Tap water gains for economic not environmental reasons
Despite a worldwide environmental movement to wean people off of bottled water, which depletes natural water reserves that localities depend on and requires unneeded amounts of energy to package and distribute, Japanese consumer preference for “mineral water” in PET bottle continues unabated, according the web version of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. Surveys indicate that the majority of people think that bottled water is “safer and healthier” than tap water, despite the fact that local utilities have vastly improved their filtering technologies. Several years ago, in fact, Tokyo’s own waterworks started bottling tap water and selling it at train kiosks and convenient stores under the name Tokyo Sui (Tokyo Water) to promote the idea that the city’s tap water is not only perfectly safe to drink, but good-tasting as well.
The whole issue of “oishii mizu” (delicious water) is one that Westerners may find difficult to understand. Most people disliked pre-filtration tap water because it had a taste, usually due to chemicals introduced to kill dangerous bacteria when the water is transported long distances. That’s why the tap water in Los Angeles, which was built on a desert, traditionally tasted awful and the water in San Franciso, which comes from nearby mountains, had no taste.
Over the past two decades Tokyo has gone to great lengths to improve its water supply by cleaning up reservoirs and watersheds, devising new filtering methods, replacing pipes and reducing the use of chlorine and other disinfectants. The more difficult problem is getting people to change their outlook, which is why the city bottled its own water and sold it. Apparently, it didn’t work as well as hoped. In the Nikkei survey, more than half of the respondents, who ranged in age from 20 to 69, said they drink bottled water “often” or “sometimes.” Among the most common reasons for drinking bottled water was that it either “tastes better” or is “healthier.” Among those who said they “don’t like tap water,” the highest percentage were people in their 20s, about 57 percent.
However, the statistics become more interesting when money is involved. Sixty percent of the respondents say they spend “less than ¥500 a week” on bottled water, while 26 percent say they spend “between ¥500 and ¥1,000.” The most popular brands, in order, were Suntory Tennensui, Asahi’s Rokko no Oishii Mizu and Coca Cola’s I Lohas, which topped the list of people under 50 when asked which brand they intended to drink more of. The term “lohas” has become associated with environmentally friendly products, thus indicating that many people who drink bottled water are conscious of conservation issues.
Such people, of course, should be the natural market for tap water, but apparently they still have their prejudices. In fact, consumption of tap water seems to be increasing, though it’s difficult to measure such things. The Japan Purifier Association, which represents companies that manufacture home water filtering devices, said that sales of “container-type” purifiers more than doubled between 2007 and 2008 and has continued to rise.
The most popular brand is Brita, a pitcher with a filter inside that you just fill with tap water. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun included comments from Brita users who say they bought the device because they were spending too much money on bottled water. The retail cost of the pitcher starts at about ¥3,500, and one filter cartridge, which starts at about ¥900, lasts two months.
If they want to save money they don’t need to buy something to make their tap water potable, because it’s already potable. In the same Asahi article a representative of the Japan Waterworks Association said that for most regions in Japan home or portable purifiers are redundant, because the water is already about as pure as can be. He wants his own association to carry out more effective public relations to make people aware of this fact, but it’s difficult to compete with large beverage companies who have convinced the public that bottled water is automatically superior. (Suntory is currently running a TV commercial in which a housewife advocates using bottled water to make “more delicious rice”)
Of course, all it should take to convince someone to switch to tap water is a simple taste test, but prejudices can be powerful things. People don’t always believe what’s right there in front of their eyes, or on their tongues.