The term dagashi in Japanese refers to cheap sweets or candy, also known as “penny sweets,” and was originally created as a source of sugary delights for people without much money to spare. Dagashi these days come in many varieties and have a long history unique to Japan that makes them a staple item for youth culture.
During the Edo period, many quality sweets contained lots of sugar, and back then, sugar was considered a luxury good. As a result, many of these tasty treats were only available to people of wealth and high status. Yet, commoners and people of poorer statuses still managed to create their own candies from corn starch and muscovado. However, these were considered “bad sweets” or dagashi.
As we move along into the Meiji period, the importation of sugar from neighboring countries became much more common, and as a result, sugar became more available to ordinary people. During this time, lots of independent businesses specializing in unique treats popped up all over the country. These shops quickly became popular, especially for children, as many of the sweets sold for only a few yen. There was a short pause in dagashi production during WWII as Japan became more independent, specializing in its own production of goods, such as sugar.
After the war, importation started back up, and dagashi production rose along with it. It was also after the war that Japan began experiencing a baby boom and massive population growth. Dagashi shops capitalized on this increased population, creating new and unique sweets; some stores even opened to sell a collection of cheap sweets and toys, like a one-stop shop for everything dagashi. Like before, these shops became extremely popular among the youth, with many children stopping by after school or while they played on the weekends.
Today, dagashi shops are still around but have long since dwindled in numbers with an increase of convenience stores across Japan. Yet, many Japanese adults can attest to the nostalgic feeling of visiting a local dagashi stop and how the shops carry an essence of childhood that many long to have again. Even today, many children still visit these stores when they can because they’re still the only place where you can find such a variety of cheap candies and toys. For tourists, dagashi shops provide great insight into Japanese culture as they’ve been around for a long time. They’re also a wonderful and affordable experience that is sure to be memorable as you try a variety of candies you’ve likely never seen before. Be sure to check one out newhen you visit Japan; you certainly won't regret it.