The Japanese Chocolate Bureaucracy

Earlier this year, one of our guest writers used the phrase “Willy Wonka-san” when talking about candy in Japan and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

There’s probably no better descriptor for the whimsical, gigantic candy industry in Japan. For some, Japan is the mecca of candy. Year after year its companies pour out incredibly novel candies that would astonish even Roald Dahl.

Among all of those sweets, one stands above all the rest: chocolate. Chocolate has gained a lot of significance in Japanese culture and society. It’s not only an everyday treat, but it can have a lot of symbolism too.

For example Valentine’s Day in Japan, like in the US, is a very chocolate-centric holiday; however, unlike the US, different types of chocolate have very different meanings. God forbid you give giri, not honmei chocolate to that one special person.

Photo by cheer Lee

And the Japanese are getting better and better at making the stuff. Last year a Japanese chocolatier, Susumu Koyama, was declared “Best Foreign Chocolatier” at the 17th annual Salon du Chocolat, a French chocolate tradeshow. From the low-end sweets to the high-end, gourmet chocolates, Japan dominates when it comes to chocolate.

Because of chocolate’s importance in Japan, it’s maybe not surprising that the Japanese take chocolate very seriously. In fact, the regulation of chocolate in Japan is extremely strict.

Part of any government’s job is to make sure that people aren’t mislead when they buy things. For example, when a company calls a food “organic” or “local,” those labels have specific meanings set by the government. Same thing with chocolate. You can’t just call anything “dark chocolate” — it has to meet certain standards.

And is it local?

It turns out the Japanese government has some of the strictest chocolate standards in the world. You’d think that Switzerland or Belgium or some other place known for its chocolates would be more serious about it, but it turns out that the Japanese are basically second to none.

In 1971, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission was granted sweeping powers to regulate chocolate to make sure that Japanese customers know exactly what they’re getting.

All in all, the Fair Trade Commission classifies six types of “chocolate materials” that are used to make up four types of “chocolate products.” They are:

Chocolate Materials

  • Pure chocolate material (純チョコレート生地)
  • Pure milk chocolate material (純ミルクチョコレート生地)
  • Chocolate material (チョコレート生地)
  • Milk chocolate material (ミルクチョコレート生地)
  • Quasi chocolate material (準チョコレート生地)
  • Quasi milk chocolate material (準ミルクチョコレート生地)

Each of these have to have very specific percentages of various ingredients — cocoa, milk fat, etc.. Otherwise it’s, in the eyes of the Fair Trade Commission, misrepresenting itself. Out of those materials, you can make any of four chocolate products:

Chocolate Products

  • Chocolate (チョコレート)
  • Chocolate sweet (チョコレート菓子)
  • Quasi chocolate (準チョコレート)
  • Quasi chocolate sweet (準チョコレート菓子)

Confusing? Absolutely. I don’t think that I’ve ever closely inspected a chocolate bar to really care about its cocoa content, or a palate sophisticated enough to really tell the difference.

Regardless, it’s good to see that within the confines of his factory Willy Wonka-san is keeping tight control over things. Don’t want too many Augustus Gloops running around ruining things.


Types of chocolate

  • Ben Steed

    …The Japanese Buchocracy… YEAAAAAAAAH~ *ahem*
    Interesting post, as always :)

  • Lizzy

    I commend the regulation! When something says its chocolate it better be chocolate! I really dislike all the fake-foods sold here in the States, like Hershey’s, its not even real chocolate anymore.

  • デニス エイドリアン

    Very interesting post as usual!. Seems like pretty much everything concerning food is serious bussiness in Japan.

    Personally I don’t enjoy too much chocolate as many people do (can’t handle sweet stuffs well enough), but I’m curious about the meaning behind receiving or giving different types of chocolate in Japan. Anyone caring to explain this part a little further? Would be appreciated.

  • DAVIDPD

    Meiji’s dark chocolate is ok-good for me…!

  • SiobhanG

    Just wondered if dairy free chocolate is available in Japan? I’m a Vegan and in the UK we’re well catered for, but one day I hope to live in Japan and would love to be able to buy dairy free chocolate there. I dare say my mother could send some in a parcel for me if not LOL

  • stefafra

    Must have learned from the UK, English “dairy milk” chocolate is an abomination…

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    maybe hashi should’ve put a link to this? anyways, here’s an article koichi did a while back.

    http://www.tofugu.com/2011/02/14/valentines-day-japan/

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I link to it at the beginning of the fourth paragraph. :)

  • Hamyo

    Good articles hashi :) hmmmm…. can i get my chocolate now?

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    As a vegan living in Tokyo, I can tell you that you can find vegan chocolate here, as we regularly have it. Much of it is imported from Europe, but some Japanese darks will be vegan and you’ll occasionally find other things that fit the bill. Things will get a little dicier outside of Tokyo though.

  • Camilleon

    Thought this was really interesting! Can you do a more detailed article about all the different kinds of chocolate?

  • デニス エイドリアン

    Welps, everything makes more sense now. It’s actually a little…
    “funny and strange”? to think they have a specific chocolate for every “friendship
    level” there. We just, you know, give Chocolate to our wife / girlfriend
    / mom / sister and… that’s pretty much it!. Different but fun, indeed.

    Thanks for the reply!.

  • SiobhanG

    Thank you for replying. I’m glad that there’s chocolate that we can eat there. It wouldn’t cause me any upset if it wasn’t, just an inconvenience. LOL Gonna be a fare few years before I get there, so hopefully it’ll still be available by then.

  • Samsam

    I totally like that. If you have a look at some of the examples where stuff is completely different that companies claim it is, it can really upset you. “alcohol free” beer with alcohol, “healthy” margarine that might actually reduce your cholesterol but gives you a heartstroke anyways due to the ingredients… Totally prefer restricted chocolates :) Now I just need to learn what of these things means what…