survived to this day. This tiny tin is one of the few known that remains from this part of Nintendo's history.

A related item is a set of promotional Nintendo playing cards, sent to some lucky San'ō syokuhin Popeye Ramen customers.

San'ō syokuhin Popeye promotional playing cards and Popoye Gold Flicker

To find out more about these San'ō syokuhin playing cards, check out this previous post.

[2021 update] I have found another version of San-O Flicker, called Popeye Table Flicker. More about it here