On Feb. 16, 2016, Kirin’s Afternoon Tea brand and Glico’s candy Pocky released their second design/pairing collaboration with Pocky’s “Lemon Love” (恋のレモン) and Afternoon Tea’s “Teagurt” (yogurt + tea) (ティーグルト). Eaten together, the candy and the tea are supposed to taste like rare cheesecake (レアチーズケーキ) a Japanese style of cheesecake that isn’t baked but is stabilized by the addition of gelatin. The package design is also a collaboration: the Pocky boxes feature a woman (Aya) in a yellow dress on one set and a man (Tsubasa) in a yellow vest on the other. Aya and Tsubasa are positioned on the left side of their respective Pocky boxes so you can pair them with the 6 different characters featured on the right side on the drink bottle. There are three men and three women characters on the drink bottles, with one woman character and one man character on opposite sides of the same bottle, so you can turn the bottle to have the character of your choice to face the character on your Pocky box.
At first glance, it looks like Glico and Kirin have created something inclusive, and it’s really, really adorable:
— ゆりこじ (@eerrkkyy) January 23, 2016
Translation: If you try to line up the Afternoon Tea x Pocky collaboration packages into women couples, it’s even cuter than expected. I will buy them….
— ゆりこじ (@eerrkkyy) January 23, 2016
Translation: (Though perhaps these [m/m] pairings will be in higher demand!)
At least until you start reading the copy.
Because we can’t have nice things, Kirin’s press release and the Afternoon Tea-Pocky homepage are aggressively no-homo, bye-bi, steer clear of queer. First of all, the press release from Kirin has this line:
We wanted to express in the package design that a heart-fluttering feeling on the theme of “men and women meeting = love.”
When you pair Pocky Midi “Lemon Love” [with Afternoon Tea’s Teagurt], you complete the package design of men and women in love.
Obviously a missive from corporate isn’t going to stop consumers from pairing whomever they want, as proven by the 2015 collaboration with prince and princess designs, which paired apple tea with rich custard Pocky (for examples of the prince/prince and princess/princess designs see here).
Note, though, that the package description doesn’t say “men and women = love,” but rather
The front and back [of the bottle] have designs of different princes and princesses. This collaborative packaging campaign with Pocky Midi Rich Custard depicts a prince and princess holding hands.
So, as if to clarify that shipping the women with the women and the men with the men (or making triads) wasn’t the “real” message, Kirin and Glico’s design team for this project (a group of women employees in their 20s and 30s, according to SankeiBiz) also created a character map.
Additionally, if you take a photo of your bottle and box together with the app COCOAR2, you can watch a video with the couple. However, all of the same-sex couples are coded as non-romantic, while the heterogamous couples are all coded as romantic. According to the character map and the video chart, here are the pairings you get. (If you have other transcripts, videos, or descriptions of the videos, please email me or leave a comment.)
The Pocky character Aya, 24, is a “little sister” character and a bit of an airhead.
Pairings with women: She is the rival of Saori (27), who is strong-willed and jealous (video: “My Friend’s Boyfriend”); the sister of Haruka (31), the loving older sister who’s a bit of a tsundere (“Acchi Muite Hoi” – a game where you play rock-paper-scissors and you point to a direction and your partner turns their face in a direction); and seeks the love advice of Maiko (26), a cool Yamato nadeshiko (woman who exemplifies the “feminine virtues” of “old Japan) (“Sempai’s Advice”).
Pairings with men: Naoya (30), a reserved “herbivore man” with stranger anxiety, surprises Aya (with a cake) (“Surprise”); she has mutual romantic feelings for Yusuke (26), an earnest and refreshing boy (“Love Confession”); and Shou (25), a fashionable but slightly flashy guy, makes a pass at her (“Greeting with a Kiss”).
The Pocky character Tsubasa (25) is a “carnivore man” and a sportsman.
Pairings with men: he is Naoya’s neighbor (“Whose Cake?”); rivals with Yusuke (“My New Friend is My Rival”); and good friends with Shou (“I Like You” — for the love, readers, tell me the contents of this video).
Pairings with women: he has mutual romantic feelings for Saori (“Say it 10 Times”); has a thing for Haruka (“Older Girlfriend”); and Maiko, his childhood friend, has a crush on him (“Childhood Friend”).
