Last month, Hokkaido-based Ishiya Co. sued Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. for trademark infringement. Ishiya has been selling its “Shiroi Koibito” cookies since 1976, and Yoshimoto Kogyo began selling “Omoshiroi Koibito” cookies last year.
The name of the original cookies means “white lover.” The new cookies have nearly the same name, except that the addition of an extra character at the beginning changes “shiroi” (white) to “omoshiroi” (funny). Yoshimoto Kogyo is an Osaka-based entertainment company best known for its comedians. So if you might find a “white” lover in snowy Hokkaido, perhaps you’d find a “funny” lover in Osaka.
Shiroi Koibito cookies are famous in Japan. If one of your coworkers in this country takes a trip to Hokkaido, there’s a good chance they’ll bring Shiroi Koibito cookies back as an omiyage treat. According to an article in The Daily Yomiuri, the Shiroi Koibito name has been trademarked since 1980, and its packaging has been trademarked since 2004. The brand managed to maintain its popularity even after an expiration-date mislabelling scandal described in a Japan Times article from 2008. According to an article in the Mainichi Daily News, Ishiya sold 7.2 billion yen (more than 90 million U.S. dollars) worth of the cookies in fiscal 2010.
Ishiya says some people have accidentally purchased Omoshiroi Koibito cookies after mistaking them for Shiroi Koibito cookes. It is easy to see how this might happen. The name of the new cookies is nearly identical to the original cookies, and the packaging is extremely similar.
However, a spokesperson for Yoshimoto Kogyo said the company was “bewildered” by the lawsuit against it. Perhaps this remark was meant to be omoshiroi.
The packaging may be confusingly similar, but the cookies are surprisingly different.
One of my coworkers brought a box of each type to the office recently, and I sampled them both. Ishiya’s original Shiroi Koibito is the small square cookie in the photo above. It consists of two buttery langue de chat cookies, baked until brown at the edges, sandwiching a small tablet of either white or dark chocolate. Yoshimoto Kogyo’s Omoshiroi Koibito is the large round cookie. It consists of two thin waffle cookies sandwiching a layer of maple cream that smelled and tasted like it was artificial.
I don’t claim to be an authority Japanese intellectual property law, but I am interested in seeing how this case plays out in court. My gut tells me Ishiya should win.
My taste buds tell me they already have.