Japanese Whoppers
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Momoka Tanaka, right, and Daiki Hokotate, chow down on Whoppers after Burger King reopened in Japan after a six-year hiatus. The two were the first customers for the new store in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.
updated 6/8/2007 8:32:53 PM ET 2007-06-09T00:32:53

Burger King and its famous Whopper burger returned to Japan Friday after a six-year hiatus, and customers who lined up for hours at the first new branch needed no translation to know the English word "whopper" means "outlandishly huge."

"It feels more like you're eating a burger," said Shinichi Fujiki, 37, who wore a paper crown as one of the first 100 customers at the Tokyo restaurant's opening. Many hamburgers sold here are small, with thin slices of meat.

Fujiki frequented Burger King when it was in Japan in the 1990s, and said he'd missed it since it was forced to withdraw in 2001, partly due to a price war with McDonald's — still Burger King's biggest rival here, with 3,800 restaurants.

A second Tokyo Burger King is set to open later this month, and more may follow.

Burger King Corp., the world's second-largest fast-food hamburger company, is not changing any of its sandwich sizes or most other basic menu features for the Japanese market, but it does offer a teriyaki Whopper.

Video: Burger wars starting to sizzle again The Whopper, which sells for the equivalent of $3.05, and the more expensive $4.95 Double Whopper with cheese and bacon, are expected to fare better this time around because of a new trend among Japanese to favor pricier, high-calorie meals.

McDonald's $2.89 yen MegaMac, with four beef patties, has proved a hit. The first Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. store in Japan, which opened in December, is still drawing long lines.

Miami-based Burger King is banking on the recent hunger here for greasy and sweet food, and a move away from the healthy, traditional fish-and-rice centered diet.

"Japan is a very important market for us, and one that we have great growth plans for in the future," said Burger King Chief Executive John Chidsey, in Tokyo for the countdown ceremony where a jazz band played. A giant firecracker went off and glittery streamers filled the air as the doors opened.

Regional menus are one of Burger King's main features. They include the Korean barbecue Bulgogi Burger, and Green Tea Pie in Thailand.

For Japan, it's the $3.22 Whopper Teriyaki, a 5-inch, 4-ounce beef patty cooked in a sweet, spicy sauce and served on a sesame-seed bun with lettuce and tomato.

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The U.S. chain will not be serving American beef in Japan, but will be using meat from New Zealand instead. McDonald's serves only Australian beef in Japan.

Peter Tan, president of Burger King Asia Pacific, said that the decision to go with New Zealand beef was an economic one, and that the company chooses different kinds of beef depending on the stores' locations.

"We use different beefs around the world," he said. "It really doesn't matter where the beef comes from."

The return to Japan is part of Burger King's global expansion efforts.

The chain — which runs more than 11,000 restaurants worldwide, including Europe and Latin America — is opening its first stores this year in Egypt, Hong Kong and Poland as well.

In Tokyo, 19-year-old university student Ryusuke Kimura said that he developed a liking for Burger King during his travels abroad, but that he also goes to McDonald's, and loves Japanese food, too.

"But the Whopper is a bit different," he said.

Like Kimura, Japanese thronging the opening was familiar with the Whopper, and shouted answers to a Burger King trivia quiz to win free T-shirts.

Chidsey acknowledged McDonald's remained the biggest rival, but said he wasn't worried about succeeding in Japan this time.

"We think our flame-grilled food is superior to theirs, and quality at the end of the day is what the guest looks for," he said. "We think we will compete very well against McDonald's in this market."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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