Monday, February 13, 2012

Luster of Konpeito-jewel-like rock candy from the 16th century

Konpeito or kompeito, tiny colorful star-like rock candies, were once dream sweets for most Japanese people. The word konpeito comes from the Portuguese word confeito. They were first introduced to Japan by Portuguese adventurers in the 16th century.

In 1543 storm-blown Portuguese merchants reached Tanegashima island in Southern Japan. It was our first encounter with Westerners. A short time later other Portuguese and Spanish merchants and missionaries followed.

On April 16 in 1569 a Portuguese missionary, Luis Fróis, presented a flask of kompeito to Oda Nobunaga, the military ruler of the country at that time, at Nijyo-jo castle in Kyoto.


It was the Age of Exploration and the Great Navigations when sailors, traders and Catholic missionaries from powerful European countries made a voyage around the world. Some of them even came to our small isolated archipelago in the Far East. It was a turbulent period in Japan when many warlords spent most of their time fighting. They were eager to purchase novel items such as guns, gun powder, glasses, wine and so on from European merchants.


The sailing ships they came aboard were admired by the public. Their splendid shape and many sails made them look like large white birds which surprised and impressed the people of that time because Japanese ones were smaller in size and usually had only one large sail. Many painters depicted these Western ships called Namban-sen(南蛮船) on byobu(屏風) or folding screens.

Courtesy: Fukusa-ya(福砂屋) Kasutera (Castella)


Besides kompeito, new sweets such as Castella, a type of sponge cake, and small round cookies called bolo were introduced to Japan in the same century. In 1600 the Warring States period ended and the Edo period, the age of peace, started in 1603.

Fortunately, the techniques for producing Kompeito and other sweets survived the turbulent times. Basing their method on the original manufacturing method, kompeito artisans of the Edo period developed their own way of making them and evolved them. As a result Kompeito became well-known to the people of the Edo period.

Spring has come!

In July 1853 Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's four-ship squadron appeared off Uraga in Edo Bay with a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore requesting that Japan open its borders; Japan was under Sakoku(鎖国: a policy of isolationism) in those days.


 Matthew Calbraith Perry

Matthew Perry ( Ukiyo-e ) 


The people in the Edo period were much more surprised than those in the 16th century to see Perry’s Kurofune, literally Black Ships. Some of them were large steamships and all of them were painted black with tar.

The astonishment and horror caused by these ships which showed Perry's overwhelming military power are described very well in this humorous kyoka-poem.

The steam-powered ships

break the halcyon slumber of the Pacific;

a mere four boats are enough

to make us lose sleep at night.  5*

Lots and lots of people went to Uraga to look on at the spectacular scene of the Kurofune. Many Ukiyo-e wood block prints depicting them still remain today.


I was given two packets of Ryokujuan's(緑寿庵)kompeito by one of my friends last Christmas.

Ever since the opening of the country in 1854, and the wave of modernization that followed, a variety of western sweets has been imported. However gorgeous and delicious newly arrived western sweets may be, adorable star-like kompeito, the first arrived one, have always been something special that fascinates us with yearning for distant countries.

Nowadays assorted flavored kompeito are available around the country. Some of them are low in sweetness and are made mainly of natural fruit juice.
In 400 years the jewel-like kompeito have become a part of our culture in which they twinkle and add luster to our lives.
A blue glassy mother-of-pearl inlay
the heavens are.
A river of white clouds
is the Milky Way.
Twinkling stars are kompeito.

from The Night Heavens by Kusano Shimpei (夜の天 草野心平)8*
(translated by hw. Sapphire)

 Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker was translated into "konpeito no sei" (Fairy of Konpeito) in Japan.
Enjoy the youtube video below!

