Love potions

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Love potions

In most neighborhoods, they're a familiar sight -- middle-aged women dressed in banana-yellow jackets and pointy hats, pushing carts. Even the carts are yellow.

They smile ever-so-friendly, bobbing their heads to show respect to elders socializing outside. Knocking on each door, they call out "Yakureuteu Ajumma-eyo" -- "It's the Yakult lady!" Their job is to deliver the fermented skim milk drink made by the Yakult company.

When Lee Jung-heui delivers the drink to office workers inside the Doota shopping building near downtown Seoul, the workers know what time it is. For Kim Chang-hwan, the manager of Doosan Corp.'s liquor division, it's 10:20 a.m. Mr. Kim says, "One day the Yakult ajumma came to me and suggested that I drink a bottle a day for my health. She told me the drink was good for hangovers. So, I said, 'Why not?'"

And since last year, Mr. Kim has been drinking not the regular Yakult drink, but the most expensive one, Wil, which is supposed to be good for the stomach.

Ms. Lee swiftly goes over to another cubicle where Choi Hyun-seok, Mr. Kim's colleague, is seated. She bows and says with a beaming smile, "Annyeonghaseyo?" And Mr. Choi gets his morning fix.

Ms. Lee moves over to a corner desk but finds it empty. She asks, "Is Mr. Lee in?" A voice from the next cubicle says, "Yep!" Then she sets down a chocolate milk.

In a room with more than 70 employees, Ms. Lee remembers exactly who gets what. She starts from the 33d floor and works down to the 9th floor. In one day she sells about 600 bottles, which cost from 110 won (10 cents) for the regular variety to 1,000 won for Wil.

Timely service is most important to the office workers, because they like their milk products before and not after lunch. Ms. Lee has 400-500 clients and is 41 years old, but considers herself a rookie in the business. She joined the Korea Yakult Company only four years ago. The hardest part was to build her clientele from scratch in 1998 when the Dongdaemun market building, now famous for shopping, was nearly empty. Initially, she only made a little over 300,000 won. But she adhered to her own motto: "One becomes ten, ten becomes one hundred," and now she makes 1.4 million won monthly.

"Selling Yakult drinks has given me great confidence and pride as a housewife and mother," she says. "Because I work hard, my children look up to me and study hard. I think working as a Yakult ajumma was a terrific choice."

Most of the Yakult ladies in Seoul have been working the same neighborhoods for years, some for decades, growing old together with their communities. They pitch the benefits of the drink, and mothers gladly stock up on it.

Koreans believe that drinking Yakult beverages -- or similar ones by Yakult's many competitors -- strengthens the stomach and cures digestive problems caused by stress or irregular diets.

So, what is Yakult? Where do Yakult ladies come from?

The drink was invented by a Japanese medical doctor and researcher in the 1930s -- thus the Japanese pronunciation, from yakuruto in Japanese to yakureuteu in Korean. Many Koreans are unaware of the origins -- Korea Yakult Company's Web site doesn't mention that the drink is from Japan. A spokesperson at Korea Yakult declined to comment on that historical association. But the drink's central concept and sales strategies echo principles laid out by the founder, Minoru Shirota (1899-1982).

The basic Yakult drink contains a very high concentration of a bacterium strain called lactobabacillus casei Shirota, and is named after Dr. Shirota, who developed Yakult's regular drink. Each 65 milliliter bottle of the Yakult drink contains billions of these bacteria.

Dr. Shirota, working in the microbiology department at Kyoto Imperial University School of Medicine, was the first person in the world to isolate and culture this variety of human intestinal lactobacilli. Between 1930 and 1935, he isolated more than 300 strains of bacteria from a human intestine. His main objective was to isolate a beneficial bacterium that could survive the trip through the stomach and bile acids to arrive, alive, in the small intestine. There the bacterium would assist in the functioning of the gastrointestinal system.

Dr. Shirota conducted an exhaustive investigation of lactobacilli, whereupon he discovered a new strain of bacteria: lactobacillus casei, the most acid- and bile-resistant. That led to the birth of Yakult.

The poor people of postwar Japan suffered many digestion-related illnesses caused by malnutrition and poor sanitation. Concerned, Dr. Shirota looked for ways to distribute his formula to help prevent disease and to promote good health. He firmly believed in preventive medicine and developed Yakult so that people could enjoy the benefits of beneficial micro-organisms on a daily basis.

Between 1935 and 1955, Yakult was produced and marketed all over Japan through independent companies. Dr. Shirota was not only an established medical doctor and researcher, but also a successful entrepreneur. In 1955, he founded Yakult Honsha Co. Ltd.

He hired women as his main work force. In those days, finding a stable job for women was unthinkable. Middle-age women, usually married with children, put on the special Yakult uniform and began to deliver the bottles every morning.

The drink, sweet and delicious, became popular among schoolchildren. Yakult distributors sponsored science projects and competitions, in which young students learned about the importance of science, the environment and recycling. At school, children made various objects, such as rockets, castles and other toys, out of used Yakult bottles.

What about Yakult in Korea?

The same company motto ?to promote health and bring happiness ?and sales campaigns from Yakult Honsha Co. were imported by a Korean company in 1969. Korea Yakult Co. introduced the drink to the Korean public in 1971, and the Yakureuteu ajumma was born here. The drink got endorsements from Korean nutritionists, even though Korea's kimchi-filled diet was already rich in the same basic bacteria as Yakult.

Because Yakult women rarely quit and the drink in Korea is not available in supermarkets, most customers have bought from the same woman for years. In fact, the company's good image and sales owe much to the Yakureuteu ajumma. On the street, they are called ajumma, a friendly but simple term for woman; but within the company, they are called yeosanim, Korea's highest honorific for women. By 1977, Koreans were drinking 1 million bottles per day; by 1989, 5 million.

Because the Yakult ajumma work at the community level for a long time, they often act as counselors. Some employees, for instance, volunteer to check up on seniors who live alone every time a delivery is made. Such selfless service has been recognized by Korean society, and the ajumma have become a symbol of peace and happiness. Today Yakult is sold in 23 countries and drunk by some 25 million people worldwide. And for Korea's 10,500 Yakult ajumma, they have found hope in their life.

by Inēs Cho

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