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Why Japanese snacks and sweets are wowing tastebuds worldwide

As Japanese culture draws a growing following around the world, so too is the nation’s exotic and flavoursome foods – especially sweets and snacks. 


As participants in a recent webinar organised by Saladplate and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) heard, a growing hybridisation of flavours blending local tradition with western influences, together with a growing fascination for Japanese entertainment culture, has created an enormous appetite for Japanese snacks and confectionery globally.


“Japan is home to mouthwatering candies, cakes and cookies you can't often find anywhere else,” said webinar host Helen Cheng Lau, assistant manager, partnership marketing – digital business & advanced analytics at Informa Markets. 

Two people pound Matcha dough in order to make it soft and flexible before preparing Japanese sweets, in Nara, Japan. Image: @HueTube via Twenty20. Two people pound Matcha dough in order to make it soft and flexible before preparing Japanese sweets, in Nara, Japan. Image: @HueTube via Twenty20.
Two people pound Matcha dough in order to make it soft and flexible before preparing Japanese sweets, in Nara, Japan. Image: @HueTube via Twenty20.

Japan is the world’s third-largest packaged food market in the world and snack foods account for a quarter of that total. Consumers there spend an average of US$390 a year on snack foods, while those in the largest, the US, spend $325, ahead of the Chinese at $64.


One person who understands the trends and popularity of the Japanese sweets and snacks market well is Tanner Schroeder, marketing associate at Ichigo Inc, which operates Tokyotreat and Sakuraco, subscription box services shipping Japanese foods to consumers in more than 120 countries. While Sakuraco specialises in more traditional, upmarket Japanese confectionery, Tokyotreat is more of a ‘pop snack’ offer focused on fusion novelties and sweat treats more palatable to westerners. 


“There’s a hunger out there in the western world to continue getting these experiences,” he told the webinar. “Clearly, the interest in Japanese snacks and cuisine is booming.”

Marc Matsumoto, who spoke during the Saladplate-JETRO webinar.

Marc Matsumoto, a private chef, culinary consultant and TV chef with clients ranging from royalty and celebrities to restaurants and food makers, told the webinar his mission is to help bridge the gap between Japan and the rest of the world when it comes to culinary appreciation.  


He says that to understand the rising popularity of the foods, one needs only to step back in time and look at how Japanese cuisine evolved. 


The generic term for Japanese snacks and confectionery is okashi. Hundreds of years ago, it was originally used to refer to fruit and nuts eaten between meals, but now it covers any type of snack. “In Japan, okashi is kind of a way of life.”


Japanese confectionery evolved as foreigners began introducing foreign ingredients, from the Buddhist monk who introduced refined sugar in AD804, and another who introduced tea in 1194, which spurred the tea culture which grew in parallel. 


More influences came from Europe before Japan essentially closed its borders for two centuries. That allowed its culture to flourish without external influence – snacks such as kashiwa mochi, rice cake filled with red bean and wrapped in oak leaf, warabimochi made from starch from a type of fern that can be formed into noodles or other shapes and is the basis of traditional Japanese sweets and gyuhi, a rice treat with a chewy texture evolved. 


Those sweets became known as wagashi – by nature an elegant sweet – and the basis of Ichigo’s Sakuraco boxes.


Dagashi – sweets for the lower class – were made with cheaper ingredients such as unrefined sugar and grains. Karumeyaki, sugar syrup with added baking soda that makes it fluff up into a crispy and sweet treat, okoshi, a puffed rice snack, and mugikogashi, toasted wheat ground into flour and shaped into sweets with sugar are examples. 


The advent of Japan’s Meiji era brought an end to the nation’s 214-year isolation and foreign influences returned: confectionery from England, France and the US, including chocolate, candies, cakes and cookies arrived. The Japanese called these western-style snacks yogashi.  


“That brings us to today where younger consumers prefer western flavours and convenience foods,” recalls Matsumoto. “At the same time, Japanese food culture has exploded in the west, so you’re seeing Japanese chefs taking traditional Japanese ingredients and reusing them in different concepts. The line between wagashi and yogashi is becoming blurred with hybrid sweets that blend western flavours with traditional Japanese preparation.”

An exquisitely prepared box of handmade sweets to share during Sakura season. Image: @veldaanabela via Twenty20.

The visual presentation of Japanese confectionery and snacks – rooted in other parts of Japanese culture, including its elaborate tea ceremonies – is very important in Japanese confectionery.  A lot of attention is paid to their sophistication and presentation, both of the snack itself and its packaging, so they not only taste good, but they also look visually pleasing. This could be another big appeal for foreign consumers. 


This rich cultural history has been brought into focus for westerners by a surging appetite for other aspects of Japanese culture. “Manga and anime have spread Japanese pop culture around the world and as part of that people are more and more aware of Japanese food culture as well and that includes snacks,” explains Matsumoto. With the influence of foreign cultures since the Meiji era, Japan has become a melting pot of different flavours from around the world. 


“These snacks are a mix of things exotic and different as well as things that are familiar so it is not totally foreign to people outside Japan.”


Meanwhile, Itochu has a membership database of nearly 2 million consumers, 70 per cent of them in North America. Its customers are typically Gen Z and millennials – people from the western world who have grown up exposed to Japanese anime, manga, and mainstream Japanese snacks like Pocky and flavoured KitKat. 


“As they get older, they are just as curious as they’ve ever been about the experience of Japan even if they can't necessarily make it over to Japan,” explains Schroeder. 


“That’s where the Japanese snack industry comes into play.”

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