Sept 21 2021
Melonpan: the Bittersweet Armenian History of Japan’s Beloved Sweet Bun
Melonpan, the sweet baked good that delights people across East Asia, was the creation of one Armenian man living in diaspora in Japan. This is his - and his diaspora's - story.
This story is about the Armenian Diaspora and Japan. And yet, this story brings together Armenian history, American history, Japanese history– including a Tohoku connection– as well as my own personal history.
It was truly striking, even a bit spooky at times. The further I dug, the fewer degrees of separation the characters in this story were from me, along multiple axes.
But the more I learned, the more I also waffled as to where exactly to begin with telling this story. This is because, as you’ll see, there’s just so much there. But again, this is integral to what a diaspora is and the kinds of connections one fosters.In the Faraway Diaspora
I’ll begin at a church in Philadelphia, in the autumn of 2003, where my part of the story begins. That year, I was in college, semi-regularly attending the Armenian church to which my family had belonged for the past century. My arrival– or rather, my return– was an object of curiosity for the elders in the community. My choice of college major, though, seemed to confuse and even enrage them.
“Why are you studying Japanese history?” they’d plead, almost angrily. “Look to your own people!”
For people whose parents were the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, this mentality is, I think, understandable. If the alternative is the annihilation of knowledge and identity, then of course they’d want to prioritize preserving the community, including encouraging some of the kids to become historians of Armenia. So I smiled and nodded, but inside, anger smoldered. And in that state of high dudgeon, I returned to college, eager to stick it to my elders by excelling in my studies. Heaven forbid that I, an Armenian-American and aspiring historian of Japan, want to study something other than Armenian history!
Little did I know that semester, I was setting off in the footsteps of giants. For many decades earlier, Armenians had already been where I was going.
I couldn’t have imagined just how closely tied I was to some of them already.
And their story was, I discovered, a bittersweet history.From Anatolia to Honshu – Armenians in Japan
In 1910, a wayward Armenian from Erzurum arrived in Tokyo. The Genocide hadn’t happened yet, so his was not exile at gunpoint. Rather, it was a long road of travel and practice in the pursuit of cultivating his skill as a baker, and seeking a worthy place to employ it. In his distant future lay the sweet crunch of melonpan, a desert that would capture the hearts of a nation and beyond.
He was not the first Armenian in Meiji-era Japan.Advocating for Armenians
When talking about the history of Armenians in Japan, arguably the most prominent name is that of Yangon-born Diana Agabeg Apcar. Apcar’s life in Japan spanned the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa eras; an author, businesswoman, single mother, and polyglot, she was also the inceptive Armenian ambassador to Japan during the short-lived First Republic (1918-1920).
In her books and articles, as well as in her correspondence, Apcar advocated that the powerful men of the world should take an interest in aiding the Armenians who had escaped the Genocide. She also put her money where her mouth was, using her family’s fortune to fund safe passage for Armenian refugees. While most of those refugees went west from the Ottoman Empire, some went east through Russia; bringing Armenian refugees to Japan from China, accommodating them in Japan, and then wrangling their transit to North America. Thanks to Apcar’s lobbying, prominent Japanese aristocrats like Viscount Shibusawa Eiichi and Count Uchida Kōsai raised funds for Armenians in need.
Upon his visit to Armenia in 2018, Japan’s then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Kōno Tarō made an official statement that mentioned some of this history:
Viscount Shibusawa Eiichi (source) The Sagoyans of Japan
Japan and Armenia have many episodes that connect the two countries. Armenia and Japan are nations that have in common ancient history and culture, pride in tradition, are both earthquake-prone countries, and in the absence of energy resources have invested in human resources. In 1921, Japanese industrialist and philanthropist Shibusawa Eiichi engaged in fundraising activities for the relief of Armenian refugees, and consul resident in Japan, Diana Apcar, assisted them in passing through Japan to the United States. This can be said to be the foundation of today’s cordial relations between the two nations.
It was in the margins of reading about Diana Apcar that I first encountered the name Sagoyan. One of the refugees Apcar housed in Japan in the 1920s in transit to the US mentioned meeting the ambassador, and that she was accompanied by a young Japanese-Armenian girl named Sagoyan. I was in awe. My elders were giving me hell about studying Japan, and here was this woman, nearly a century earlier, who was hafu (biracial), of Japanese and Armenian roots. What would those people have told her, if they met her?
