Japanese Chocolate: An Ongoing Obsession

by Flora Baker

It’s often said that chocolate’s popularity in Japan stems from American soldiers handing out chocolate bars to Japanese children after World War Two, but did you know that Japan’s first introduction to chocolate was in drink form by Dutch traders in the 18th century? And that many of Japan’s chocolate flavors change throughout the year according to the seasons? 

From KitKats and Pocky chocolate sticks to Meiji Meltykiss and matcha tea chocolate, chances are there’s some titbits about Japanese chocolate that you’re missing out on. And it all starts with the history of Japanese chocolate… 

The History of Chocolate in Japan

The first taste of chocolate on Japan’s shores was in 1797 – but as an expensive import, it was reserved for the upper classes, and only used as a form of medicine instead of something to enjoy. As cacao wasn’t produced in the country, there was no way for the majority of Japanese people to experience chocolate in the 18th century; instead, popular confectionery was limited to traditional wagashi.

The Japanese chocolate industry began in earnest in the early 1900s, when Taichiro Morinaga returned to Japan from the US and opened Morinaga’s Western Confectionary Shop. His passion for Western confectioneries led to both the first modern candy company in Japan and the country’s first mass produced chocolate in the form of Milk Caramel, an immediately popular pocket-sized box filled with individual snack pieces which appeared in 1914. His Morinaga milk chocolate bar arrived four years later: the first bean-to-bar product that elevated chocolate from an imported luxury item to a domestically produced – and thus widely accessible – treat. Clearly it was impactful enough on the Japanese that a rival company, the Meiji Chocolate Company (est. 1918) raced to release their own chocolate bars in 1926. 

By the 1960s, chocolate had become more popular in Japan than other types of confectionery, and an interest in finer chocolate grew over the next few decades as Japanese people traveled, worked and studied abroad in Europe. When England’s Kit Kat bars arrived in Japan in 1973 the opportunity for inventive flavors snowballed – since 2000, there have been over 300 limited edition Kit Kat flavors, all exclusive to Japan.

Nowadays there are five major Japanese chocolate brands that dominate the convenience store shelves: Fujiya, Lotte, Ezaki Glico, and the long-established Morinaga and Meiji. As one of the leading Japanese chocolate manufacturers, Meiji chocolate is available in almost 130 different product forms, like the deliciously rich Meltykiss. These chocolate truffle cubes dusted with cocoa powder are designed to melt at mouth temperature; they’re so soft to eat that they’re only available in the cooler seasons! 

Types of Chocolate Found In Japan

Chocolate has a specific taste depending where it’s cultivated, and the preference in Japan is for a sweet-tasting milk chocolate – though not as sweet as in the US. The truly innovative aspect of Japanese chocolate that makes it significantly different from other countries, though, is the sheer variety of flavor combinations

Alongside typical flat bars of pure chocolate, you’ll also find bars mixed with rice puffs, nuts and fruit; chocolate-flavored candies like mochi; and chocolate covering anything from strawberries, wafers and mousse to crisped rice, biscuit and red bean paste. And when Japanese chocolate producers realized that matcha tea chocolate was not only possible but actually tasted GOOD? All bets were off, and the flavor craze went off the charts. 

The Role of Chocolate in Japanese Culture

Japan’s long-standing love of traditions and adherence to the seasons has a big part to play in chocolate’s popularity. As chocolate is a wonderfully versatile vehicle for new flavors, you’ll see seasonal chocolate appear: chocolate-covered strawberries in January, a chocolate mint craze every summer, and fall-themed flavors like chestnut and sweet potato towards the end of the year. 

Because Kit Kat roughly translates to 'kitto katsu', meaning good luck, Kit Kat chocolate bars have also become something of a collector’s item in Japan. There are dozens of bars that represent the flavor of a Japanese prefecture – like Hokkaido Melon, Tokyo Banana, Shinshu Apple and even Shizuoka-Kanto Wasabi. And when some flavors are made into limited editions too, it unleashes a ‘collect them all’ style of chocaholicism! 

Then there’s Valentine’s Day, forever the chocolate lover’s holiday – although in Japan it’s the women who make or gift chocolates to the men in their lives. A month later is White Day, a clever marketing ploy thought up by Japanese chocolate companies, which occurs on March 14th and urges men to return their Valentine’s favors from a month earlier with yet more chocolate! 

Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.