TOKYO -- The huge popularity of bubble tea in Japan is driving an import boom in tapioca.
Japan imported some 6,300 tons of tapioca in the first seven months of this year, already more than double the amount for the entire 2018. Imports from Taiwan, in particular, have skyrocketed. The island overtook Thailand as the top supplier to Japan last year.
The export price of tapioca starch also shot to a seven-year high of $550 per ton in May 2018. That price has since fallen to around $450, which is still high by historical standards.
The original bubble tea is a cold, sweet, milky tea drink with dollops of gooey tapioca balls in it. First sold in Taiwan, it is now popular in many forms and flavors throughout Asia.
Indeed, the craze has seized Japan, which imported 2.1 billion yen ($19.4 million) of tapioca and its substitutes during the January-July period, according to government trade data. The volume and the value of tapioca imports in 2018 were record highs.
Imports from Taiwan during the first seven months of this year reached 5435 tons, a whopping 790% leap from the same period last year. Taiwan now has an 87% share of the Japanese market.
Chun Shui Tang and Gong Cha - bubble tea chain stores - have expanded sharply over the past several years. Launched in 2013, Chun Shui Tang has grown to a nationwide chain of 14 shops, mostly in Tokyo and Fukuoka. It is planning to open its 15th store next month in Hiroshima.
Making tapioca drinks and sweets at home has also become a fad among young Japanese. The search frequency for the word "tapioca" in Cookpad, an online cooking recipe site, jumped 560% in August from a year earlier, according to Tabemiru, Cookpad's search data service.
Many supermarkets now also sell frozen tapioca. Sometimes called pearls, tapioca balls are made from starch extracted from the root of cassava, a woody shrub native to South America. But the plant is now grown in tropical and subtropical regions and can easily be propagated.
Nigeria and Congo are among the leading cassava producers, but the crop is consumed mostly at home in these countries. The top cassava exporter is Thailand. Cassava root prices in the country soared in 2017 due to a supply shortage, but have seen little impact from the bubble tea boom, according to an executive at a Japanese trading house.