Photo/IllutrationA tour guide gives a brief background of the factory along with Yakult’s organization, history and products. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Question one: Where did the name of Yakult originally come from? (A) It’s Mongolian, and it means bliss; (B) it’s Esperanto, and it means yogurt; or (C) it’s Japanese and is the shortened form of “yaku ni tatsu yoguruto.”

OK, “thinking time!”

Tick-tock, tick-tock ... The answer? Drumroll, please. It’s B. Yakult comes from “jahurto,” which in Esperanto means yogurt. Esperanto is the world’s most popular constructed language, and it has been in use for more than 100 years. Esperanto means “one who hopes,” and naming the sweet probiotic milk beverage Yakult, in my opinion, is a stroke of genius!

Um, sorry. Two things. First, there’s only one question. So, the first line of this column is problematic. Second, there’s the often-heard-in-Japan phrase “thinking time.” Grammatically it’s fine, but I don’t think many native speakers of English would use this two-word sentence. A more natural way to say this might be, “You have 10 seconds!”

But enough of the corrections; let’s get back to Yakult.

Yakult got its start in the 1920s when Minoru Shirota at Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University) discovered a lactic acid bacteria that suppresses harmful bacteria in the intestines. Born in a small town in Nagano Prefecture where poor hygiene and nutritional deficiencies caused cholera and dysentery, wreaking havoc on people, Shirota made it his mission to get good bacteria into people’s intestines so that it could fight off illness and enable longer, healthier lives.

Yakult, the sweet-tasting fermented drink, was created and released in 1935.

At the foot of Mount Fuji is one of 13 Yakult factories that offer tours. The ultraclean Fuji Susono plant uses groundwater from the mountain to make several probiotic products. After learning the history of Yakult, tour participants are ushered to the state-of-the-art production line to observe workers scrubbing huge tanks and robots at work systematically churning out products. The 23-year-old factory is immaculately maintained and eco-friendly.

I used to work in a high-rise office complex that was the regular beat of a Yakult lady. Always on the ball, her friendly demeanor was a regular fixture, and I often found myself buying Yakult 400 from her just to engage in a pleasant little exchange.

One day I commented about the hot weather, and she said that she was lucky because she could do most of her selling inside, going up and down elevators. How true and fortunate for her, I thought.

Yakult, made by “one who hopes” the preventive medicinal properties of probiotics will lead to happier lives, is currently sold in 39 countries and regions, and more Yakult products are sold overseas than in Japan. That’s impressive!

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.