TOKYO -- The environmental movement has been slow to gain strength here, but Japan can now claim an ecological distinction all its own: a new beer called "The Earth."
And if the marketing goal is not clear from the beer's name, its advertising slogan -- "Suntory is thinking about the earth" -- appears in English, and in letters even larger than the actual name, on each can and bottle.
Masahide Kanzaki, a spokesman for the giant brewer and distiller Suntory Ltd., said introduction of "The Earth" reflects Japan's competitive beer market, which forces brewers to market a new product before every summer drinking season, and Suntory's market research, which showed ecology becoming a hot issue in the 1990s.
"Some customers say, 'So what? What is Suntory doing about the Earth?' " Kanzaki said, acknowledging that the product's main environmental impact is the use of a stay-on tab instead of a throw-away flip-top.
"The answer is complicated. ... But 'Suntory is trying to think about the earth, and let's think about the earth together' -- that's the connotation."
It is the same understated approach that led to the use of English in the beer's slogan. According to Kanzaki, Japanese prefer indirect, mood-oriented names and advertisements without precise meaning. If the name were in Japanese, he said, it would be too direct. So far, he added, consumer response indicates that most Japanese get the idea even if they do not fully understand the English.
Other attempts to cash in on environmental awareness here haven't fared so well.
At the giant Osaka Flower Expo '90, which takes conservation as its theme, thousands of fish went belly-up in the central "Pond of Life." They were poisoned by chemical run-off from a neighboring exhibit, a replica of the 12th hole at the Augusta National golf club.
And Japan often is criticized by world environmental organizations for its role in everything from whaling to drift-net fishing to using disposable wooden chopsticks.
Suntory is hoping to change all that. With $5 billion a year in sales from its beer, whiskey, soft drink and restaurant operations, Suntory operates restaurants under its own name in New York, Boston and other cities and brews and distributes Budweiser beer in Japan.
It is using the stay-on tab to make its claim to ecological distinction. It is the first firm here to use tabs instead of the flip-tops that cause a big litter problem. It has introduced them this spring on both The Earth and another new Suntory beer called Junnama, or Genuine Draft.
Suntory's introduction of stay-on tabs is not without risk. Since part of the stay-on tab extends down into the beer after the can is opened, brewers have worried that Japan's fastidious consumers won't accept any container whose contents come in contact with a part that has been exposed to the air.
To help promote its new product, Suntory opened a special beer hall with a huge, earth-colored dome on a paved lot near Tokyo's Shinbashi train station. Television advertisements show beaches, driftwood and seagulls -- no people, and no beer.
Not everyone is biting.
"In a word, it's laughable," said Kenichiro Kobayashi, a senior staff member of the Japan Union for Nature Conservation. But Kobayashi, with typical Japanese politeness, added that the campaign doesn't do any harm and might even heighten environmental awareness among consumers.
Kanzaki said, however, the "Suntory is thinking about the earth" campaign is succeeding in Tokyo. Still, there are no plans to market it in the United States. "The concept is hard to fit into an American consumer's mind," he said. "For Japanese consumers, it's not so strange."