Unjust Deserts: Japan’s Taste for Modernity and Its Satisfaction Through Taiwanese Sugar Plantations

Written by Lillian Tsay, translated by Sam Robbins.

Photo Credit: Asanagi by Wikimedia Commons, License, license Public Domain

The British empire was a global superpower for almost four hundred years, and the demand for more tropical agriculture often formed the basis of greater colonial expansion. In the classic Sweetness and Power, anthropologist Sidney Mintz highlights both the overt and subtle power relations that linked the empire and its colonies through the metropole’s pursuit of sweetness. In the sugarcane plantations, the presence of native slaves working tirelessly day in day out highlighted the clear power demarcation between metropole and colony. As adding sugar to tea had become a simple of the rich in Britain, workers increasingly began purchasing sugar to emulate class mobility. People often think about the sugarcane plantations across the Caribbean as the clearest example of the linkages between the modern empire, the colonial economy, and sugar. At the same time, on the other side of the earth, a new empire, Japan, was also experimenting with sugar farming across their newly acquired territories as a way to make their subjects experience the rare and rich taste of sweetness.

Sugar played an important role in the process of Japan’s modernisation: Since the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan had been striving to “catch up” with western superpowers. In addition to political reforms and infrastructure construction, seemingly highly personal feelings and experiences became the target of Japanese modernisation. The Meiji government viewed sugar as a marker of “civilised” dietary customs. Japan’s first colony, Taiwan, played a key role in helping its new colonial rulers achieve this modernity marker.

The colonial promotion video “Southward Expansion to Taiwan” (1939-1940) described exactly how valuable Taiwanese sugar was to the Japanese empire. During the Dutch rule of Taiwan, sugar became a key product, but cultivation technology had already begun to lag when Taiwan became a Japanese colony. When Kodama Gentaro became governor of Taiwan, the Japanese government invested greatly in technological improvement and built many sugar factories, making Taiwan a self-sufficient sugar producer. The video frequently stresses that sugar production in Taiwan is only behind Cuba, India and Java and that Taiwan is the main sugar producer in Japan. 

More crucially, the video claims that the development of a civilisation can be measured by the amount of sugar consumed. The video even tells its viewers that as Japanese sugar consumption increases rapidly if native sugar production is not quickly expanded, Japan will have to rely on imports, which will cause a mass outflow of the national currency. Sugar was a source of great hope and anxiety for the emerging. Even if other places could produce sugar, no other Japanese empire location could compete with Taiwan, and Taiwan thus became burdened with a crucial task by its imperial rulers.

Even if there are many colonial overtones ladened throughout “Southward Expansion to Taiwan,” as a valuable historical resource, it can still tell us something about Taiwan at that time. After Japan colonised Taiwan in 1895, sugar became Taiwan’s largest import. Following the advice of Inazo Nitobe (新渡戶稻造)- known as the “father of the Taiwanese sugar industry- the colonial government promoted the construction of modern sugar plantations.

The Japanese empire’s importance placed on the Taiwanese sugar industry can be seen in the design of the 1935 “40 years of colonial rule” exhibition, which had a whole section dedicated to the sugar industry and provided free sugar water to visitors. The sugar industry was a crucial part of the colonial economy; it also heavily impacted Japan’s dietary customs. Japan did not produce its own white sugar. Before the Meiji era, deserts in Japan were made using either dark sugar from Okinawa, wasanbon from Shikoku, or from white sugar imported from Southern China. Just as described in “Southward Expansion to Taiwan,” only with Taiwan’s help could Japan’s confectionery industry successfully develop alongside the expanding Japanese empire. 

The birth of new tastes, Morinaga milk candy and Meiji chocolate 

The sugar provided by Taiwan to Japan was used by industry and indirectly helped promote Japan’s local production of western confectionaries. The founder of what is now Morinaga & Company, Morigana Taichiro (森永太一郎) was one of the first to bring Western confectionary culture to Japan. Born into a family of ceramics makers, Morigana moved to develop his business after failing to turn a profit in his hometown of Yokohama. Following arduous struggles in America, Morigana somewhat randomly decided to try making sweets and subsequently resolutely decided to bring this sweet new flavour back home. 

In 1890, Morigana returned to Yokohama after 11 years studying in the US to become a key figure in a new “foreign sweets” culture. Despite his effort, Japanese consumers were not accepting foreign goods as expected, and many commented that his milk candy smelt like curdled milk. After adjusting his recipe and marketing tactics, Morigana began to make Japanese consumers fall in love with this new sweet. Although Morigana milk candies became wildly popular, a fierce competitor quickly emerged: Meiji Seika.

At a young age, the soon-to-be founder of Meiji Seika, Soma Hanji (相馬半治) received funding from the Japanese government to study abroad and joined the Taiwanese colonial government’s “provisional Taiwan sugar bureau” after returning. In 1906, with the support of Chief Civil Affairs Officer Goto Shinpei and industrialist Shibusawa Eiichi, Soma founded the “Meiji Sugar Co., Ltd.” (one of the four major sugar companies during the Japanese occupation) in southern Taiwan.

Shortly afterwards, Soma and his team founded the Taisho Seika Kaisha through a diversified management operation model, which would later go on to become the now-famous Meiji Seika. Its most well-known product was chocolate, and along with Morigana milk candy, it became one of the symbols of the Japanese confectionery industry.

In the early 20th century, Morigana and Seiki helped create new flavours and created a new way of life and values. Indeed, since the Meiji period, the Japanese government and civil society put significant effort into both “Westernisation” and “Modernisation.” Hence, the cultural status of traditional Japanese washagi confectionaries started to be challenged by new Western treats. 

The Japanese scholar Tatsuya Mitsuda (光田達矢) has highlighted how the Japanese media at the time started to create a narrative of a clash between washagi and western confectionaries. In contrast to the Taylorist factories that made western confectionaries, the traditional washagi was seen as an unclean product. Many articles and magazines even encouraged mothers to feed more chocolate and milk sweets to their children instead of red bean pastries or washagi. 

The two confectionaries were not only fighting to become the most-loved candy; each also represented both a specific taste and a specific form of modernity that Japan could adopt as it marched into a new era. Washagi represented an improved, modernised version of the still vibrant traditional Japanese culture, whereas western confectionaries represented a new and fashionable way of living. Indeed, in addition to its unique flavour, such western candy became a way to symbolise how consumers were at the forefront of the latest international trends. 

However, when the narrator of “Southward Expansion to Taiwan” boldly states, “civilised folks of the world, remember to indulge in sugar,” it is a reminder that as Japanese consumers experiments with new confections, they were also tasting the blood and sweat of Taiwanese sugarcane farmers. Even if the Japanese empire did not use a system of chattel slavery similar to the British or French empires, the confectionaries made from Taiwan’s abundant cane sugar not only reflects the Japanese Empire’s pursuit of Western culture and civilised modernity, but it also reflects inevitable imperial exploitation. During the Japanese empire’s glorious period, the people’s daily life left a mark of sorrow and sweetness, which is left for future generations to savour.

Lillian Tsay is a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University studying modern East Asian history. Follow her on Twitter @LillianTsay 

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