Ah, chocolate. Sweet chocolate. Just like any other country, in Japan people love chocolate. The big five Japanese chocolate brands work on pumping out all of the sweet brown candy that they can and people consume it at home, on the road, and at restaurants (and even in Japanese candy subscription boxes). My host family in Japan even had a little dog named Choco-chan, the shortened word for chocolate. However, chocolate went from virtually nonexistent to a big big deal in a very very short time in Japan- with more different flavors of chocolate than probably anywhere.
How Did Chocolate Start?
Chocolate was first consumed by various civilizations in South America who would take the cacao beans to make a warm drink called "chocolatl", which means "warm liquid". When Hernando Cortez encountered the Aztecs, he brought it back to Spain where sugar was added along with other spices. The first solid chocolate was sold in 1847 in England, and milk chocolate was conceived in Sweden about 30 years later.
Chocolate has taken over the world since, and is known for its addicting, love-inspiring wonder. It took a while for it to get to Japan, however.
"Give Me Chocolate!" - The Reception
Japan had a few encounters with chocolate before they ended their isolation period. One of the few groups of people allowed into the country were Dutch, and sometimes brought the chocolate drink that had become popular among high-end people in Europe. The first solid bar of chocolate sold in Japan is said to have been in the Meiji era, and was marketed as チョコレート , but with the kanji 貯古齢糖. Interestingly, those kanji individually mean "save", "old", "age", and "sugar". I think it kind of fits.
Chocolate started really being consumed during the occupation, when American soldiers would often throw candy to groups of Japanese children. Because of this, at this time one of the first English phrases that was learned and used by Japanese children was "Give me chocolate!"
So chocolate as it is today became mass produced after the occupation time. That means it is much newer to Japan than compared to the Americas or Europe. So what has been done in that little time?
So What's The Spin?
There's just something about Japanese chocolate that makes it unique. Is it the fact that each bite-sized piece is individually pre-cut or wrapped? Is it the fact that milk chocolate sometimes has a little bit of hazelnut flavor added to it? Is it the fact that it has a more creamy, melty, chocolatey taste? Who knows.
One of the biggest selling points of Japanese chocolate, though, is the sheer variety of flavors. Technically, many of them don't actually count as chocolate because they don't have cacao in them. However, popular definition deems them still chocolate, and the multitude of types and flavors is awe-inspiring.
One thing that Japan likes doing with any sort of product or marketing is regional limited editions. One fantastic example of this is Kit Kat, where there have been over 200 and counting various flavors. Ever wanted to try a wasabi-flavored Kit Kat? What about strawberry shortcake? Soy sauce? My favorite is the sweet-potato flavored one. Back in my exchange student days, I would buy a sweet potato flavored Kit Kat bar almost every day in the fall from the convenience store attached to the train station near my school. I was addicted.
Another delicious regional chocolate is Meltykiss. Meltykiss usually appears around winter, and is a delicious melty, rich, creamy chocolate. Think like the inside of a truffle. Meltykiss also comes in a good variety of flavors including green tea, strawberry, and milk tea.
Other delicious spins include chocoballs (literally just balls of chocolate), Koala no march, and the ever-famous Pocky. Which one is your favorite?
The Big Five
In Japan, there are five distinct mainstream snack brands: Lotte, Meiji, Morinaga, Ezaki Glico, and Fujiya. All have their own gimmicks and different delicious types of chocolates. Think of them like the Hershey's, Nestle's, and Mars of Japan.
In this clip from the TV show Gaki no Tsukai, the members of the show do a blind test of different kinds of chocolate bars. They have a hard time distinguishing between them. Would you?
Which Japanese chocolate brand is your favorite? Mine is kind of a tie between Meiji (after all, according to their commercials, chocolate IS Meiji) and Dars.
Chocolate and Valentine's Day
In Japan, Valentine's Day has sort of turned into "chocolate day". When the holiday first became popular, it was known as a day when girls confessed their love to a boy by giving him chocolate. But somewhere throughout the past thirty years or so, girls must have said "why don't we get any chocolate?", and now chocolate is given to everyone and by everyone. I mean, think of it in this example: Nao made homemade namachoco for her friends Naho and Rumi, but it would be rude to just give it to those two, so she has to make enough for all of her female classmates. And then, what about her best friends in other classes? And club-mates?
To mend this problem of chocolate-hoarding, often on Valentine's day you'll see girls walking around with a big bag full of chocolates to give to every single person who is her friend (those chocolates are called tomo-choko [friend-chocolate]) and anyone she feels obligated to give chocolate to (giri-choko [obligation-chocolate]). To read more about this, check out Koichi's old post about Valentine's Day in Japan.
Other than plain chocolate, making chocolate truffles, cookies, or decoration chocolates are all well-received and can be fun to make. On the Valentine's Day that I spent in Japan, I remember eating chocolate throughout the day, kind of like how I did in America, but this time it was mostly home-made and hand-wrapped.
If you know that you're receiving tomo-choko, consider yourself lucky! Especially if you didn't give anything back. But don't worry if you forgot, you can always repay the person who gave you chocolate by giving them a present back a month later on White Day, March 14th.
Japanese Chocolate Creativity
Anything in the world is just a canvas for art, right? Well it is to these creative chocolate artists:
Want to prank someone into thinking that you're giving them sushi, takoyaki, or much-loved natto? Well, there's chocolate for that. Imagine their face when they open up the natto wrapper to find, ew, chocolate instead of their favorite food of smelly fermented soybeans.
Or make an iPhone out of chocolate!
These adorable girls can teach you how to make a chocolate cake in a rice cooker. Ghana seems to be the chocolate of choice when it comes to cooking and baking.
As you can see, chocolate is loved and used in Japan just as much as the rest of the world. What other kinds of creative ways do you think people can use chocolate in?
Can't Get Enough?
If this post has left you drooling for chocolate (I scream, you scream, we all scream for chocolate ice cream!), here's a few Japanese chocolate-inspired songs to curb (or inflame) your desire for chocolate, so you can even think about chocolate when you're out and about!
Bitter Chocolate by SCANDAL
So what is Japan's relationship with chocolate? I'd say that Japan is just as crazy about chocolate as any other country. Although their consumption rates are lower than most European countries and the US, when you take into account how much later it was introduced to the country, they could be catching up! Better (choco)late than never!
We love chocolate so much we decided to make you another chocolate wallpaper. We're just sweet like that.