By Lisa Twaronite
TOKYO (Reuters) - Americans have enjoyed Reese's Peanut Butter Cups since 1923, but until now devotees in Japan had to buy them on U.S. military bases, carry them back in suitcases or resort to making their own homemade versions of the popular treat.
That changed this spring when Seiyu GK, the Japan arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc, began selling the chocolate and peanut butter Reese's under an exclusive one-year distribution agreement with Hershey Co.
The products are the same as those sold in the United States, minus a preservative not approved for use in Japan.
Seiyu's research led the company to conclude it would find fans here for the candy in the distinctive orange wrapper.
"We've decided to sell them in Japan because there were customers' opinions such as 'being addicted,'" said a Seiyu spokeswoman.
Based on their initial reception, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are likely to be in Japan to stay.
Seiyu's first-month sales amounted to 1.7 times more than Kit-Kat Mini, which had been the most popular product in the store's chocolate line-up until then, the spokeswoman said.
Seiyu has no breakdown of customer profiles, but "addicted" expatriates accounted for some of the sales.
"As soon as I came to Japan, and couldn't find them, I was ready to pay crazy amounts of money just to get them," said 36-year old John-Mark Kuba. The Hawaii native came to Japan in 2005 and works as an assistant language teacher at a junior high school in Tokyo.
When he spotted them on a shelf in a Seiyu store in suburban Tokyo's Ogikubo, he said he couldn't believe it, adding: "It seemed so out of place."
Kuba promptly snapped up three packages containing a total of 18 large Peanut Butter Cups.
About 85 percent of Hershey's sales are from the U.S. market, but it expects international net sales to rise to about 20 percent of total sales by 2017.
"Our desire to grow internationally was well timed with Walmart's desire to expand their sales of our most iconic products across their global store footprint," Hershey spokesman Jeff Beckman wrote in an email.
Hershey's produces Japan's Peanut Butter Cups in the U.S. for export. While the company doesn't comment on product formulation, Beckman said the Reese's products sold in Japan are identical to those sold at Walmart stores in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Latin America.
One difference between the export version and the one sold in the U.S. is apparent from comparing labels. The Reese's sold abroad do not list "TBHQ," which is shorthand for tertiary butylhydroquinone, a preservative.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows its use, but it hasn't been approved in some other countries, including Japan.
Excluding the TBHQ means avoiding the headaches faced by Japan's Duskin Co a decade ago, when it admitted its Mister Donut subsidiary had sold imported pork buns containing the additive. The revelation and ensuing scandal led the company's president to resign, and a shareholder to file a lawsuit.
(Reporting by Lisa Twaronite, editing by Elaine Lies)