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Meiji Karl - An Internationally Beloved Japanese Corn Puff Snack

  • 7 min read

Meiji Karl has been attracted and beloved by many Japanese generations since its launch. Interestingly, this Japanese snack also fascinates oversea consumers becoming a favorite at Japanese Taste. Since Karl is one of the long-running snacks sold in Japan, there’re many stories to explain about it, from its features to background. This article explores Karl snack in greater detail including:

  • What is Karl
  • Karl origins
  • The mascot
  • Karl types
  • How Karl is produced

We hope your next Karl eating time will be more enjoyable when you remember some of the facts on this article.

What is Karl?

Karl is a corn puff snack manufactured by Meiji, famous for its curled shape and soft melting texture. Karl was first introduced in Japan on July 25th, 1968; so it has been consumed for more than a half century!

Meiji Karl Corn Puff Snack

The reason Meiji invented Karl was to change Japanese people’s perception towards snacks. According to Meiji, before Karl was sold, snacks usually referred to sweet things in Japan. Meanwhile, in the US, snack foods, which are more filling and taste savory, became extremely popular. Meiji wanted to introduce such a trend to Japan by creating a filling snack that can be enjoyed all year round. Since its debut in Japan, Karl got accepted by Japanese consumers because this was the brand new choice for them.

Do you know why this snack is named Karl? Because it’s curled? Or because it’s karui (Japanese word means “light” and has a fairly similar pronunciation to Karl)? Well, its name originated from the curl dolls which was one of the most fashionable toys in Japan. Since these dolls have a puffy cheek and curled hair, Meiji thought their appearance fits precisely to Karl's chubby- and curly-looking, therefore they took the curl dolls into account in naming.

How Karl Has Developed to Japan’s Typical Snack?

Here we would like to take a further look at Karl’s history. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to cover all historical events of Karl in this article, so we’ll introduce some events that might be recognized as a milestone for Karl’s development.

The Early Age (1968~1979)

In 1968, the prototype Karl had two different flavors; one is cheese flavor for children and another is chicken soup flavor for adults. In 1971 Meiji invented usuaji (meaning “lightly flavored”). Usuaji flavor was developed for Western Japanese because some claimed that the cheese-flavored Karl was too heavy, so they sold this usuaji Karl, which had a lighter flavor seasoned with dashi. FYI, Western Japanese generally prefer plain taste while Eastern Japanese like rich taste.

Meiji Karl Corn Puff Snack Retro

It was 1975 that a mascot character was first introduced along with the package renewal. The very first mascot who showed up in Karl was a boy called Boya (a Japanese calling term that refers to a young boy with a sense of intimacy), not a middle-aged man you can see in modern Karl packages (we’ll mention more about these mascots later). This is because Meiji wanted to make this snack more popular with children.

More Changes & Challenges (1980~1999)

Did you know that the Karl package was originally transparent and the corn puff inside was visible? This was to make the corn puffs look tasty, but in 1988 they changed to an aluminum bag because aluminum can prevent the puffs from humidity. Due to this change, they managed to make Ojisan and other mascots’ posing more dynamic so that the snack looks more fascinating.

Meiji Karl Corn Puff Snack History

The year 1998 was the 30th anniversary of Karl, and to make this event more remarkable and rememberable, Meiji developed “stick-shaped” Karl. Although this non-curled version failed to be marketed regularly, it got resold between 2007~2009 and 2013~2015, which indicates that there are some fans of stick Karl.

Ukarl Rose but Sales Shrinked (2000~)

In the beginning of the 21st century, there was another unique event. Generally, Karl isn’t a popular snack during winter because it’s a chocolate which dominates the Japanese snack market, especially during Christmas and Valentine Day seasons. To sell Karl better during winter, Meiji produced Ukarl; it’s a pun on the word ukaru, which usually means someone passes the entrance exam of the school or university, and is designed to pray for the Japanese student’s success for their exam. Interestingly, after the debut of Ukarl there were many reviews from the consumers leaving the message of gratitude for their passing. Since then, Ukarl became the winter-limited Karl in Japan and regarded as an auspicious snack among exam candidates. In 2005, Ukarl changed its package design closer to omamori (Japanese talisman), giving more auspicious sense.

Meiji Karl Omamori Corn Puff Snack

Perhaps the most remarkable latest event of Karl is rather negative. In 2017, Meiji announced that they decided to discontinue selling Karl in the Eastern Japan and shrink Karl production because its sales decreased at a third compared with its peak.

It’s a pity that we have to conclude Karl's history with such a dark news but the good news for you is the Karl production does continue nowadays. You don’t have to panic, Karl is still available.

Karl’s Mascot Character: It’s Not Only Ojisan!

Without the mascots, Karl wouldn't survive in the market. Although most characters are actually treated as a one-off character, there are many mascots showed up in Karl advertisements. In this section, we’ll introduce some of those.

Karl Ojisan

Karl Ojisan is definitely a symbol of Karl. His appearance usually features unique circular facial hair, a straw hat, and typical Japanese-style farm working clothes with a towel wrapping around his neck like a scarf. As mentioned in the history section, Karl Ojisan was a side character accompanied with animals. But he got more popular than Boya among Japanese consumers because of his characteristic heartwarming mood.