In all honesty, many would have been at least as terrible to her as they were to me when they heard I also had some Assyrian and Shamsi ancestry dating from even before my people went into exile during the Genocide. Bigotry toward our own, especially to queer Armenians, non-Christian Armenians, and people who are of mixed Armenian and non-Armenian roots, remains a problem the Diaspora has not adequately confronted. But that bigotry notwithstanding, this woman surnamed Sagoyan existed, as I exist. And the wayward Armenian who arrived in 1910 was her father.
Over the years, I would encounter fragments of information that gave me more clues about the Sagoyans of Tokyo, but for far too long, I made little progress. I had other priorities in writing and research. For about a decade, my doctoral research into Tohoku history and the Boshin War came first. It was only relatively recently, with the sharp uptick of digitized primary sources available online, that I was able to piece together the rest of their story.Melonpan in the Making
Hovhannes Ghevenian, born in eastern Anatolia in 1888, was a baker by trade. There is some confusion as to his hometown, but the greatest consensus seems to be for the city of Erzurum, now in eastern Turkey. He first immigrated to the Russian Empire, where he was briefly in service of the Romanov house as a court baker, achieving some success. The tsar’s family was apparently fond of Hovhannes’s French and Viennese-inspired baked goods. Unfortunately, he was unable to make a lasting career of it, given that his Armenianness seems to have been the subject of xenophobic politicking among the Russian elite. Such prejudice kept him from staying long in Romanov service. Going east to China, he was in Harbin, working as a baker at the New Harbin Hotel, when he caught the eye of visiting Japanese aristocrat Baron Ōkura Kihachirō.
The Niigata-born Ōkura, a veteran of the Boshin War, was an industrialist and businessman in the late Meiji era. He was one of the investors on the new Tokyo Imperial Hotel; another major force on the project was Shibusawa. This is the Imperial Hotel famous among some for its 1922-1967 building in the Maya Revival style, whose designer was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.Baron Ōkura Kihachirō (source)
With Ōkura’s help in smoothing out the immigration process, Hovhannes Ghevenian moved to Tokyo in 1910, taking the surname Sagoyan. He became both the baker at the Imperial Hotel, as well as the proprietor of his own bakery, called Monsieur Ivan. Not long after that, he was introduced to Sendai-born Miyakozawa Tsuruko, whom he married in 1911. While I haven’t yet been able to confirm her specific roots in Sendai, it does bear noting that the surname Miyakozawa is still found with the greatest frequency in Miyagi Prefecture. There, a former warrior family named Miyakozawa lived since at least the 15th century and served house Date of Sendai as retainers from the 16th century through 1871. It is quite likely that these were indeed her roots.Melonpan on Ivan’s Mind
It was during his career in Tokyo that Hovhannes Ghevenian– better known as Ivan Sagoyan– invented melonpan, a sort of sweet bun that resembles a melon. Melonpan, also known as sunrise bread, remains one of the most popular Japanese baked goods. Along with his legacy as a teacher of early 20th century Japanese bakers, this is perhaps the man’s most enduring legacy in Japanese history, especially culinary history. It was one of Ivan’s students, Fukuda Motoyoshi, who invented modern Japanese hotel bread. One of Fukuda’s students, Ogura Takaki, runs the current Monsieur Ivan’s Bakery in Tachikawa, Tokyo.
“Working for Mr. Ivan for a long time, faithfully stewarding what he was taught by Mr. Ivan, Mr. Fukuda was the man who brought up the hotel bakery industry and was even called the father of Japanese hotel bread.”Ogura Takaki, proprietor of Monsieur Ivan’s Bakery
I don’t know if Ivan ever visited his wife’s hometown, but considering he was a person of some means and could afford to travel, he may very well have. Either way, I have a new appreciation for those long ago, fresh-aired Sendai mornings I had melonpan for breakfast on my way to class at Tohoku Gakuin University.Stateless but Succesful
Ivan and Tsuruko had three daughters. Their names appear in various permutations across Armenian and English sources, so for the sake of consistency, I will refer to them as Anna, Euphgenie, and Lily. Owing to Japanese law of the time, they were stateless, given that there was no Armenian Republic when they were born, and they could not inherit their mother’s Japanese citizenship.
