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In Japan's Sweets Industry, a 400-Year-Old Jelly

By Guan Tan


In Japan, there are many ways to learn history. One of them is through sweets. There's an umbrella term for these tea time snacks – Wagashi. Parked under this word are numerous types of mochi called Daifuku and Dango, red bean pancakes like the Dorayaki and Taiyaki, buns called Manju, rice flour balls, and jellies – flavoured firm agar-agar called Yokan. 

Unlike the Western dessert industry where desserts are merely options, sweets occupy a substantial portion of Japanese history. In fact, the confectionery industry is the oldest of all Japanese foods. The Yokan jelly, for instance, was popularised in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) and has been consistently active for the past 400 years. By comparison, the sushi industry stands at 100 years old, the ramen industry is purported to be 50 years old. "Ramen is a new thing," two Japanese food businessmen I met argued. "Wagashi and Yokan are the oldest!"


The bite-sized Yokan looks humble. Yet, it boasts an interesting history. 400 years ago, in the Edo period, every Japanese prefecture had a local ruler – a feudal lord or in Japanese, the daimyo. In the whole of Japan, there were 300 of these men. And in the little areas that they ruled, there was always one designated family making sweets, specifically the Yokan jelly, for them. Jelly was a luxury that only elites enjoyed. "Sugar was very hard to get – very expensive. So only the high-ranking people could enjoy sugar. But normal people? They couldn't," the Japanese businessman continues. 

If you do the math, there were 300 families making Yokan for the 300 feudal lords. But there was another family and they were different. Instead of feeding the lords, they fed the royal family.

The Royal Family's Jelly Makers

The Kurokawa family's jelly business, Toraya has been around for 400 years. At least the official documents point at this figure. There have been theories that the history of this business could be 1,200 years long, for this family is closely tied to the existence of Japan's royal family.


They have special recipes for the royal family – ones that they don't sell to the general public, neither do they reveal what these recipes or sweets are. But today, the family still feeds the royal family "few times a month". The royals' staff will place orders for rituals, ceremonies, foreign delegation visits, birthdays and weddings. "Basically, they have kept their family traditions for over 400 years. And we have been making it for 400 years because they have been asking us to make it for 400 years," the 18th generation heir, Mitsuharu Kurokawa laughs at their organic relationship. 

The Male Heirs

Kurokawa is in his thirties and the firstborn son of his family – also why he is slated to inherit the business. Looking back at all 18 generations, the heirs were "all males. The firstborn son is usually the one who inherits." 

When asked why is the sweets industry – a decorative and dainty delicacy that's often associated with females – traditionally helmed by males and not females, Kurokawa replies, "To me, the reason why is because females have to give birth. In that way, there is a danger of them dying." But he notes that it's an ancient custom. Now that childbirth is progressive, the rates of mothers dying in the process are rarer. For that, some of these historical Yokan companies have started to welcome female heirs – so long as the family surname is carried on. "You have to keep the family name." 

TorayaIllustrations of Yokan designs from the Edo period.
Illustrations of Yokan designs from the Edo period.

The concept of familial reputation anchors the entire Japanese sweets industry. It, perhaps, is also the driving force behind the industry's longevity. 

Such occurrences in the food industry are only possible because of the nation's cultural and military resilience. "We have quite a long history with long families," Kurokawa adds. He is referring to the country's aversion to foreign influence. "It has a lot to do with the history."

He observes, that the Western dessert industry doesn't have such familial traditions. In Europe, the countries often war against each other, so "usually, the families don't continue so much." In China, for instance, he stresses that most companies are less than a century old. Yet, in Japan, when the world wars happened, they struggled to keep their families intact. "We are lucky we were able to keep it." 

TorayaThe Kurokawa family business, Toraya's winter-themed jelly, or Yokan.
The Kurokawa family business, Toraya's winter-themed jelly, or Yokan.

Family name and reputation aside, Kurokawa notes that when food businesses are inherited, the recipes improve significantly. "They have been, also, inheriting the way to improve [the recipes]." Kurokawa himself feels immense responsibility to his father, the current owner of Toraya. "If you think about it, your parents have a share in the company – you have a share in the company. You have to do something about it." 

The fact that Kurokawa was born into Yokan family, and was made to inherit the business, I wondered if he – or other Yokan male heirs – have any grudges about it. Surely they have their own interests beyond carrying on the familial histories. "I guess some people didn't want it. Some people want different things."

He continues, "I met many heirs who said, 'I don't even want to do it.' But they, in the end, have to inherit."

"What about you?" I asked. Kurokawa skirts around the question. He reckons he will resist only if he has another all-important passion, but he doesn't. "I, of course, thought about it, 'Okay, is this my choice? Or is it chosen by somebody else?' But it's like fate." He asks me, "Like, did you decide to be a girl? You can't. Did you decide to be a Singaporean or Japanese? You can't." He concedes, "I was born into that, and have to be that."