Inagaki Kashiten is a child’s dream. Its tiny, wood-paneled room is lined with plastic jars of inexpensive dagashi candy. Kids can bash away at child-sized arcade machines, or pile mini baskets with ¥30-a-pop treats.
Some of the most popular include dried squid, okoshi (puffed rice crackers), mame ita (nut brittles), imo yōkan (sweet potato jellies), caramels, karintō (fried dough), sugar candies in various shapes and even senbei (rice crackers).
Observing this flurry of life, it’s hard to believe dagashiya (candy stores) like Inagaki are in decline: According to government data, the number of dagashiya has declined from 228,123 in 1972 to just 74,304 in 2016. Though comparatively unknown outside of Japan, dagashi are bright, plentiful and inexpensive, and today you can find dagashi in any 100-yen store or konbini (convenience store). That may be part of the problem.
“Dagashi are sweets that somehow were considered nonstandard from an elite or adult perspective, like a horse that one is not meant to ride,” explains Eric Rath, professor of history at the University of Kansas, alluding to the fact that the “da” in dagashi is written with an archaic counter for things one would put on a packhorse.
Their “nonstandard” nature is due to their less refined ingredients — millet and brown sugar, for example — compared to those of traditional wagashi (Japanese sweets), often used during tea ceremony. In fact, categorizing dagashi as “sweets” is somewhat misleading, as they can also be savory.
Even okonomiyaki (savory cabbage pancake) traces its origins to one particular type of dagashi — mojiyaki, which Rath describes as “flavored batter that was dropped on to a heated cooking surface often to form shapes like characters or moji (words), hence the name ‘grilled words.’”
Though some scholars attribute their development to the arrival of karakudamono or karakashi (“Chinese sweets”) during the Heian Period (794-1185), it wasn’t until the Showa Era (1926-89) that dagashi gained real traction — especially for children.
“Part of the fun for kids is that they might involve games of chance in which kids would stick their hands into a box and pull out a sweet or a small toy. Or pay money to pull a string from a container to see which sweet they had bought,” Rath says. “Also, the inexpensive cost of dagashi gave kids a sense of freedom of choice with the limited pocket money they had.”
As well as the low cost, advertising in dagashiya appealed to kids with popular characters such as Ultraman and Doraemon.
“From a general economic perspective, it wasn’t about the candy, but about the wrapping and presentation, and the familiarization of the young coterie of Japanese who would, in time, become adult consumers,” says anthropologist Michael Ashkenazi.
“Dagashi, at least late Showa Era dagashi, were an exploitation of a familiar and traditional Japanese cultural practice of small insignificant snacks, dressing them in advertising that, ignoring the specifics, essentially introduced traditional Japan and Japanese to modernity in the form of a consumption culture,” he continues.
But it’s the social aspect of dagashiya that holds sway in children’s minds; visiting one is a minor’s equivalent of swinging by sakariba (entertainment districts) for grown-ups.
“Dagashiya are a stop between the responsibilities of school, with its social demands and restrictions, and home, with its social and scholastic demands (like homework, study, and classes),” Ashkenazi says. Though convenience stores have largely stepped in to take over the consumer role, the social aspect of dagashiya has been neglected.
Rath agrees that konbini have taken the mantle from dagashiya commercially, and that the social aspect of dagashiya has been lost. “Children have less free time today,” he says. “Visiting the dagashiya after school was a social ritual for Japanese school kids who today have to hurry off to cram school or other structured activities and do their socializing online.”
With many dagashiya left in the proverbial dust, remnants of this distinct part of childhood culture can be hard to find, especially in Tokyo. There’s even self-described “dagashiya hunters” who make a point of tracking down and visiting original establishments.
“In Showa Era, you could say dagashiya were a ‘children’s world,’” one hunter, Makoto Dobashi, said in an interview. “But now they’ve become a place of nostalgia for adults.”
One such original establishment, Kamikawaguchiya, is at Toshima Ward’s Kishimojin; the oldest one in Japan, it could be called the flagship dagashiya. Situated in a 19th-century wooden building, the store was established in 1781 and is run today by 80-year-old Masao Uchiyama.
“It can’t be helped that dagashiya are disappearing,” said Uchiyama in an interview with Yahoo News last year. “But there are quite a few people who say it’s better to buy at a store like this. Convenience stores are cheap but uninspired.”
Even though a handful of traditional dagashiya remain, there’s a few contemporary adaptations of dagashi for when nostalgia strikes. The popular national chain Okashi no Machioka sells many of the classic dagashi, albeit with less personality. Dagashi Bar, a Showa-retro izakaya with locations in Ebisu, Shinjuku and Shibuya, includes all-you-can-eat dagashi in the ¥500 cover charge. Most transportive of all, Daiba Itchome Shotengai in the Odaiba Decks Tokyo Beach mall is a wonderland of dagashi and retro arcade games.
Their heyday may be over, but the dagashiya spirit lives on as a wistful aftertaste of the 20th century.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.