Over time, economic forces, innovative bakeries, and shifting consumer tastes have solidified bread’s status as a staple food in Japan. From its humble beginnings as soldiers’ rations to the dizzying array of snack breads available today, bread in Japan has an intricate and winding history.
History of Bread in Japan
Bread was first brought to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries and traders. However, a few short decades later in 1587, the National Isolation Edict came into effect and Japan closed its borders. As a result, bread once again shrank into obscurity.However, one thing remains from the initial introduction - the Japanese word for bread, “pan” is adapted from the Portuguese “pão”.
Bread in the Edo Period
Fast-forwarding to the Edo period, bread began to be prepared as provisions for soldiers during the 1840s Opium War due to its portability and long shelf life. In 1874, the first snack bread emerged at the famed bakery Kimuraya. Inspired by traditional Japanese sweets filled with bean paste, Kimura Yasube invented anpan, a sweet bread bun stuffed with anko (red bean paste). It was a massive hit, leading to the proliferation of other classic snack breads such as cream pan, kare pan, melon pan, and more.
After World War II
After World War II, Japan received large amounts of wheat and powdered milk as post-war aid rations. As a result, sliced bread known as “shokupan” became a common component of kyushoku, or school lunches, ushering in a new generation of children raised on bread. Characterized by its square shape and slightly sweet flavor, the rise of shokupan also led to the rise of Japanese-style sandwiches.
Beyond Bread to Bakeries
With the advent of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese diet and lifestyle continued to westernize. European breads like croissants and Danish pastries hit the market, often modified to suit Japanese palates. Sold at local bakeries and mass-produced for convenience stores, these new breads expanded the idea of bread to include Western-style varieties in addition to soft, fluffy Japanese-style bread.
Gradually, Japanese bakers began to draw influence from European bread-baking techniques that produce a harder and denser crumb. Today, you’ll see baguettes and epis alongside jam pans and cornets. Fusion breads such as baguettes slathered with mentaiko (cod roe) and “koppepan” bread roll sandwiches continue to become increasingly popular.
In 2011, Japanese consumers raised eyebrows when they spent more on bread than rice for the first time in history, signaling a shift in consumer preferences and illustrating the country’s substantial demand for bread.
Current Day Specialties
Today, as major cities and regions seek to develop their own special bread varieties, more and more unique specialties are invented. In Nagasaki, potato salad is a popular filling for rolls, while Hokkaido confectionaries often make use of the smooth, rich cheese that is produced there. Specialty shops offering artisanal white bread at premium prices are cropping up in many metropolitans.
While the old-school pan-ya (bread store) remains an iconic element of the Japanese landscape, bread has come a long way from the cheap, simple way to fill hungry stomachs. Whether you prefer the classics or new-wave renditions, a delicious piece of bakery bread is never far away in Japan.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.