Karl Ojisan Mascot

Another reason for the rise of Karl Ojisan has something to do with the Japanese public at that time. Japan had a rapid economic growth between the 1960s and the early 70s, and people dedicating themselves in the business at a blistering pace was valued. When this economic prosperity terminated in 1973 due to the oil crisis, so did the people's behavior, and a pursuit of spiritual richness became trendy in Japan. As a result, many Japanese found a sense of relaxation from Karl Ojisan’s idyllic atmosphere. Although it might be a coincidence, he was something that the then Japanese public were seeking.

Karl Boya

Karl Boya is the original protagonist in Karl, but now a supporting character. Yet, he still remains one of the regular players in Karl world. He usually wears a traditional Japanese kimono with a hat, although he sometimes dresses a white running shirt and shorts during summer.

Karl Boya Mascot

What's still unknown is his relationship with Karl Ojisan. Many people might guess that Boya is the Ojisan’s son or nephew but he’s actually a neighbor of Ojisan in the same village. However, since Meiji hasn’t clearly mentioned the Boya’s background, it makes sense even if they're relatives to each other.

Kerota the Frog

Just like Ash and Pikachu in Pokémon anime as well as Snoopy and Woodstock in Peanuts, Karl Ojisan also has a buddy but it’s a green frog who handles this role. His name is Kerota, and he’s the character that stays together with Ojisan; indeed, Karl currently has cheese flavor and lightly salted flavor, Ojisan and Kerota appear on both packages.

Karl Kerota The Frog Mascot

Karl Ojisan and Kerota’s role as leading mascots can be seen in the corn puffs. Did you know that some of the puffs have different shapes that look like Ojisan or Kerota? These are the rare corn puffs called “Kyara Karl (character Karl)” and you’re lucky if you find these. There’re also some rare puffs which look like a star or snowman. Next time when you are enjoying Karl, check whether your bag has the rare Karl before finishing it off!

Other Characters

Here are the other characters that occasionally appear in the Karl package and in the Karl official page. The following illustration shows the representative characters of the Karl world:

  • Kamegoro the turtle (upper side in the image, right to Kerota)
  • Pongoro the racoon dog (upper side in the image, upper-right to Ojisan)
  • Kontan the fox (upper side in the image, right to Pongoro)
  • Moguro the mole (middle side in the image, just below Boya)
  • Mimichan the rabbit (middle side in the image, left to Ojisan)
  • Chorohei the squirrel (Lower side in the image, below Moguro and Mimichan)
  • Sasuke and Lusuke the monkeys (Lower side in the image, below Ojisan)
  • Daisuke the bear (Lower side in the image, right to Sasuke and Lusuke)

The Karls You Can Buy at Japanese Taste

Karl had many flavors in the past but due to its sales decrease, Meiji limited the production, thus only two flavors are marketed. Here’re the surviving flavors:

1. Meiji Karl Cheese Curls Corn Puffs Chips

With numerous times of the renewal since its invention, Karl cheese flavor has a savory, rich cheese flavor as it’s seasoned with a special powder made with six cheeses. The corn puff is designed to melt pleasantly, so as the aroma of cheeses. Try one of the most popular snacks at Japanese Taste. We also offer a value set of 10 bags.

Meiji Karl Cheese Puffs

Buy here

2. Meiji Karl Light Salt Curls Corn Puffs Snack 68g

This one is a Japanese style corn puff seasoned with the umami of bonito, kombu dried kelp, and mushroom. Although it’s “lightly” salted, it has a strong but not heavy taste because of the dashi, and it’s said that dashi helps make the taste richer without adding salt. Likewise, we also sell a set of 10 bags.

Meiji Karl Usuaji Lightly Salted

Buy here

How Puffs Are Produced?

We would like to conclude this article by showing how Karl is produced. Let’s begin with the base ingredient. When Meiji decided to make Karl, their first hurdle was to find the ingredient that can make a fluffy and soft-melting puff. They used potato, green peas, and rice but all ended in vain because the puffs made of these didn’t plump up otherwise plumped too much. However, when they tried corn, they successfully made the puffs they pursued. Corn is a perfect ingredient for Karl because it’s flavorful, has excellent cost-performance, and goes nicely with any seasoning. The corn grits, or grinded corn is used in Karl. 

The next process is the secret of Karl’s unique curled shape. The corn grits are mixed with water and kneaded, which later creates a swelled dough. This dough will be heated at 160~180℃, and gets squeezed by a machine called an extruder. The squeezed dough gets sliced by a rotating blade while the slashed doughs remain like a C-shape.

The slashed doughs will be dried in a huge oven to generate a puffy texture. These dried puffs are transferred to a rotating drum-shaped machine, then they get showered by a spraying machine which sprinkles a seasoning. The biggest difference between Karl and potato chips is that Karl isn’t fried with oil by the way. After the puffs are seasoned, they’ll get packed in the bag.