Personal endorsements from internationally famous faces help bring down cultural barriers.

Over the last few years, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has skyrocketed in foreign countries, with people around the globe gushing about great sushi sets, bowls of ramen, or matcha green tea desserts they’ve eaten in their corner of the planet. And yet, there’s one particular type of Japanese food I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed will catch on overseas: onigiri.

Though onigiri usually translates into English as “rice ball,” they’re often triangular. In any case they’re fistfuls of rice with a fish, meat, or vegetable filling, wrapped in nori (dried seaweed) so that you can eat them without any utensils. Tasty, healthy, and filling without being heavy, onigiri make a great snack, and you can buy them at any supermarket or convenience store in Japan.

Onigiri aren’t really served in restaurants, though, which is where a lot of foreign foodies get introduced to new Japanese foods. That can make it hard for those overseas Japanese food specialty shops that do sell onigiri to market them, since at first glance it might not even be clear what onigiri are. One Japanese market in the U.S. has found a clever way to lower the cultural barrier, though: endorsements from internationally beloved anime characters!

As shown in these snapshots from Japanese Twitter user @menchi190, the market has placed pictures of famous anime icons, such as Pikachu, Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, and One Piece’s Trafalgar Law, all munching on onigiri, at the front of its onigiri shelves. A closer look at the photos reveals that the store in question is a branch of Nijiya Market, a local Japanese supermarket chain founded in San Diego in the mid 1980s which also has branches in the Los Angeles area, San Jose, and San Francisco.

It’s an incredibly smart idea, since not only does it help the uninitiated better understand what the items are, it also removes a lot of the intimidation factor about trying something new for anime fans. After all, if both Pikachu and Goku like them, they can’t be all that weird-tasting, can they?

Japanese Twitter commenters were impressed by Nijiya’s original point-of-sales marketing strategy, with several theorizing that the dark green, nearly black color of nori probably makes onigiri unappetizing to Americans the first time they see it, though there was also some surprise at the price, US$2.29, which works out to about 250 yen, almost double what onigiri usually cost in Japanese convenience stores. Still, it’s a start, and for anime purists and Japanese culture fans, it’s nice to see the Pokémon anime, which infamously referred to on-screen onigiri as “jelly donuts” in its English-dubbed version, being used to promote rice balls for once.

Source: Twitter/@menchi190 via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where he remembers swinging by the local Nijiya Market after junior-year Japanese class in college.