Sweets and Snacks
Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Executive managing director and grandson of the founder of a company based in Tokyo’s Ueno district that specializes in the wholesale of sweets and snacks, Futatsugi also works as a consultant offering advice on sales promotions within this field. He has studied both the marketing of sweets and snacks, and the culture that surrounds them.
December 15, 2016
Sweets and Snacks
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The last three decades or so have seen the estimated value of Japan’s market in sweets and snacks increase tenfold to an astonishing 3.5 trillion yen per year.
The convenient catchall Japanese term used to encapsulate such items is okashi. As well as globally ubiquitous favorites like potato chips, cookies, and chocolates (albeit often with a Japanese twist), the category also includes a host of indigenous treats (or wagashi) with a history going back several centuries.
On the savory front, Japan’s crispy, crunchy answer to the potato chip is the senbei rice crackers. Made from rice that has been pounded into a glutinous mass before being fried or grilled, senbei crackers come in all shapes and sizes, and are commonly flavored with seasonings such as salt, soy sauce, and shrimp.
Japanese chocolate often incorporates traditional flavors such as green tea, adzuki beans, and kinako (roasted soybean flour), as well as seasonal flavors like cherry blossom (spring) and chestnut (autumn).
Japan’s indigenous equivalent to the potato chip is the senbei rice cracker, which comes in a myriad of varieties.
For those with a sweet tooth, the various forms of traditional confectionery, such as manju, monaka, and yokan often incorporate ingredients like anko (sweet red adzuki beanpaste), kinako (roasted soybean flour), and matcha (powdered green tea).
Down the years, local tastes and agricultural specialties have seen numerous regional variations develop across Japan. As expert guest Eiichi Futatsugi explains, another factor in this differentiation was the need for different locales to set their own wares apart during feudal times when each domain needed to raise its own funds.
Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Eiichi Futatsugi stand amid the staggering range of snacks available at this specialty store.
These ankodama sweets consist of adzuki beanpaste coated in kinako.
As we found out in an encore presentation from earlier in this series of Japanology Plus, Japan’s vibrant tourist trade can be traced back to 17th-century pilgrims making the trip to Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu, one of the Shinto religion’s most sacred sites. As an expression of appreciation for various forms of support, they would distribute souvenirs to friends, family, and colleagues. That custom still thrives among Japanese travelers, and well-known snacks and chocolate brands are now available in countless regional varieties that make use of noted local ingredients.
Ice cream has spawned particular diversity. Alongside the mikan (a type of orange, Ehime Prefecture), murasaki-imo (purple sweet potato, Kamakura), and apple (Aomori Prefecture), there are also more bizarre flavors on offer for those with adventurous taste buds. Soy sauce (Kanazawa) may not seem like a natural fit for ice cream, but it is still seems rather tame in comparison to options like horse sashimi (Kumamoto Prefecture) and oyster (Hiroshima).
It is also in part to facilitate the distribution of sweets and snacks as souvenirs that many Japanese confections are available in large packs containing individually-wrapped bite-sized morsels.
Another more recent Japanese custom relating to the giving of confectionery can be seen in Japan’s rather unique Valentine’s traditions. In most countries that observe this occasion, February 14 is a day when, regardless of gender, romantics are encouraged to reveal or reaffirm their affections with gifts selected from among flowers, soft toys or even jewelry, as well as confectionery.
In Japan, however, the date is all about one gift in particular: chocolate. Certain aspects of the custom also differ from the West. On Valentine’s Day many women will present some sort of cocoa-based gift to a man -- from family to colleagues -- to whom they have a debt of gratitude, in a tradition that has become somewhat ruefully known as giri-choko (obligatory chocolate).
Exactly a month later, on March 14th, Valentine’s has a sequel that is unique to Japan. Known as White Day, this is when men repay every Valentine’s gift received with one of at least equivalent value. Although, along with various other cookies and candies, the popularity of chocolate carries through to White Day as well, (white) marshmallows were at one stage the recommended reciprocal present.
Setting the basic expectations for gift-giving is one manifestation of a widespread tendency to remove uncertainty from social interactions. Budgeting is easier when the list of recipients and appropriate gifts are clear, and the delayed return also removes any potentially embarrassing situations whereby one might receive a present from somebody for whom you have not prepared a gift.
With an annual Valentine’s related turnover estimated at over 100 billion yen, this once purely romantic occasion now has strong business overtones.
Some manufacturers offer offices and other workplaces a weekly supply of affordable sweets and snacks that employees pay for using an honesty box.
Matt Alt learns about the traditional candy sculpture craft of amezaiku.
Here sweet production is used as a fun way to teach elementary school children about chemistry.
This retirement home uses old-fashioned Japanese dagashi sweets as a means of helping residents connect with memories of their youth in order to combat dementia.
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