My travels have taken me to many different countries known for their chocolate, but Japan continues to have the most complicated history. There is a wide variety of Japanese chocolate products available, ranging from pocky sticks and Meiji “THE Chocolate” bars to world-class chocolateries and craft chocolate makers in Japan. However, the construction of all of this chocolate infrastructure has been a long and drawn-out process that has taken place over the course of more than a century.
In reality, Japanese chocolate culture is a compromise between the food traditions of the West and the East, as well as a story about the continuation of dualities. The entire history of chocolate in Japan as well as the cultural ties that are associated with it are intricate, but everything circles back to the rich flavor of cocoa.
The History of Japanese Chocolate
It is imperative that you are aware that chocolate is a food that is produced from the fermented, dried, peeled, roasted, and ground seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree before you can have any hope of comprehending the Japanese culture surrounding chocolate. It is believed that Spanish colonialists were the first to bring the cacao tree from its native Central America to Asia in the late 17th century. The cacao tree is native to Central America. However, the consumption of cacao and chocolate did not reach widespread proportions in Japan until the 20th century.
Cacao is a tropical fruit, and tropical fruits tend to grow in warmer climates than those found on mainland Japan. Taiwan is actually the location of the closest active cultivation at this time. Cacao would not even have a chance of growing on the islands that are the farthest south in Japan.
Despite this, cacao did, at some point in the distant past, make its way to the Japanese market in the form of chocolate bars. The history of chocolate production in Japan dates back more than a century to 1918, when the founding company of Meiji Chocolate introduced the country’s very first chocolate bar. They produced candies, and “chocolate” was merely another flavor of candy back then. They were a sweets manufacturer.
It wasn’t until much later that it began to truly develop into its own category. Many people believe that chocolate did not become popular in Japan until American soldiers began distributing it to the children of the country during the Second World War. But despite the end of the war and the beginning of Japan’s opening up to the influence of other countries, chocolate candies continued to be very popular in Japan.
Mass Produced Chocolate In Japan
There are a couple of levels to the earliest Japanese chocolates. A chocolate hierarchy, if you will. At the bottom are the convenience store chocolates, which range from chocolate-only bars to chocolate-coated and chocolate-flavored bars. Meiji still reins supreme in terms of market share, but Lotte, Morinaga, Ezaki Glico, and Fujiya are other Japanese chocolate manufacturers high up on the list. These companies produce sweets such as mushroom-shaped chocolates, pocky, and almond chocolate, all of which have high distribution within & outside of Japan.
On the other side of mass produced Japanese chocolate is what I like to call faux-fancy. These are brands which present themselves as high-end products, with nice packaging and kid-friendly flavors, but whose actual chocolates are bland and overly sweet. These companies have been around for decades, just like those of the convenience store brands, but have merely positioned themselves higher in the market.
Brands like Morozoff, Mary’s, and Goncharoff are perfect examples of this. They sell chocolates which they call bonbons, but which have very small flavored centers and a light chocolate flavor. They’re just not good. But thanks to quality marketing, they’re extremely popular gifts in Japan, especially for young people. Since they’ve been around for so long, it’s become common knowledge which chocolate belongs where in the hierarchy, dictating when & to whom it’s appropriate to gift.
The long-standing chocolate hierarchy was in need of some serious shaking up, and that job didn’t get begun until the 1970s.
In 1972, the Belgian company Godiva made its debut in the Japanese chocolate market by way of Tokyo. However, this was merely the initial step in the process of training a new generation of Japanese chocolatiers in European techniques. The decades of the 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in the number of Japanese students studying outside of the country, which coincided with the beginning of a newfound interest in more refined chocolate. The trend of Japanese families having holidays in European cities such as Paris and Brussels led to an increased interest in the cuisine of those regions. Other major European chocolatiers did not enter the Japanese market until the 2000s; however, by that time, Japan had already established its very own well-known chocolatiers as well as its very own culinary schools.
Culinary schools in Belgium and France may not have been the origin of Japan’s interest in European culture; however, these schools did help foster Japan’s interest in European culture. Many of Japan’s most prominent chefs have their beginnings in Europe. Some of these aspiring chefs choose to concentrate in pastry first, and then in chocolate later on in their careers. After spending years honing their skills through study and training, some of them went on to achieve notoriety in Europe, while others brought their expertise back to Japan.
This is how the careers of many of Japan’s most famous chocolatiers got their start.
The fact that each of them had brought a new variety of chocolate back to their home country contributed to their rise to fame. This chocolate, in contrast to the mass-produced bars and boxes that can be found in the majority of supermarkets, was not utilized as a component or a supporter of the primary flavor. The primary draw for customers was chocolate, and despite the fact that it contained a significant amount of sugar, they were willing to pay more for the opportunity to indulge in this one-of-a-kind treat.