The Sagoyans received many Armenian visitors over the years, including Archbishop Ruben Manasyan, who married Ivan and Tsuruko a second time by Armenian Apostolic rite and baptized their children. In the absence of an Armenian church in Japan, they attended one of the Russian Orthodox churches in Japan. Given Tsuruko’s Sendai roots, I have to wonder if she herself had originally been Russian Orthodox. Some of the sect’s oldest churches in Japan are in the old Sendai domain, with Sendai city’s Orthodox Church of the Annunciation itself founded in 1869.Historical Connections
The Sagoyans were also the subject of at least one article in the Boston-based Hairenik Armenian-American newspaper, where he mentioned that he wanted to give his daughters an American education. While this did not come to fruition, at least one of them, Lily, did attend the American School in Japan. There, in the 1930s, Lily was a classmate of Beate Sirota. Better known by her married name as Beate Sirota Gordon, she is known for her role in drafting the postwar Japanese Constitution, and especially for her hand in the gender equality written into Articles 14 and 24.
Article 14. All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
Peers and peerage shall not be recognized.
No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.
Article 24. Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.
With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.
But in the 1930s, this was all in the future. Hard times awaited the Sagoyans in the decade which lay before them.Wartime Difficulties
Along with many Japanese-Americans present in Japan at the Second World War’s outbreak, the Sagoyan sisters were also forced to work for the empire or be incarcerated as enemy civilians. The children and grandchildren of Diana Agabeg Apcar, though born and raised in Japan for two generations by that point, were among those incarcerated, at Karuizawa in the Japan Alps. Their story appears in descendant Lucille Apcar’s memoir Shibaraku: Memories of Japan 1926-1946.
The Sagoyans, however, were not incarcerated. Ivan continued his work at the Imperial Hotel, and Lily came to work at Radio Tokyo, where she continued through the end of the war. While much of her work there was as a writer and typist, she occasionally did work as an announcer, including during the “Zero Hour” program. In so doing. Lily became one of the less prominent voices known collectively to Allied forces in the Pacific as Tokyo Rose.An Armenian Rose in Tokyo Iva Toguri D’Aquino, in September 1945. (source)
The most famous Tokyo Rose, Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino, was arrested by the US military in Tokyo and tried in San Francisco in 1949 in a 13-week trial that was, at the time, the most expensive in American history. The case against her fell apart upon further investigation years later, and led to her pardon in 1977.
Lily Sagoyan– then having reverted to her father’s original surname of Ghevenian– was deposed in 1949 during Toguri D’Aquino’s trial. We learn from this lengthy deposition, taken at the Mitsui Main Bank Building in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, that at the time, she was working in GHQ, the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. While her deposition goes on for many pages, it’s a section of the beginning that I found especially memorable, in light of having first learned of her through connections in the Armenian Diaspora. The questions were posed by Theodore Tamba, one of Toguri D’Aquino’s defense lawyers.
Q. Where do you reside?
A. In Tokyo.
Q. How long have you resided in Tokyo?
A. I was born here.
Q. What is your nationality?
Q. Will you explain?
A. My father was Armenian and my mother was Japanese.
As an Armenian who also lives far from major population centers of the Diaspora, Lily’s words feel strangely haunting.Postwar Connections
Even after the Occupation ended, the Sagoyans were anything but disconnected from the rest of the Armenian Diaspora.
In the summer of 1953, New England-born Lieutenant Colonel George Juskalian, son of immigrants from Kharpert (modern-day Elazig), enters the story. In 1953, he was a war hero twice over. He remains arguably the most famous Armenian-American in US military history. He was part of the First Infantry Division during the invasion of North Africa. Juskalian was captured in the field after the Battle of Kasserine Pass, after which he spent the rest of the war as a POW in Germany. By 1953, he was a lieutenant colonel, and as commander of 1st Battalion 32nd Infantry Regiment, he was decorated with a second Silver Star Medal for his leadership at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill; he’d led the successful evacuation of his battalion in the face of long odds and an overwhelming Chinese force.
The war’s immediate aftermath found him in Japan, which then as now was a nerve center of US military activity in East Asia. While in the capital, he heard from an Army colleague, Captain Harry Berberian, about the Sagoyan family of Tokyo. Berberian, I should note, was himself an inlaw of the Apcar family, through whom he’d heard about the Sagoyans.Meeting the Sagoyans
In an article he later wrote about the visit, Juskalian describes first having met Tsuruko, Ivan’s widow, but given that she spoke no English and he spoke no Japanese, he was out of luck until her three daughters arrived. During their visit, an Armenian-American Navy officer, Lt. Anthony Varjabedian, unexpectedly arrived at the house; Juskalian already knew him. This unexpected arrival is put in context by Lily herself, quoted later as saying that during the Occupation, her father had a tradition of inviting any Armenian-American in uniform and “treated them as if he would his own sons.”
