Caramel Japan

The main commodity Giants and Toys [hereafter: G&T] focuses on is caramels. While G&T itself is both delighted in and repelled by the image cultures that are spun out of marketing caramels, it is worth thinking for a moment about the little candy and its history. Many of us probably associate caramels with the bite-sized plastic-wrapped Kraft caramel that used to be tossed into bags and pillowcases at Halloween, or bought for 2 cents at a “mom and pop” store. Here is a 1959 ad that touts the giveaway possibilities of America’s favorite industrial caramel.

The ad campaign links butter, wholesomeness, Halloween and Fudgies (sold separately) (Source: Found in Mom's Basement)

Kraft began making and marketing caramels in 1933; this makes it something of a candy-come-lately with respect to Japan’s mass production of caramels, which began in the Meiji era–in 1899 to be exact. The Morinaga “milk caramel” company began making caramels on the heels of a “boom” in trade with England:

The "history" section of the Morinaga milk caramel website

Today, Morinaga caramels still groove on the same sepia-toned “old-timey”-ness, and tap into a nostalgia that has lasted almost as long as the caramels themselves. Here is what Morinaga caramels look like today, in both “kurosato” (black sugar) flavor and “milk” flavor:

Morinaga black sugar caramels--think Okinawa, Taiwan

A current box of Morinaga milk caramels--think Hokkaido

Skipping briefly to other flashes of caramel from contemporary life, let’s look at the anime My Neighbor Totoro, by MIYAZAKI Hayao. Miyazaki’s films often feature characters feeding each other as a shorthand for nostalgia, community, empathy, and comfort (in a word, nukumori 温もり…ぬくもりなが?). It’s actually a 15-minute sequel to Totoro that expresses the caramel-emotional complex most clearly:

In Mei and the Kitten Bus (Mei to koneko no basu), caramel=gesture of simple friendship

We will also see caramels in the novella The Factory Ship, set in Hokkaido. And caramels play an intriguing part in 1960s leftist student movement politics, and their gender relations–female students complained that they were sidelined to the role of “caramel mamas” by didactic male revolutionaries. But that is a story for another day…


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