Sweets form an extremely popular and a highly elaborated part of Japan's rich culinary culture. Despite this, sweets have largely been ignored in most accounts of Japanese food. Analyses of Japan's culinary culture, both in the scholarly literature and in the popular imagination, tend to be stereotyped around two main staples of Japanese diet and cuisine. While several excellent studies and collections highlight much of the scope of Japanese culinary culture (Ashkenazi and Jacbos, 2000, 2003; Cwierta, 2006; Ishige, 2001; Rath, 2010), both scholarly studies and popular accounts frequently overemphasize a narrow range of foods at the expense of the totality of Japanese cuisine and of particular types of food that do not represent what is generally taken to be ‘typical’ Japanese food.
Fish and rice, for instance, frequently tend to stand in, albeit in different ways, for Japanese food as a whole. Outsiders’ views of Japanese food (illustrated, as well, in Japanese restaurants abroad) tend to focus very heavily on sushi – various forms of raw fish – which, indeed, constitutes a popular part of cuisine in Japan that has also been treated to important scholarly analyses (Bestor, 2004). Where sushi fits as more of a luxury food – even though as one that is quite commonly eaten – rice is not only the traditional backbone of Japanese diet, but one that forms a rich, longstanding aspect of Japanese identity (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993).
From the perspective of taste these archetypal flavours of Japanese cuisine could hardly be farther from the focus of this chapter — sweets. Can one readily imagine, for instance, consuming a chocolate bonbon immediately following a slice of raw tuna, or even alongside a bowl of rice? While in point of fact the context for consuming sweets would likely not involve those other well-known Japanese tastes, confectionary in various forms represents nearly as important a bulwark of Japanese culinary culture as these better known food types, and yet has largely been ignored in both the scholarly and popular literature.
In this chapter, I will focus on sweets as a pervasive, though relatively little discussed, aspect of contemporary and historical Japanese culinary culture. Sweets present themselves in a wide variety of contexts that range from mundane, everyday use to celebratory occasions.