Udon noodles came, like so many things in Japan, from China. Kūkai, a Buddhist monk from the province of Sanuki on the Japanese island of Shikoku, traveled to China in 804 to study religious texts. When he returned in 806, he didn’t just bring back esoteric manuscripts but also a recipe: thick noodles made of wheat flour. Today the province is called Kagawa Prefecture, but the noodles, a ubiquitous local dish, are still called Sanuki udon.
Udon is served hot or chilled (delicious on muggy days), in broth or with a dipping sauce. Toppings are of an endless variety. If done well, it’s a seemingly simple but delectable dish. While instant udon noodles are available anywhere in the world, udon aficionados in Japan treasure local varieties where specialists are said to fashion them based on old recipes and local ingredients. Sanuki udon is particularly appreciated for the distinctive flavor and chewy texture that the local type of wheat…. Oh, wait. The wheat for Sanuki udon these days comes from Australia, apparently, because locals prefer the Aussie standard white wheat for their special noodles.
And these delicious noodles sparked an international dispute between Japan and Taiwan.
An enterprising guy, Kabashima Yasutaka, had gone to Taiwan to study Chinese, and when he returned to Kagawa, he studied noodle making and shop management. In 2006, he returned to Taipei where he merged his Chinese language skills with his management techniques and noodle-making art to launch a … noodle shop. Dosan Kanroku Sanuki Udon, he called it.
To distinguish his products from Taiwanese noodles, he offered authentic Sanuki noodles made from, well, Australian white wheat flour. The toppings were also authentic, well, with a nod toward local preferences for beef, pork, and chicken (Taiwan Fun).
November 2007, he received a letter from Namchow Group, a Taiwanese producer and marketer of edible oils, detergents, frozen dough, rice crackers, etc. A big outfit. For example, it has a 27% share of China’s high-tier bakery oil market (Oil and Fats). And it also made instant noodles. The letter claimed that his shop’s name, Dosan Kanroku Sanuki Udon, infringed on its trademarks related to Sanuki and demanded that he cease to use Sanuki in the restaurant’s name.
Turns out, Namchow had registered the ancient Japanese geographical name as a trademark in Taiwan in 1998 and was using it for a variety of instant noodles and restaurant services.
Uproar in Japan. The government took notice. And the powerful Japan Commerce Association, which groups together 400 Japanese companies in Taiwan, jumped into the fray. It petitioned the Taiwan Intellectual Property Office (TIPO) on March 28, 2008, to cancel all trademarks related to Japanese geographical names—Sanuki wasn’t the only name that Taiwanese businesses were squatting. Thus, they escalated the issue from a noodle-shop case to a dispute between the Japan Commerce Association and the Taiwanese government.
In April, 2008, Kabashima Yasutaka filed a formal request with TIPO to cancel the trademark Sanuki. “My shop serves the genuine, authentic handmade Sanuki udon noodles,” he said during a press conference. “It is unfair for a Japanese geographical name to be exclusively owned by a Taiwanese enterprise.”
TIPO later defended itself. The word Sanuki wasn’t well-known in Taiwan at the time. So examiners, who weren’t aware of all geographical names in the world, approved the registration of the trademark. OK, today they might Google it. But in 1998?
Victories: In December 2010, TIPO ruled that four of Namchow’s 14 Sanuki-related trademarks should be cancelled. Namchow appealed to the Petitions and Appeals Committee of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The committee affirmed the ruling. Namchow appealed to the Intellectual Property Court. And last week, the court upheld the prior ruling that had cancelled Namchow’s Sanuki udon trademark.
Namchow responded … with newspaper ads, claiming the verdict was unfair and politically motivated. After it was granted the Sanuki trademark 13 years ago, it had invested heavily to turn it into a global brand. Now the verdict would destroy its value (Taipei Times). The company indicated that it was weighing an appeal to the Supreme Court.
“This is not the end,” Yasutaka Kabashima told reporters after the verdict. “But the end victory is getting closer and closer.”
And his noodle shop? Well, it has grown into a popular chain.