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Mon, Aug 12, 2019

The last chapter of the Heisei era: 30th anniversary of the enthronement

The bonbonniere commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Heisei-era Emperor’s accession to the throne (Photo by Kazuki Matsuura)
By Minako Nagasako / Curator, Gakushuin Univ. Museum of History

With the enthronement of the New Emperor, we have moved on to the Reiwa era. The Heisei era is moving to the background. In this column, however, Reiwa has not yet arrived. I may be able to tell you a story related to the new era in autumn when the Sokui-no-rei ceremonies of accession take place, but until then, we’ll take it slowly and spend some time on a small craft you can rest on the palm of your hand. This craft has long been taken care of by the Imperial Household.

The little craft I’m going to write about is called bonbonniere.

In the early spring of the 31st year of the Heisei era (2019), a ceremony was held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the then Emperor’s accession to the throne. Celebrities who were invited to the tea party later appeared on a TV program and presented their confectionery bowls with five-colored konpeito (confetti). There was one TV personality who joked around saying he had sold the konpeito to his apprentice for a few hundred yen a piece, so some of you may be thinking, “Oh, was that the bonbonniere?”

The bonbonniere, of course, did not originate in Japan. “A container for confectioneries (bonbon)” is what it means in French. In France and Italy, confectioneries are served when celebrating a child’s birth, someone’s wedding, a silver wedding anniversary and on other occasions, and the container – some are made of glass and come without lids, and some are bags – used, in French, is what they call the bonbonniere. In Italian, it is called bomboniera. The confetti inside come in five colors, which represent happiness, health, wealth, the well-being of one’s posterity and longevity. You may have noticed that the Japanese word konpeito comes from confetti. In present day Japan, at the end of a wedding reception, you would occasionally see the bride and groom handing out dragees in small bags to their guests in front of a gilt folding screen. This way of using the bonbonniere is likely very close to how it is used in Europe, where it’s from.

A bonbonniere with sweets inside (Courtesy of Gakushuin Univ. Museum of History)

For some reason, the bonbonniere suddenly appeared in the Imperial Household in the middle of the Meiji era. It became customary for the Imperial Household to have the bonbonniere made as a gift for celebratory occasions. Thereafter, the Japanese bonbonniere developed independently from the original, almost outpacing the originators. Japan’s “Galapagosization” – or development of goods in isolation from the world market – was already seen somewhat in the commemorative gifts of the Imperial Household in the Meiji era.

The Japanese bonbonniere is a palm-sized craft with a gorgeous design and of fine workmanship, and usually comes with a silver lid. The shapes and types vary. From the Taisho era to the first half of the second decade of the Showa era (1912 – 1935), they became extremely popular, and were produced and distributed not only by the Imperial Household and the houses of an Imperial prince (miyake), but also by the peerage, companies and ordinary households. Here, we can get a glimpse of how the Imperial Household in the Meiji era made painstaking efforts to reconcile Japan’s acceptance of Western culture, and protection of Japanese traditional culture and domestic industries. A lot of what I will write about has to do with this balancing act, but we can come back to that later.

Bonbonnieres seen on a special display shelf from a private collection. (Courtesy of Gakushuin Univ. Museum of History)

In the 20th year of the Showa era (1945), Japan’s political system underwent a major change due to its defeat in the Pacific War. In 1947, 11 miyake other than the houses of the three princes Chichibu, Takamatsu and Mikasa, who were younger brothers of the then Emperor, left the Imperial Household. In the same year, the Constitution of Japan came into force and the peerage system was abolished. Under such circumstances, the custom of bestowing the bonbonniere was almost forgotten. However, even then, the Imperial Household continued to make the bonbonniere for auspicious occasions. The latest craft coming from a culture that the Imperial Household developed is the bonbonniere commemorating the 30th anniversary of the enthronement of the Heisei-era Emperor I referred to in the beginning.

Seen from the top, this bonbonniere is round-shaped, and on the lid you will see the golden Imperial crest of the “eight-fold chrysanthemum with 16 leaves facing up” shining brilliantly and also crossed chrysanthemum leaves. The container is 5.6 centimeters in diameter and 3 centimeters in height, and will easily rest on the palm of your hand. Although it is silver in color, it is not made of pure silver but plated with silver, unfortunately. When the Imperial Household Agency started the competitive bidding process in October 2019 for the making of the container, they said it was for “manufacturing brass bonbonnieres plated with silver and with the Imperial crest.” The bonbonniere was to contain konpeito in five colors and fine argent (or silver dragees, which are coated with real silver and used as toppings for cakes and cookies.)

Bombonnieres to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the enthronement were produced in the 11th year of the Heisei era (1999), but they were identical in shape and design with those for the 30th anniversary. Without the piece of paper inside which says, “30th Anniversary of the Enthronement” and “November in the 11th Year of the Heisei era,” it would be difficult to distinguish the two. This may be trouble for researchers in the future.

There exists another bonbonniere to commemorate the 30th anniversary. It is also round-shaped, and on the lid there is the golden crest at the center of a mitsuwa triple-ring pattern. Triple or threefold is sanju in Japanese, which is a homonym for another word meaning “thirty.” The 30th anniversary container was designed this way for the intended pun. It is 5.9 centimeters in diameter and 3.4 centimeters in height, and made of pure silver. A small number of this type was produced for the Emperor’s family to hand out to their relatives at a private feast.



Curator of the Gakushuin Univ. Museum of History


After graduating from Gakushuin University (Faculty of Letters, Department of History), Minako Nagasako’s field of study has been focused primarily on the modern history of the Imperial family and peerage, and of art and culture. She specializes in looking into the historical aspects of arts and craft. She has organized a number of exhibitions showcasing excellent artwork associated with the Imperial family. She is the author of several publications including “Bonbonieru to kindai koshitsu bunka” (Bonbonniere and the culture of the Imperial family in the modern period; published by Enishi Shobo, 2015.)



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