Chocolatiers such as Koji Tsuchiya, Shigeo Hirai, and Shunsuke Saegusa were gaining notoriety in Paris and Brussels, and they brought the traditional French pastry back to Japan. People took an interest in it, and Europe did not emerge unhurt from this cultural interchange undamaged either.
Culinary Cultural Exchange
Not only did the Japanese chocolatiers who had been trained in Europe bring all of the traditional flavors and techniques back to Japan, but they also brought the typical flavors of East Asia to Europe. Yuzu, red bean, and sesame are examples of flavors that have been around for a long time in Japan but have only recently made their way onto the chocolate scene in Europe. Imported chocolates were regarded as more refined and made for a more thoughtful present or snack in Japan. But as time went on, rather than importing chocolates, they began importing chocolatiers, and these chocolate gurus began blending traditional European flavors with the fruits and spices that were available locally.
In point of fact, Japanese reinterpretations of French classics were such a huge hit that larger chocolate brands from Europe started to take notice of them. In the 1990s, businesses such as La Maison Du Chocolat started establishing their initial stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Tokyo, the largest city in the world, has always been the center of attention when it comes to the latest fashions in modern Japan. In the early 2000s, additional chocolate shops began opening their doors in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka, and they quickly became even more popular as the number of foreign visitors to Japan increased.
European chocolate imports have established a strong reputation in Japan thanks to the pioneering efforts of chocolatiers from France, Belgium, and Switzerland who were the first to enter the Japanese market. One of those who have made the most waves is the French company Ladurée, along with Jean Paul Hévin, Pierre Marcolini, and Wittamer. All of these brands currently have sizable fan bases across the entirety of Japan; customers are willing to go to great lengths to obtain the products they desire, going so far as to pose for photographs alongside traveling chocolatiers.
Japanese Chocolate Flavors
The presence of American troops in Japan during World War II did not mark the end of the American impact on Japanese chocolate culture. The American chocolate snack known as Kit Kats was first brought to Japan in the early 1970s, and since then, the brand’s prominence in the country has only grown to expand. While sophisticated European baked goods and chocolates dominated the luxury market, distinctively flavored Kit Kats were gaining over the mainstream market, with the ruby chocolate variety being the most recent addition to this category.
Kit kats, and other confections like them, were given the same innovative flare that the Japanese were bringing to the European pastry industry at the time. Beginning in 2004, when the first flavored bars were introduced, Japanese kit kats took on a life of their own. In recent years, they have even been able to outsell Mieji chocolate to take the top place in terms of sales. Because the culinary legacy of Japan does not feature a great deal of sweets, the taste palette has been expanded to embrace a greater number of local fruits and savory flavors. These additions have resulted in the creation of flavors that are uniquely Japanese. At the moment, the sweet potato, green tea, and sake flavors of Kit Kat are among of the most well-liked options available.
However, the distinction of Japanese chocolatiers and pastry chefs is not just attributable to the singular fusions of salty and sweet flavors that they create. It is the readiness to experiment with new methods (after they have mastered the more traditional ones). They are always excited to introduce new goods to their assortment, and they jump at the chance to be the market’s pioneers whenever possible. In consequence, the Japanese chocolate scene has evolved into this intricate fusion of traditional Japanese, contemporary American, and traditional European traditions.
Food & Holidays In Japan
But why are people in Japan purchasing such a large quantity of chocolate in the first place?
However, a significant portion of this interest in chocolate of a higher quality can be traced back to the Japanese custom of bringing gifts back from trips to other countries as well as bringing extravagant gifts to celebrations of important holidays. Because these presents are meant to be beneficial in some manner, the majority of individuals choose to bring some kind of food that can be consumed immediately. Because of this, Japan is known for having some of the world’s most costly fruit, in addition to various kinds of luxurious gift baskets (easily available in department stores).
Because fruit is now such a prized food, it is now available even when it is not in season. As a result, the flavors of Japan’s native fruits are frequently used in chocolates. There are even varieties of Kit Kats that have flavors that are meant to evoke the terroir, also known as the “flavor of a place,” and which can only be purchased in certain areas of Japan. Kit Kats’ popularity has increased alongside that of other Japanese chocolates like Royce and Tao as a direct result of their valuing of regional flavors as well as their exclusive nature.
The western holiday of Valentine’s Day has also made its way to Japan (and South Korea) over the years, but the celebration has been given a unique spin by the cultural shift that women are expected to give chocolate to men on this day. On White Day, which is observed one month later on March 14, men are expected to show their appreciation by presenting women with white chocolate gifts. However, it is not only expected of women to give chocolate to their significant others; rather, it is expected of women to give chocolate to any man to whom they wish to show respect.
