The History of “Candy Craft” (Ame-zaiku)

Yoshihara’s amezaiku are steeped in a tradition that continues from the Edo era. A dollop of hot, soft candy is pulled from the pot, and in three minutes, before it cools and hardens, skilled hands and scissors quickly nip and shape the sweetness into various shapes of plants and animals.

Amezaiku has been a feature of Japanese life since ancient times. As far back as the Heian era (794-1185), mizuame creations (taffy made from starch converted to sugar) were used as offerings in temples and shrines alike. In the Edo era (1603-1868), as mizuame became more readily available, ingenious street performers regaled urban passersby with stories and music, and popularised amezaiku into the art form it remains today. Amezaiku performances were inspired by popular whimsical publications like the 15th edition of Muda Shugyo Kane-no Waraji (Useless Journey with Golden Shoes), an irreverent narrative and local commentary by Jippensha Ikku, while performances were also frequently held in the precincts of temples and shrines.

The 15th edition of Muda Shugyo Kane-no Waraji
Possession of the National Diet Library

Another style of amezaiku was introduced in a publication depicting the manners and customs of the late Edo period by Morisada Kitagawa. In this style, a dollop of mizuame is placed on a length of reed and blown into a hollow ball, then shaped and coloured. The most popular items in this style were colourful birds.
A modern translation written by Kazuo Hanasaka notes how these were often called “candy birds” due to their most common shape. While artisans would normally blow a puff of air into the amezaiku, if they skipped this step (as they did in the Kyoto-Osaka area), the candy product was called fukikake (unblown amezaiku).

「Morisada Manko」 6th Morisada Kitagawa (1837~)
Possession of the National Diet Library

Amezaiku were also the subjects of songs, so let us introduce two poems from Haifu Yanagidaru, a collection of popular Japanese senryu poems (three unrhymed lines of five, seven, five syllables), which were published annually from the middle to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate period. The translation of the 29th poem reads:

Pulled from a heated portable pot,
Then shaped into a candy bird.

Another reference is in the 121st. poem:

A candy bird,
Perched on the back,
Silences a baby’s cries.

The earliest record that we can introduce of amezaiku in Japan is in a Japanese classical puppet play titled Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy (1746). In this play, a candy vendor spices his sales patter by rhythmically cantillating, ‘Hey, hey, kids, come around and get a candy bird, it’s a candy bird!”

Although I cannot vouch for the birthplace of amezaiku, we see candies and techniques emerging from China, Korea, Thailand, and, in the West, confectionery works. There is much to learn about the global origins and spread of candy artwork, and my interest and enthusiasm are never exhausted.

Amezaiku Today

Up until the Showa era (1926-1989), amezaiku were a common feature of shrine festivals, on the streets for local merchant promotions, or simply strategically set up to catch commuters and students on their way home. Some cherish memories of enjoying simple, well-crafted picture-card shows, synchronised with the making of candy creations. As times changed, laws were enacted affecting the preparation and sales of foodstuffs on the street, which adversely affected the opportunities for amezaiku artisans to bring their sweet talents into public view. Unfortunately, although no clear statistics have been offered, as of this writing in 2018, there are fewer than 100 practicing amezaiku makers in Japan.

If any of you have stories or photos of candy crafts of old, please let us know.

Thank you! May your days bring sweet memories.