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For the last half-century, the brewing industry in Japan has been dominated by the “Big Three”: Asahi Breweries  , Sapporo Breweries   (known as Nippon Breweries   prior to 1964), and Kirin Brewery Co.  All three produced early flat top cans, with Asahi being the first in 1958.


Suntory  , a leading distiller of liquor, entered the beer market in 1963.  Although Suntory has never succeeded in breaking into the “Big Three”, it has been one of the most prolific canners of beer, including some of the most beautiful designs ever produced.  This may be due, at least in part, to its relatively weak market position – i.e. lacking strong brand recognition, Suntory could instead try to appeal to consumers with frequent & colorful design changes.


Orion Breweries Co, established in 1959, began canning beer in 1973.  One additional brewer, Takara Brewery Co, briefly entered the market during the 1960s and produced both flat top and pull top cans.

Early flat top cans from the “Big Three”

Suntory Beer.  The very first can produced by Suntory, along with two examples from the 9-can “Viva” series produced in the early 1970s featuring outdoor sporting activities.

Suntory Beer.  Examples from the 7-can “Discover Japan” series, produced in 1971 as part of a Japan Railways promotion for domestic tourism.

The presence of only a handful of brewers in one of the world’s largest beer markets was due to the Japanese Beer Tax Law, which specified a minimum quantity of beer necessary to be produced in order to obtain a manufacturing license.  The tax law made it nearly impossible for new players to enter the market, but after the law was finally relaxed in 1994, many small regional breweries are beginning to appear.


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