This chocolate is called giri-choko (), which literally translates as “responsibility chocolate.” It’s great for driving up sales of chocolate in Japan, but it puts a lot of stress on Japanese women, both in terms of their social standing and their ability to make ends meet. The fact that Japanese chocolates only seem to be growing more and more costly is not helpful in this regard.
Japanese Craft Chocolate
Craft chocolate produced in Japan may only account for a small portion of the overall cost of that chocolate, but it is nonetheless among the most expensive chocolate produced anywhere in Japan.
Even handmade chocolate bars imported from other countries are often more affordable. It’s possible that this is one of the contributing factors that keeps Japanese chocolate consumers interested in chocolate from other countries. However, this interest might also be hindering the development of the relatively new industry. Craft chocolate in Japan is still very young, having only been around for roughly half a decade as a community and as a specialized area of the chocolate business.
It’s generally accepted that it wasn’t until 2014, when Minimal Chocolate opened in Tokyo, that the Japanese craft chocolate scene got off the ground in any significant way. After that, the scene expanded very rapidly, moving beyond the confines of Tokyo in the same way that the culture of chocolatiers did. Another Tokyo-based manufacturer, Green Bean to Bar, recently opened a store in Fukuoka, the same southern Japanese prefecture where Cacaoken was first established in 2014.
Cacaoken was one of the first manufacturers to establish a chocolate factory outside of Tokyo, and American manufacturer Dandelion Chocolate was one of the first international craft chocolate makers to enter the Japanese chocolate market. Cacaoken was one of the first manufacturers to establish a chocolate factory outside of Tokyo. Dandelion grew in popularity more quickly than its namesake, with the opening of four stores in just two years. There are more than a dozen chocolate producers that create bean-to-bar chocolate in Tokyo alone, which is why the city remains the leader in setting trends for Japanese chocolate even in 2019. On the other hand, the manner in which chocolate is handled in Europe and the United States has had a significant impact on the Japanese chocolate industry.
There are two very different ways of thinking about and approaching the process of manufacturing chocolate in Tokyo. There are chocolate manufacturers with an American influence who typically make chocolate with just cacao and sugar, and they rely on the chocolate itself as the primary selling point. However, there are also manufacturers who are inspired by European culture and whose cafes existed in the area long before their chocolate making machinery. Bean to bar chocolate is typically just one of many offerings on the menu at these French-heavy patisseries, which typically attract customers with their pastries and bonbons rather than their bean to bar chocolate. They approach the production of chocolate as though it were just one of many products rather than the primary focus of their efforts.
Both of these fashions are unique in their own right, despite the fact that neither one is superior to the other.
The Future Of Japanese Chocolate
The Japanese will never give up their love of mass-produced chocolates, just as their American and European counterparts won’t. Those confections purchased from the convenience shop are more than simply treats; they are memories. But it is essential to make sure that artisan chocolate makes an impact if we want to ensure that the chocolate manufacturing business in Japan has a prosperous future. There is a significant market potential in the specialized sector to provide customers with high-quality foods that may be enjoyed personally or given as presents. Craft chocolate, in contrast to the truffles produced by the vast majority of chocolatiers, has a context.
The anecdotes that accompany artisanal chocolate are a significant part of what gives it its unique character.
People are often interested in the origins of the foods they eat, and there are many different countries that produce good chocolate (such as Ecuador, Cuba, Vietnam…). However, there is a hurdle to overcome that is both cultural and economic in nature. I’ve seen some terrible websites, but Japanese ones are among the worst. They almost never contain English translations, and some of them don’t even have contact information. Because online buying is still relatively uncommon in Japan, most manufacturers are required to either establish a physical storefront or go to various chocolate exhibitions where they must personally present their wares and relay their backstories. When it comes to a one-person company, there are occasions when this is just not feasible.
If the American artisan chocolate scene can be brought together via the use of social media and the creation of a community, then I don’t see any reason why the same thing couldn’t happen in Japan. During the course of my four journeys, I have seen that there is a cultural resistance to the practice of allowing consumers to take photographs inside and outside of retail establishments. I’ve been told that it’s because they don’t want other people stealing their ideas, but in a world when everyone else is on social media, I believe that concern has long since passed its expiration date.
In a nation where so many chocolate manufacturers are setting up business in places other than the major cities, improvements in communication would do wonders for the formation of a network in which members can support and encourage one another. And when that time comes, the end result will be chocolate that is superior in quality for all of us. Consequently, at this point, all that remains is to persuade a whole culture of chocolate to alter its standards. Isn’t it clear cut?
Have you ever traveled to Japan? What stood out to you most about their chocolate presentation?