*Kompeito are often used as the thank-you-for-coming gift by the Imperial Household.
南蛮人来朝図屏風 紙本金地著色六曲一双 左隻 (detail) Unknown, Momoyama~Edo periods, National Museum of Japanese History

南蛮屏風 狩野内膳筆 (detail) by Kano Naizen(1570~1616) Momoyama period
Kobe City Museum

Perry's Squadron sailing off Odawara in Winter
This picture shows Perry's ships heading for Uraga under strong winds on occasion of his second visit to Japan in Feburuay 1854. 
Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, vol.l, chapter 18,  Yokohama Archives of History

4*無款 《黒船の図》 大判錦絵 Kurofune, Unknown, 1853  from 中右collection

5* 泰平の 眠りを覚ます 上喜撰  たった四杯で 夜も眠れず
The poem has two meanings: Jyoki-sen, the name of green tea, also implies steam boats and shihai, four cups, implies four ships.
(another meaning)

Awoken from sleep 
of a peaceful quiet world
by Jokisen tea;
with only four cups of it
one can't sleep even at night.  (English translations from Wikipedia)

Western Traders Transporting Merchandise in Yokohama, 1861
Yokohama Archives of History

摂州神戸海岸繁栄之図 1871 by Hasegawa Sadanobu (長谷川貞信)
Kobe Port in 1871、 Kobe City Museum
Kobe is my hometown.

These are just three lines from Kusano Shimpei's poem, "The Night Heavens",

夜の天 (草野心平)


Carolyn said...

Thank you, I really enjoyed the history and pictures!

Evelyne said...

J'ai quitté Paris pour le monde enchanté de Fantasia et des merveilleux petits bonbons pastels.

Shiroi Tora said...

I am always impressed with the amount of research you do for your articles. I always learn something reading your Blog.

Massimo said...

so interesting ! well done... again, ciao

Anne said...

It is the first time I hear about these sweets and their story. It is really fantastic that they are produced again since the 16th century! I can't imagine their taste, but I like their pastel colours and their blooming form. I do like Matthew Perry's japanese portrait, too : it is very interesting to see the photo and how the artist has interpreted Perry's character much more expressive. Thank you for your so interesting post, and enjoy a sweet week!

zoe said...

what lovely treats!

black ships belching smoke--sounds scary! i love the haiku :)


Rurousha said...

Konpeito is Portuguese? Of course! Now that you've explained it, I can see the connection. This is so interesting! Some of my Japanese students don't realize that "pan" is also a Portuguese word. They think it's English.

The Portuguese arrived in South Africa in 1488, on their way to the Far East. Today there's a big Portuguese community in South Africa, and many of their customs have survived.

Thank you for another beautiful post!

PS: Konpeito no sei is the perfect translation for Sugar Plum Fairy. ^^

haricot said...


cosmos said...

金平糖!なつかしい響きです。何かの機会にしか食べることはなくなってしまいました。色、形、なんとも愛らしいですね。ほんとにsugar plum fairyの世界そのものです。
宮中のthank-you-for-coming giftなんですね!
Thank you for lovely post with its history.

☆sapphire said...


I suppose you ate some Kompeito when you were in Japan.


Nous appelons souvent mignon bonbon sucre candi ainsi au Japon. Le bonbon nom remids toujours nous de votre pays.

Shiroi Tora-san

Thank you so much!. The history I wrote in this post is what most of us know as common knowledge.


Thanks so much!


Thanks for your lovely comment, Anne. Kompeito in fact have many colors and flavors. The ones in this post are ginger, matcha(green tea), grapefruit, orange, cider, cherry, black sugar, and mint. We have imported so many sweets from France too. Pierre Herme's Macarons are very popular and I love them!

Noriko said...

Very Natsukashiidesu. Seeing picture of Kompaito brings me back to my childhood. Thank you

☆sapphire said...


The black smoke! The Edo people were very surprised by the black smoke as they had not seen steamships before.


Yes. You are so right! The word pan comes from Portuguese too. Thank you for the information: "The Portuguese arrived in South Africa in 1488, on their way to the Far East". I didn't know it at all. They must have been great adventurers!!




おお、乳ボーロ!私、あれ今でも好きなんですよ。ほら写っているでしょ。ボーロは宮中のお土産ではないようです。サーヤが結婚した時も引き出物はきれいな陶器に入った金平糖だったんですって。マシュマロは宮中関係では聞いたことがないですが。 去年の暮れに宮内庁御用達の金平糖を友人からもらって、いやぁびっくりしました。それで日本橋の三越にほかの種類を買いに行ったら、他のメーカーもそれはすごい金平糖各種を出していて、つい...太りますよね。皆さんそうだと思うけど、この時期バレンタインのチョコが
家にあるでしょ? それでこうした記事になったしだいです(トホホ)


Welcome and thanks for your comment.
I'm very glad to know that you felt natsukashii about Kompeito.

