Reviving a Centuries-Old Japanese Confectionery ArtAmezaiku, a candy-making technique that calls for sculpting molten sugar syrup, nearly went extinct. Now, it’s seeing new life among a dedicated group of Tokyo craftsmen.
FIRST THE FINGERS BURN. Any apprentice in the centuries-old Japanese confectionery art of amezaiku must accept this as the price of beauty. Molten syrup, heated to a scalding 176 degrees Fahrenheit, is scooped up with bare hands. There’s no time to cry out; from the moment it touches the skin, you have about five minutes to pull and squeeze the hot ball, impale it on a stick and sculpt it — into a panda, a crane, a rhinoceros beetle — with nothing but singed fingers and tiny scissors for making swift cuts as the syrup congeals.
The syrup, known as mizuame — “water candy” — is traditionally made from glutinous rice broken down into sugar by malt. It’s often found at street fairs, trapped between rice crackers or as a glossy coat around apricots. At home, Japanese children dig it from the jar with chopsticks, which they twirl to create a corn-syrup-sweet gob for licking. With amezaiku, food coloring may be massaged into the mizuame and a fine brush might be used to shade, for instance, the green-gold halo of a goldfish’s eye. Depending on the artist, the result veers toward the cartoonish contours of marzipan or the stiff perfection of blown glass. In a final gesture, the hardened syrup is tapped with a blade to ensure it’s set. The ring is crisp, as if someone were making a toast. This is theater, performance inextricable from product, which itself is as much toy as candy.
Since its popularization in the 18th century, amezaiku has belonged to the common man; its practitioners often share jokes and magic tricks between sculpting. The syrup, historically heated by charcoal, was once aerated by blowing through a straw, but the government banned this technique in the 1970s on hygienic grounds, and the ranks of amezaiku makers dwindled. In 2008, when Takahiro Yoshihara opened the first storefront in Tokyo devoted to the craft, he estimated there were 30 such artists left in the country.
That’s surprising, given that amezaiku speaks to the Japanese obsession with all things kawaii, or “cute,” which arguably developed as a response to the failed antiwar student protests of the 1960s. In the economic boom that followed, kawaii, defined as something both lovable and pitiable — which is to say, something lovable because it is naïve to forces larger than itself — provided both solace and consumerist distraction from dashed hopes for change. But it is also a protest against the rigidity of Japanese society, a choice to remain innocent instead of joining the ranks of miserable adults. In this, amezaiku suggests a connection between kawaii’s sentimental appeal and the Japanese principle of mono no aware, loosely translated as “the sadness of things,” or an attunement to the power of objects to awaken our empathy.
Still, unlike wagashi — the classical tea-ceremony treats with complex flavors and textures, haiku-like names and brief shelf lives — these lollipops are not intended to be allegories of impermanence. They don’t contain mysteries; their entire story is told through their making, and most of their pleasure derives from witnessing true virtuosity, another Japanese specialty: the steady hands, the coaxing of form out of formlessness, the race against time. Risking pain makes the achievement all the greater, as with Japan’s urushi, lacquerware that requires artisans to work with toxic sap. Through repeated contact, they grow immune.
Though amezaiku is dying out as street craft, its spectacle has been embraced on social media, earning it recognition beyond Japan. The greatest appraisal has gone to the 29-year-old Shinri Tezuka, who runs two shops in Tokyo, and who renounces cuteness for realism. His intricately detailed creatures, often pulled from the deep sea, wed beauty with menace: giant squid, arms flowing like streamers; venom-spined scorpionfish, mouth agape to capture prey. They look surprised in motion, seized from life, seeming to glow from within. But they, too, are kawaii — helpless and, when we decide to eat them, utterly at our mercy.