Good sources for news on Japan are hard to come by. Or at least bad ones are a dime dozen.
Ah yes, The Wall Street Journal’s Nihon Real Time, which is Japanese for Japan Real Time; they include both renderings in their masthead for some reason. With top stories on television watching habits and robot fighting, of course. And, perplexing, the first category of articles, getting top billing over culture, politics, technology, and economy is “Fukushima Watch.” I haven’t the heart to actually click on it, but I’m going to just assume that after having reported from the scene on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant so much the editors at the Wall Street Journal just fell completely in love with Fukushima Prefecture and decided to devote the main area of their Japan section to all sorts of articles about festivals, events, and other local news from their adopted home prefecture.
Anyway, I was drawn to this site whilst searching for the definition of “samurai bonds,” which turned out to be yen-denominated bonds issued by foreign countries and corporations in Japan. (Incidentally, are all such financial instruments similarly named? Are there yankee bonds and viking bonds and conquistador bonds?)
At the bottom of the daily ‘news roundup’ was an article that caught my eye because it bucked the usual trend of American companies being bought by Japanese firms to talk about a Japanese company being bought by an American firm.
Then I noticed that the purchased company was named Mikawaya USA, and assumed that it must just be the American arm of a Japanese company that was being done away with. Instead it turns out that it was an American company from the first, Mikawaya having been founded in Los Angeles in 1910, apparently. Which begs the question of why this article is described as news “on Japan” and “related to Japan” and is in the “Japan Real Time” section? It has at best a tenuous connection to Japanese food culture, but no real relation to the contemporary nation of Japan that I can discern. Was the robot fighting news so slow this day that they had to fill the gaps by reporting on things like the local “Japanese” restaurant closing down, with follow up articles about all the Korean-Americans who have lost their jobs as a result and other possible locations you can go to to get your spicy crab, dragon, and california rolls?
The article itself gets a bit rich at one point too, as the family that opened and ran the Mikawaya confectionery was interned during World War II and as a result lost their shop. But the Wall Street Journal refers to this as being “forced to relocate” and that they were “held at the Poston War Relocation Center,” using the era’s own Orwellian name for the concentration camp at which they were imprisoned. But it’s OK, because they reopened their shop “following the family’s return from Poston.” You know, just like they were returning from a vacation to some nice desert…after three or four years. Or maybe they had relatives among the town of Poston’s 300-odd residents that they were visiting.
To get back to the title of my post, however, former company president Frances Hashimoto (who the Wall Street Journal innocently tells us “was born while the family was at Poston”) claimed to have invented mochi ice cream (ice cream with a wrapping of mochi around it) in 1993. Personally I always thought Lotte invented the stuff, since it is the only company that sells it in Japan under the brand name Yukimi Daifuku (snow-viewing daifuku – more on the latter part of that name later). But Lotte does also sell Pepero, a clear copy of Glico’s Pocky, so I didn’t jump to any conclusions at first. But it turns out that Lotte started selling its mochi ice cream over a decade earlier, in 1981.
Now Japan and the US are quite far away, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Mikawaya’s mochi ice cream was independently created. After all, mochi ice cream is really just a variety of daifuku, the term used for all desserts that consist of mochi wrapped around something. Most traditionally the filling is azuki red bean paste, but if they have custard cream inside instead they are still called daifuku. Lotte clearly recognizes this in their name, simply adding on a pleasant sounding word in front of daifuku to act as a descriptor, in the same vein as ichigo (strawberry) daifuku, etc.. So, maybe Hashimoto never had a Yukimi Daifuku, and simply thought it up some day while eating regular old daifuku. But coming so many years late to the game, it is incredible that Mikawaya to this day insists that they invented mochi ice cream. Or have they still yet to hear of Lotte’s product after more than thirty years? Equally incredible is that so many (American) news sources, such as the Associated Press, are happy to parrot their claim without bothering to check any facts.
On a completely unrelated note, have you ever heard that theory about how Japanese people never invent anything and just copy products originally made in the West? I think it was pretty popular in the 1980s and 90s.