Life Ramblings said...

the candies look delightful. it's always interesting to get a glimpse of interesting cultures of the other part of the world.

Charlene Doiron Reinhart said...

Wonderful post! The photo of the konpeito make them look like the jewels they are. They are quite special. I love hearing the history behind them. I remember my mother going to San Francisco Nihonmachi, and buying them at a place next to the manju shop.

Britta said...

Dear Sapphire,
those sweets really look like jewels - I saw them at the side of my blog first and thought: Stucco? In Japan? Now that I see them in full pastel beauty I long for them - having a sweet tooth (and imagination) maybe I am able to guess how they might taste. (The colours were copied by a Haribo(brand)confect here in Germany). All the things that Japan produce are made with so much love for the delight of the eyes! Thank you for that post! Britta

☆sapphire said...

Life Ramblings

Thanks for your comment!


Thanks! Nihonmachi sounds very interesting. Hmmm Manjyu-ya. I suppose you can buy wagashi there.


Thanks for your lovely comment. I suppose there are many other sweets similar to kompeito around the world. Kompeito were originally very tiny. The ones in this post are a little bit larger.
Haribo Gummi! They are popular in Japan and I remember I ate Haribo Gummi bears. They are adorable too!

Mésange said...

Once again I learnt a lot! History by the book is not History... I prefer learn slices of history from local people. They have opinions!

So, you have piqued my interest with these little candies. It's the first time I hear about them, it's the first time I see them. Of course, I will make boutiques to find those jewels of sugar.

Dear Sapphire, as usual you prepare great topics and you give us the desire to learn more about them. Thank you so much!

P.-S.: Fantastic pictures, almost real!

☆sapphire said...


Thank you so much! There are various kinds of Kompeito in our country and all of them are not expensive; some are very cheap. I love tiny adorable things so I wrote this post. Though they were originally Portuguese sweets, they have become something Japanese for these 400 years. We often use the expression, "like-kompeito".

snowwhite said...

I was amazed and fascinated to know that Konpeito is such a tiny confection, but it has great and interesting history and story. Thanks a lot, your blog took me back to my childhood. Kompeito was always synonym of joy and happiness.
Sapphire, besides Kompeito, Fantasia by Walt Disney is another fascination to me. It overwhelmed child me. I do not remember when I watched this animated film in a theater.

Suze said...

This is such an enchanting post, sapphire. As always, it has slowed my pulse and I have sunk in to enjoy it.

'Fortunately, the techniques for producing Kompeito and other sweets survived the turbulent times.'

Could it be that Kompeito helped its eaters negotiate the turbulent times?

My sisters work very, very hard to care for and provide for their families and, as I told one this, week, remember to laugh with your girls and your husband -- for this is the reason you labor!

Remember to savor Kompeito. :)

Defer said...

Konpeito looks very magical, I think as a child I would have loved it. It is colourful and somewhat mysteriously shaped, almost like enlarged grains of sand. (Sand is amazingly beautiful in macro-photography; just as colourful and magically shaped! It's amazing how close the things we create for beauty are often bonded to nature itself!)

Looking at the beautiful photo of the Konpeito art plate titled "Spring has come!" I'm reminded of how I couldn't eat certain articles as a child because I found them too artistically beautiful to be treated as food for me. So I would try to collect them (such as Easter bunnies made from chocolate), but well, it's not really a good thing to collect. ;-D

The Kurofune, were they really powerful or were they just "military mimikry" to conquer just by impressing? I think a lot of warlords have worked with impression, even into the 20ieth century. Psychological warfare. Interesting in terms of psychology, but I do find power struggles boring because unlike Darwinism tries to teach, I think it's not effective at all to attempt to struggle for Peace. But back then they struggled for Power, so I suppose Peace wasn't in their agendas...

As far as I understand it, Japan saved its power status in the world by opening up towards the West enough to be able to compete. Very interesting, but I haven't studied it enough to make any qualified comments. :~)

Beautiful artworks! And I've always had a special love for Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite... "Fantasia" uses various compositions very cleverly in a deep, meaningful way.

Thanks for another beautiful post, Sapphire! :-)

☆sapphire said...