It’s at this point in my research that I had to pause and take a moment to let that sink in, because that fact makes it that much more likely that the Sagoyans’ story intersects with my own.
My great-uncle Onnig was an armor officer– a tanker– in the US Army during the early postwar days. He was almost immediately assigned to duty in the Occupation. While he did tell some stories of having survived the Genocide, he did not want to talk about the Occupation to most people. But the fact of the matter was that he was Armenian, and an officer, and in the Occupation in greater Tokyo, and Ivan Sagoyan was Armenian and the baker of what even in the postwar years was the fanciest hotel in the city, which was commandeered by the Occupation authorities. While Uncle Onnig has been gone for a decade now, it is quite likely that he was one of the Sagoyans’ many Occupation-era visitors, and my only regret is that I can’t ask him and be sure.
Like I said at the beginning, a diaspora tends to be a small place.Whither to for the Sagoyans
In the two 1960s-era letters from Lily quoted in the article, we learn a great deal more about herself, her family, and what little she knew of her father’s early life, details that I found crucial in the construction of this article. In one of them, she says to Juskalian “I was delighted to know that you wanted to write about us.” At that point, we learn that she was living in Texas, where her husband, a senior enlisted airman in the US Air Force, continued in active service. We also learn that she did not remain stateless, having become a naturalized American citizen in the 1960s. Her sister Anna, who also married a US Air Force senior enlisted airman, did not live to receive naturalization, dying in Texas in 1959 at the age of 45.
Juskalian’s article closes with a photo of Ivan Sagoyan’s grave at Yokohama Foreigners’ Cemetery, the same cemetery where Ambassador Diana Apcar was buried in 1937. The elegantly simple headstone reads as follows.
In Loving Memory of
Born in Armenia, 1888
Died in Tokyo, 1952
While a 2019 Armenian Mirror-Spectator article by Artsvi Bakhchinyan notes that Ivan’s name is inscribed in English, I have to note my surprise that Bakhchinyan doesn’t mention Ivan’s Armenian epitaph, below the baker’s name and dates.
Though Juskalian included a photo of the grave, he did not translate the Armenian epitaph, perhaps trusting that enough of his readers would understand Armenian to read it themselves and let the photo speak for itself.
In English, it translates as
With Longing for the Homeland
In Armenian Spirit
George Juskalian, promoted to full colonel in 1957, didn’t get around to writing the Ghevenian-Sagoyan story until 1972, when it was published in the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Ararat Magazine, in the article “East is East and West is West.”
In the time between his 1953 visit and his article in Ararat, Juskalian’s career kept him busy, and that story was not a priority. He was an advisor to the Imperial Iranian Army. Later still, he served in Vietnam, first as an advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and then as inspector general of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam, under General William Westmoreland. Juskalian retired from the Army in 1967 but remained highly active in Armenian community organizations for the rest of his life. He was also a graduate admissions director at Washington, D.C.’s Southeastern University, where he was employed when he penned “East is East and West is West.”
“In the years since, I’ve lost track of Lily and her family,” Juskalian wrote, as he closed the story of his 1953 visit. “Wherever she may be, I hope she’ll read this story, for I promised I would write it someday.”
While it’s good that he did write the article, especially for the benefit of those of us who came after him who would rely on his words as source material, he was ultimately too late, and she likely did not have the chance.
A few short months after Juskalian’s article ran in Ararat Magazine, Lily Ghevenian Baxter died at the age of 52, in March 1973. She’s buried beside her husband, US Air Force Master Sergeant Robert W. Baxter, who died seven years later, in Aurora, Colorado.
Elsewhere in the same cemetery rests Euphgenie, who died two years earlier in 1971. Also in this cemetery, reinterred from her original resting place at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, rests Lily’s sister Anna.A Trail of (Melonpan) Crumbs
And now I’m here, at my desk in Pittsburgh in the autumn of 2021, wrapping up this incredible, intricate, and interconnected story that spans cultures, eras, and identities that’s left my head spinning. The story has come much closer to me than I imagined it would, two decades ago. As I said at the beginning, it is a bittersweet history.
In thinking of the beginning of my interest in the history of Armenians in Japan, a question comes to mind. Do I feel vindicated, when I think back to my elders, at church in Philadelphia nearly 20 years ago?
