Japan's Bubble Tea Boom Is Creating Long Lines And Lots of Trash

Screenshot: Pekepon (Twitter)
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You might call it bubble tea. You might call it boba tea. In Japan, it’s known as tapioca drink, or simply tapioca. And it’s taking over.

Originally created in Taiwan, bubble tea first hit it big during the 1980s. According to TV show Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai SP, the drink first became popular in Japan in 1992 when it was sold as “coconut milk” with white tapioca balls.

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In the past, tapioca was typically a transparent white color, but now it’s usually dark.

Japan’s second boom was in 2008 when popular Taiwanese boba brands began setting up shop, selling the dark-colored tapioca balls. The third and current boom in Japan began last year.

There are well over 300 tapioca shops in Tokyo alone, with new ones sprouting up all the time.

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What caused this latest boom? According to Toyo Keizai Online, there are several reasons. First, the Taiwanese teahouse Chun Shui Tang, which claims to have invented boba tea, arrived in Japan in 2013. Since then, more and more famous bubble tea shops have opened up in Japan. In 2017, there was a surge in new boba tea businesses, laying the groundwork for the recent boom that followed.

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Another reason Toyo Keizai gives is that even though the drinks are packed with calories, the chewy bubble balls are a light meal. People enjoy the sensation of chewing the boba pearls while drinking sugary milk tea. There has also been a tea boom going on in Japan, so that has helped tapioca drink sales. Another reason is that more and more Japanese people have been traveling to Taiwan. It’s a popular destination, where many Japanese travelers seem to have fallen in love with the drink.

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Because of this, the streets in areas like Tokyo’s Harajuku are now home to several bubble tea shops—sometimes right next door to each other!

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A shopping street near Shin-Koiwa Station, for example, has bubble tea shops right across from each other. It’s not only the increased number of boba businesses but the number of places where the beverage can now be purchased, including convenience stores and conveyor belt sushi restaurants. But even with a wider availability for tapioca drinks, some places still draw massive lines with people even waiting for hours to order.

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At one tapioca place in Nagoya, the wait was six hours long! This is highly unusual for Japan (long waits might be between 20 minutes to an hour), and Twitter users pointed out that it would be faster to fly from Nagoya to Taipei than wait in this bubble tea line.

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No wonder this line even made the news in Taiwan!

The other reason that tapioca drink has become popular in Japan is, no doubt, Instagram. Some people appear to be ordering bubble tea, taking photos, and then leaving half-finished drinks on the street.

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Even the ones who finish the drinks are leaving behind lots of plastic cups and big plastic straws, sometimes in the waste bins and sometimes not.

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The above image was taken by YouTuber Pekepon.

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About the author

Brian Ashcraft

Originally from Texas, Ashcraft has called Osaka home since 2001. He has authored five books, including most recently, Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Desirable Spirit.