I'm glad to hear that you love Fantasia. I too think it is really enchanting. もう寒くてどこにも行ってないし(笑)、金平糖とチョコが家にあったのでこの記事にしました。金平糖って色とりどりで可愛いですよね。コメントありがとうございます。


Thank you!
"Could it be that Kompeito helped its eaters negotiate the turbulent times?" Oh I don't know but it might have been so. As for Oda Nobunaga, he was killed just before he unified the country. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period(the end of the Warring States Period)when Kompeito was first introduced to Japan, only upper class samurais; mainly warlords, royalty and aristocrats could eat them. Many warlords could not survive the bloody age.


It made me smile that you collected beautiful articles without eating them.
Japan in fact very reluctantly opened the country to the United States and to the West about 160 years ago. "Japan saved its power status in the world by opening up towards the West enough to be able to compete" I'm afraid that our country wasn't like that. Japan slept or slumbered like Sleeping Beauty for about 250 years during the Edo period, the age of peace, under the Sakoku though a variety of culture flourished in those peaceful days. Japan's military equipment in 1853 was the same as that in the 16th century.
During the Edo period Japan engaged in relationship only with three countires; Netherlands, China and Korea. Before the Perry's Kurofune arrival, British, American, Russian and French ships all attempted to engage in relationship with Japan, but were rejected. Commodore Perry was fully prepared for hostilities if his negotiations with the Japanese failed. Perry's military force was indeed much superior. On his arrival to the Tokyo Bay, the age of peace ended. The final years of the Edo period was a turbulent period when many civil wars were fought. It's a long long story about the opening of the country, the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration.

Thank you so much for your comment and your interest!

helen tilston said...

Hello Sapphire

Thank you for this inspiring piece of history - wishing you a joyful week

Defer said...

Thank you for the info, Sapphire, good learning! :-) Part of my uni studies this semester is Old Europe and Abroad.
With "enough" I meant "just enough", i.e. in a nationally balanced way to where Japan could stay Japan. China was taken over for a while by the British colonists, Japan on the other hand managed to stay independent to a higher degree.
I'm kinda glad to live in these times, though I know of the downfalls of our times, too.
Life certainly is very interesting!

Have a great day, Sapphire


Kittie Howard said...

Your video was magical, a real delight. (I watched it twice!) I knew a bit about the kompeito, from living in Hawaii, but not about the deep history. Thank you, thank you for this post. I always leave your blog with a smile, Sapphire.

MariCari♥♥♥♥♥ said...

Gracias por compartir la belleza y las golosinas... Bss

Ruby said...

This was a delightful read. I loved the delicious, yummy sweets and the pictures of the ships is very beautiful. The black ships do look grim and unfriendly; the poem was hilarious! Thanks for sharing the history of these crystal confectionery. Cheers, Ruby.

☆sapphire said...

helen, Defer, Kitty, and Ruby

I have been away from home for a while. Thank you so much for your lovely comments!


Oh I a little bit misunderstood what you mentioned. Thank you for the additional explanation.
I agree. Life in this age is certainly exciting! I always love to do something new, meet new people and travel to new places.


I think the Kurofue woodblock print reflects how the Edo people felt about the Perry's steamboats. The boats were actually like UFOs for them. They had never seen steamboats before 1853.

Sarah Laurence said...

I've never heard of those sweets, but what an interesting history!

Linda Starr said...

I have never heard of these sweets, the black ship, nor did I remember our 13th president, shame on me, Ha. I love the platter that the sponge cake is on, another lovely post, enjoyed it thoroughly.

minstrel1209 said...

ほんまに 春は遅々としていますね

きょうも 淡雪が舞うらしいです。。金平糖のような^^☆**

春ひとつふたつ零れて星になれ  kumiko

stardust said...

カステラはよくいただきますが、ボーロ、金平糖は年に何度か無性に食べたくなる時があります。 京都緑寿庵清水の金平糖が大好きです。出産の内祝いにも贈りました。



☆sapphire said...

Sarah and Linda

Thanks for your comments!!

Commodore Perry, 90% name recognition among primary school students in Japan, must be the most famous American figure in our country. I think he will be famous forever from now on too.

kumiko さん

寒いですね。ステキな句をありがとうございます。 このところ、忙しくて更新がなかなかできません。お互い風邪をひかないよう注意いたしましょう。 コメントありがとうございます。