'Sweets Reimagined': The Construction of Confectionary Identities, 1890-1930

Tatsuya Mitsuda


In 1900, Japanese confectioners participated in the Exposition Universelle in Paris, an experience they would never forget.1 Following a rigorous selection process that took several years, the Meiji period (1868-1912) government decided to send sweets makers Takahama Heibei (1861-?), Taniguchi Heizaburo and Tanaka Heikichi to Europe from Kyoto, the heartland of traditional confectionary. Those who missed out on financial support, such as Fugetsudo’s Yonezu Tsunejiro (1867—?) and Tsuboya’s Yamada Ryujiro, made their own way, a reflection of the importance of the event. At the world fair the Kyoto confectioners crafted high-end, artistic sweets. One exhibit, unpei-kashi, replicated a vase of flowers, while another, kago-mori, impressed [1]

with an assortment of elaborately decorated sweets. For what must have been their first time, these Japanese confectioners also came into close contact with the exhibits of their Western counterparts. At the French pavilion, they witnessed the chocolate manufacturer Menier, exhibiting a large ship in which the industrialized process by which cocoa was transformed into chocolate was replicated. At the British pavilion, they were equally struck by the size of the exhibit put on display by the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer, Huntley and Palmer, which proudly re-constructed the inside of its factory, complete with railroads that linked the manufacturing facility to the national train network.[2] In contrast to the aesthetical, hand-made and small-scale nature of Japanese confectionary, Western confectionary appeared purposeful, machine-manufactured and large-scale.

For the confectionary sector the experience of Paris proved formative: it provoked contrasting responses and paved the way for the construction of two relatively distinct confectionary identities that differentiated between Western-style (yogashi) and Japanese-style sweets (wagashi). In the view of the Meiji government, at least, the future seemed to lie in the modernization of the sector: shifting the emphasis away from craftsmanship to the employment of machines. Traditional confections, the official report of the Exposition judged, had limits because production took time - only a limited number could be made in a day. Machines, however, could churn out ‘hundreds’; the even temperatures that they replicated meant products could be of equal and predictable quality; and they would also help replace unreliable human labour to carry out the task ofpouring in the exact amount of sugar each time.[3] Traditional confectioners were less sure. Reflecting on his experience of the Exposition, Taniguchi quipped that Japanese and Western confections were essentially incompatible - ‘promiscuously mixing’ the different methods of preparation was ‘wrong’ and could lead to ‘compromising the strong points of both’.[4] More enthusiastic were Japanese confectioners of Western-style sweets such as Yonezu Tsunejiro. His impression of Paris was that while the Japanese confections put on display were pleasing to the eye, they came up short when it came to taste. Because of sweets’ traditional subordination as accompaniments to green tea drinking, ‘there was no need to give the confection itself a particular flavour’.[5] Impressed not only with the machines that were employed, Yonezu also expressed admiration for the way in which Western confectioners experimented with a variety of ingredients - even spices imported all the way from colonial India were incorporated. Rather than limit themselves to the basics offlour and sugar, Western confectioners were thus free to show off their originality, adding and subtracting ingredients at will to produce a variety of gustatory experiences. For Yonezu, the appeal of Western-style sweets lay in how sweets could be liberated from their supportive role in tea drinking and elevated to independent status as ‘proper’ food.

To be sure, 1900 was not the first time Japanese confectioners had ventured abroad. In 1873, several confectioners made the long haul to the Vienna World Exposition, exhibiting artistic sweets that replicated the golden dolphins of Nagoya castle, the Great Buddha of Kamakura and the gates of Sensoji temple in Asakusa.[6] Despite common experience, the context in which the Paris Exposition took place was decidedly different. First, the 1900 fair took place just a few years after victory in the Sino- Japanese War (1894-1895), which had helped establish the country as a serious regional power in East Asia. In the view of the Meiji government, the Paris event became an opportunity for showcasing the country’s soft power. As the top bureaucrat of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce put it, the Exposition was tantamount to ‘reliving’ the victory of the War through ‘peaceful competition’.[7] Second, the Exposition took place following the politicization of the confectionary sector. In 1885, the Meiji government implemented a confectionary tax, imposing on makers (both large and small) a manufacturing and sales tariff. Sweets makers, who had essentially been a loose and disparate grouping of independent operators, came together: they formed national and regional associations, filed 7numerous petitions and campaigned vigorously for the tariff to be rescinded.[8] One major reason why the Meiji government decided to tax sweets was because confections were regarded as non-essentials whose consumption, it seemed, did little to contribute to the development of either the economy or the nation. Confectioners, however, begged to differ, pointing out that ‘sugar helped digestion and warmed the body’.[9] They also explained that eggs and milk - a reference to Western sweets - elevated the nutritional value of sweets. Placed within this dual political context, sweets became charged with broader significance. Those involved with the making, the selling and the eating of sweets needed to demonstrate to broader society that they were contributing to nation-building. No longer was it acceptable to continue to think of sweets in lofty terms - a more practical rationale had to be invented. Perspectives also needed to be reformed to view sweets in terms of wider markets - not just local ones. Finally, the impact of sweets on the body needed to be taken more seriously - the focus on sight and smell had to make way for a focus on health. The period with which this chapter deals was characterized by an intense debate over the role sweets should play in society, with progressives the most vocal in arguing that sweets, were they to be of relevance in a modernizing society, should be manufactured not made, marketed not sold and consumed not eaten.

In her history of modern Japanese food, Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has shown how different categories of food were formed during the Meiji period, out of which the terms ‘Japanese cuisine’ (washoku) and ‘Western cuisine’ (yoshoku) emerged.[10] Both categories have been traced back to Noguchi Hokugen, who wrote a treatise in 1880, in which he contrasted Japanese, Western and Chinese cuisines. ‘[Emphasiz[ing] the aesthetic value of Japanese cuisine’, Cwiertka has noted, he ‘praised Western cooking for its nutritional qualities, yet regarded it as inferior to the former in terms of taste and appearance’.11 For Noguchi, Japanese cuisine had much to learn, and it was through adopting Western and Chinese styles that

11 Ibid.

Japanese eating would eventually triumph. As part of this wider debate on food, discussions about sweets followed a similar but belated trajectory, exhibited similar characteristics and generated calls to reform the diet that would make the country stronger. According to Eric Rath, ‘the term “Western sweets” (yogashi) was coined in the early 1870s to refer to the recipes inspired by American and Western confection’, and the term wagashi emerged in tandem with this development.12 By the beginning of the early twentieth century, the two terms entered the vernacular, and the relatively distinct identities that emerged during the three decades after the Paris Exposition are the focus of this chapter.13

  • [1] For a useful analysis of this event, see Sugawa, ‘Hana Tachibana’. T. Mitsuda (*) Faculty of Economics, Keio University, Tokyo, Japane-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 A. Niehaus, T. Walravens (eds.), Feeding Japan,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50553-4_3
  • [2] For Japanese confectioners at the World Fair in Paris, see Ikeda, Nihon yogashi, 684-97.
  • [3] Ibid., 689.
  • [4] Taniguchi, ‘Kashi shinsa no hoshin ni tsuite’, 15.
  • [5] Quoted in Ikeda, Nihon yogashishi, 693.
  • [6] Ibid., 327-8.
  • [7] Quoted in Ikeda, Nihon yogashishi, 684.
  • [8] See, for example, Katagiri, Kashizei sokuhaishi.
  • [9] Quoted in Kobayashi, Kashi 30-nen shi, 171.
  • [10] Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine, 21.
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