Yes, but more than that, I feel a strange melancholy.
My pursuit of professional training as a scholar of Japanese history is, of course, not the only way I’ve defied the expectations of my community: I’m also openly queer and a polytheist. But I am able to tell this story because of all of who I am– because I was true to myself and did not fulfill the image of an exemplary Armenian, in the eyes of my elders. It is because I went against the grain, in a Diaspora that overwhelmingly runs on amot and yeres (shame and face, or in Japanese, haji and kao) to enforce conformity, that I gained the training and experience necessary to navigate a story like this.
I wonder, two decades on, about how many more stories are out there in the world, that we stand to lose if we remain a prisoner to these insular notions.
How much have we already lost, remaining beholden to these assumptions?
All I know is that I want to make my heritage a living part of my identity, rather than a fossil or something that I keep pickled, in a life kept deliberately blindered and small. I know that I am not abandoning my roots by being my own person and loving Japan, and having become a scholar of its history; I am enriching my people by better connecting them with the world. After all, I’m not the first Armenian to do so.
And above all, I know this: by following my passions and looking to Japan, I found Armenians along the way after all.
- E.J. Lewe Van Aduard, Japan: From Surrender to Peace (Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media, 1953), p. 235
- “Diana Apcar.” FindAGrave.com https://www.findagra...306/diana-apcar Accessed 20 September 2021
- Lucille Apcar. Shibaraku: Memories of Japan, 1926-1946. (Parker, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2011), pp. 35-38.
- “Armenian Travelers from Japan to San Francisco.” DianaApcar.com https://dianaapcar.o...yokohama-to-sf/ Accessed 20 September 2021
- Brian Ashcraft, “Japan’s Most Delicious Bread is Melon Pan.” Kotaku.com https://kotaku.com/j...-pan-1826219721 Accessed 20 September 2021
- Artsvi Bakhchinyan “The Armenian Who Invented the Japanese Sweet Bun.” The Armenian Mirror-Spectator. October 3, 2019. https://mirrorspecta...nese-sweet-bun/ Accessed September 18, 2021.
- “Lily G. Baxter.” FindAGrave.com https://www.findagra...1/lily-g-baxter Accessed 20 September 2021
- “The Constitution of Japan.” https://japan.kantei...titution_e.html Accessed 19 September 2021
- “Diana Apkari Hishadagə Hamadeghets Hayern ou Japontsinerə.” (Diana Apcar’s Memory Connected the Armenian and Japanese Peoples Տիանա Աբգարի Յիշատակը Համատեղեց Հայերն Ու Ճափոնցիները) Asbarez.am, September 25, 2019 https://asbarez.am/3... Accessed September 20, 2021
- “Euphgenie Ghevenian.” FindAGrave.com https://www.findagra...genie-ghevenian Accessed 20 September 2021
- Walter G. Hermes. Truce Tent and Fighting Front. (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1992), pp. 394-395. Available at https://history.army...ea/truce/fm.htm
- “Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino vs. United States of America,” Transcript of Record in Two Volumes, Volume I (San Francisco: Phillips & Van Orden Co., 1950), p. 353. https://archive.org/...sca9briefs2604/ Accessed 18 September 2021
- George Juskalian, “East is East and West is West,” Ararat Quarterly (Fall 1973), Vol. XIII, No. 4, pp. 19-21.
- Kōno Tarō. “Arumenpuresu (Arumenia) e no Kōno Gaimu daijin kikō” アルメンプレスアルメニアへの河野外務大臣寄稿 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. https://www.mofa.go....ge4_004316.html Accessed 20 September 2021
- RHP Mason and JG Caiger. A History of Japan: Revised Edition (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997), pp. 354-360.
- “Monsieur Ivan no Goshōkai” ムッシュイワンのご紹介 http://www.ivan.shop...e.jp/about.html Accessed 19 September 2021
- Valerie J. Nelson, “Convicted as ‘Tokyo Rose,’ She Later Received Honors” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 28, 2006 https://www.latimes....se28-story.html Accessed 20 September 2021
- “Anna G Smith.” FindAGrave.com https://www.findagra...24/anna-g-smith Accessed 20 September 2021
- “Watashitachi no Kyokai” 私たちの教会 Orthodox Church in Sendai homepage https://www.sendai-orthodox.com/blank Accessed 20 September 2021.
- Matt Wilce, “The Only Woman in the Room.” https://www.asij.ac....man-in-the-room Accessed 20 September 2021