Thank our benevolent rulers for “kompeito” and other wonders of civilisation!

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.

via Through the Sapphire Sky: Luster of Konpeito-jewel-like rock candy from the 16th century.

So begins another post on Japanese culture and history by Through the Sapphire Sky. Hers is only the 2nd blog I read that actually has footnotes! She knows her stuff, and has great photos and illustrations and background info and cross-references.

And, as usual, I have several questions.

  1. “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.” Ignoring the cute “we”, why weren’t these visitors summarily executed or dunked in boiling water?
  2. “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.” I note that the Europeans were the ones doing the exploring and navigating. Had it not been for the ingenuity and superior technology and wealth of those nations, the Japanese would never have learned of “kompeito”. When English sailor William Adams arrived in Japan he was questioned by Daimyo Tokugawa Ieyasu who didn’t believe him when Adams showed him a world map and explained where he’d come from. Why was Ieyasu more ignorant than Adams,  a nobody, a barbarian, a foreigner?
  3. “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.” Considering that Japan IS AN ISLAND NATION, surrounded by water, water, everywhere, why were the European ships superior to the Japanese ones? After more than 2,200 years, the best they could do was small ships with just one sail?
  4. “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. ” These techniques and the goods were not developed by the ruling class, nor by edict of the shogunate or emperor, but by artisans and merchants. Let us go down on our knees and give thanks to those entrepreneurs, who also provided the “guns, gun powder, glasses, wine” that the warlords were so keen to acquire. Why hadn’t the Japanese developed these things? Was it because they had been too busy killing each other, even though gunpowder was invented in the NEIGHBOURING COUNTRY OF CHINA?
  5. “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.”  Why was it the Black Ships came to Japan, and not the other way around? Did this have anything to do with the enlightened policy of Sakoku, or “keep the foreign bastards out and the domestic bastards in”? A policy repeated by the Soviet Union and to some extent Communist China and now the Kim Kingdom, DPRK. It is interesting to speculate on how Japan might have developed, commercially and technologically, had Sakoku not been adopted. Hey, that’s an idea for a novel!
  6. 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.”

    The footnote tells us, “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.”
    Why did the poet feel the need to write his poem in code? Was it fear of what the authorities might say or do?

In those “good old days”, Japan was ruled by a feudal ruling class. Thank goodness that is no longer true, and that now we are ruled by enlightened rulers whose sole care and purpose is the prosperity and happiness of the Japanese inhabitants. And if we don’t think they are doing a good job, we can get rid of them and replace them with better ones. What a perfect system!


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