In the first video, Yusuke tells Aya he likes her, gives her flowers, and asks her to be his girlfriend–there’s blushing and a kiss, all very romantic.
In the second, Aya, in tears, asks Maiko-sempai why she’s not cute; Maiko tells her she’s totally cute; and Aya wails some more about her boyfriend saying Hana-chan is cuter than her. Who is Hana-chan? A calico cat. (OKAY SURE.) Maiko tells her to open her eyes.
This is not romantic at all. Maybe it sounds like, from this transcription, that Maiko-sempai is going to sweep Aya off her feet and tell her to leave her garbage boyfriend and smooch her but it’s just not happening.
Kirin and Glico seem to be saying quite clearly in their press release, product videos, and web page that the only romantic couples are the heterogamous (m/f) ones, which is a likely a reaction to the Princess/Princess and Prince/Prince shipping of the 2015 campaign. But if they’re so hellbent on straight-appearing couples (hello from the bi-erasure side) couples, why not just make all the Glico products women and all the Pocky ones men? I suppose the reasoning could be to give a greater variety so you have to buy them all; to not appear gender-biased by labeling Pocky as “for men” and the tea as “for women” by only using those characters; or even to not appear to be heterosexist by making it look like all these characters are kissing each other. Which leads into the concept of “queerbaiting”–essentially, teasing the audience with a “will they or won’t they” queer pairing (think John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in some versions) but having neither character come out as queer, neither character confess to the other, and otherwise asserting the characters are straight straight straight. (John shouting he’s “not gay” constantly in seasons 1-3 in the BBC Sherlock version better be because his full sentence is “I’m not gay; I’m bi; stop erasing my sexuality, you wanker.”) It’s throwing breadcrumbs to the queer folks in the audience but shaming us into our place in the cisheteronormative patriarchal system.
One of the questions that gets brought up with the slash shipping of the characters here is “why are people arranging them so Aya is kissing women and Tsubasa is kissing men?” Here’s a whole series of reactions and more here.
— あろえ (@aroe061dao) January 24, 2016
Translation: This is…LMAO Pocky, whyyyyy
— ∑(≡△≡.)@SAOに嵌 (@ST345M) February 23, 2016
Translation: Homo lol
— ゆりこじ (@eerrkkyy) January 23, 2016
Translation: Really, these pairings that aren’t possible [in the app because they are the women drink characters paired] are painfully cute.
Translation: Overboard! Not following the store manager’s orders.
Translation: Glad I bought this, but there was a mistake with how the characters were paired. ^^;
Translation: “This pairing has got to be wrong–they’ve made a BL product!” I thought, but on the opposite side of the bottle, there’s a woman.
Regarding the social media reaction, Harbor Business Online speculates that because the collaboration was announced before Valentine’s Day and released around Valentine’s Day each year, it seems to the consumers like the companies intended the pairings to be romantic. Additionally (and most obviously), you don’t kiss your friends or relatives in greeting in Japan, and kissing and displays of affection are not for public consumption, so the image of kissing your sempai or your rival seem especially out of place.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the popularity of BL (boys’ love/yaoi) and yuri (girls’ love) and the potential for marketing to fans of those genres rather than actual queer folks. (Of course there are queer fans of yaoi, but these are genres, to oversimplify, written by straight folks with straight audiences in mind, not produced for queer folks by queer folks. Yuri, as noted in the comments, tends to have more overlap with queer creators writing for queer audiences, though there are certainly straight cis male consumers as well.) Thus the accusations that this package design is for fujoshi (a pejorative term for “fan girl,” especially adult women who consume BL and m/m slash).
So why do people insist on pairing Aya with women and Tsubasa with men? Queer folks exist. Full stop. We want our relationships and sexuality to be acknowledged, visible, and respected, even if it’s on a candy box or a bottle of cold tea.
Perhaps we’re missing something–maybe the design team really did intend for there to be queer couples and got shut down by higher-ups and this is their nod to the original design. Which leaves us, the queer consumers, to do what we do best when we’re given crumbs: write fanfiction. Aya from Glico totally confessed to Maiko-sempai from Kirin that she’s been in love with her for years and now they are going to be a bi power couple in design. Sempai did notice you, Aya-chan!