Bubble tea, that sweet Taiwanese drink of the gods, has exploded in popularity in Japan over the past couple of years, with customers waiting up to multiple hours in long lines in front of the more than 300 boba stores in Tokyo. While many of the popular shops are Taiwanese imports, some local entrepreneurs have also been attempting to get in on the trend — including, it seems, the Japanese yakuza.
The notorious gangsters are currently engaged in Japan’s bubble tea trade, according to a fascinating report by journalist Jake Adelstein in the Asia Times, in which he confirms details laid out in a recent Shūkan Post magazine story about yakuza and bubble tea. The Post article, Adelstein writes, alleges that a boss from a large yakuza group opened a bubble tea shop in an entertainment district near a busy station on the Yamanote Line, Tokyo’s most important train line that loops around the city’s major wards.
The yakuza boss is quoted as saying that $20,000 was all it cost to rent the space, buy the materials — cheap, dried tapioca balls and ingredients for milk tea — and get the shop up and running, making bubble tea an easy sector to enter with little overhead.
Japan’s yakuza syndicates, which have long straddled a strange line between legitimacy and illegitimacy in Japanese society, make their money through a variety of revenue streams: gambling, human and drug trafficking, smuggling, fraud, racketeering, investments in various businesses, and even selling street food like okonomiyaki at traditional festivals they may have a hand in behind the scenes. As Adelstein writes: “Today’s yakuza are venture capitalists of a sort. They go where the money goes.”
And currently, the money is in the boba trade. According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global bubble tea market was valued at $1.9 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $3.2 billion by 2023. A single bubble tea drink in Japan costs around $1 to produce — including the costs of the straw, container, milk tea, and tapioca pearls — and can be sold for $5.
Hawk enough of those trendy drinks, and anyone, yakuza included, could stand to make a healthy profit in this boom time for bubble tea in Japan.
- Japanese mob muscles into bubble tea sector [Asia Times]
- How Taiwanese Bubble Tea Conquered the Taste Buds of The Japanese [CommonWealth Magazine]