Notes from Japan

Sweet Diplomacy

By Suzanne Kamata

 Courtesy: Creative Commons

Many readers of a certain age are familiar with the story of Mary Poppins, a spirited British nanny with supernatural powers. (She could fly with just an umbrella, for example.) Although the book version didn’t include any songs, the film rendition was a musical, and even now those tunes are lodged in my brain, especially the one about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

Sugar gets a bad rap these days all around the world. My Japanese husband was adamantly opposed to letting our children have sweets when they were small. I, however, had grown up in a household where dessert was served after every lunch and dinner – mostly cookies and pies baked by my mother. He did give in when our kids had the flu.  I recall one sticky afternoon when we melted chocolate and sprinkled bitter powder into molds in order to get our children to take their medicine.

Chocolate is a big deal in Japan on Valentine’s Day. In the weeks before, stores are filled with an array of chocolates in various shapes and sizes, which women are expected to give the men in their lives. But generally, cakes and cookies are often seen as feminine. It’s not manly to confess to a sweet tooth.

In Japan, I’ve found that desserts do exist, and they are often exquisite and delicious, but they are mostly shared on special occasions or when diplomacy is required. Cake can serve as an apology, while candy might be a form of persuasion, a way to literally “sweeten the pot.” To wit, a few years ago, our next-door neighbor came to the door with a white carton with the name of a popular bakery on the side.

“We are going to have some construction done on our house,” she said. “It will be noisy for a while. I apologise in advance.” She handed over the box with a bow. Later, when I looked inside, I found the box full of cream puffs. Although, as our neighbor said, the next few weeks were noisy, each hammer pound reminded me of the flaky pastry balls filled with custard. I could hardly be annoyed.

More recently, I answered the door to find another neighbor bearing a big box of cookies.

“Sorry about the commotion earlier,” he said.

Later, I found out that his car had exploded or at least caught on fire. Apparently, he had left a laptop with a lithium battery on the car seat on that hot day. The police and fire department had come by.

To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed that anything out of the ordinary was going on, but I appreciated his consideration, and my family and I enjoyed the cookies.

These days, when I take a trip out of town, I bring back something sweet as a souvenir for my neighbors. Also, when the farmers who live around here bring us vegetables from their fields, I usually reciprocate by baking carrot cake for them.

In my own country, people sometimes have noisy parties, which lead to complaints and phone calls from irritated others. As a person who likes to sleep in on weekends, I have been peeved by neighbours who cranked their lawnmowers at the crack of dawn. A little bit of sugar, however, can go a long way in keeping the peace and smoothing out relations.


Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


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