Bread in Japan

Cute white bread in Japan.

Bread in Japan 日本においてのパン

The term “white bread” in English doesn’t sound good. It conjures up stodginess, lack of nutrition, cheapness—even poverty. So, I’m sure I was not the only foreigner surprised upon my arrival by the status of white bread in Japan. White bread ruled! And just the ubiquitousness of bread in Japan surprised me. But, not only was there bread everywhere, but it was all (to my Western eyes) “unhealthy,” “cheapskate” white.

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Another surprise was how the Japanese ate bread: usually just one massively thick slice of it. In Japan, as in the West, people eat bread usually only at breakfast time. But in Japan they slice it very thick (up an inch), toast it very lightly, and give it just a thin coat of margarine or butter, maybe with a bit of jam. Furthermore, in the West you scoff down a slice of toast or two without a second thought before dashing out to work. But even white toasted bread in Japan is lovingly spread with condiments, and delicately savored, bite by careful bite, with as much delight as with an elaborate dessert.

“I will give you bread!”

Furthermore, food is a favorite topic in Japan. And because I was foreign, those around me tended to assume that bread was my staple food, much like rice was to them. The most memorable example was with the effusive middle-aged English teacher. He picked me up in his car to take me on a “one-shot” visit to his rural school. Food was, no doubt, the safest topic of conversation, with him promising me a feast of the stuff upon arrival at his school. “And I will give you bread!” he exclaimed, the word “bread” being richly and warmly drawn out like Gollum or Shylock would say “gold.” (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, rather than stodgy white slices of bread, fish and chips or potato pie were more up my alley.)

History of bread in Japan

Bread came to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, when the Portuguese introduced it (along with firearms). And the Portuguese pão is where the Japanese word for bread, pan, comes from. However, bread only really caught on when the English came to Japan, in the Meiji era.

Kobe was where most foreign residents lived. So Kobe was where bread production began in earnest, catering to the foreigners. It wasn’t until about half a century later that bread made the leap to the locals. And it was the 1918 Rice Riots that precipitated that leap – exactly a century ago.

Rice Riots and bread

Enormous inflation in the price of rice 1918 saw the outbreak of riots by rice farmers in Toyama prefecture. The government regulated what the farmers received—which was very little. At the same time, market forces (low supply, high demand) made rice extremely expensive for consumers. As a result, farmer resentment of merchants and government officials, and consumer resentment of unaffordable food, came together in a fierce reaction.

The Rice Riots lasted throughout the summer of 1918, and there was widespread violence and destruction throughout most of Japan. At the same time, the scarcity of rice meant that people started eating bread instead as their staple. (Fish and meat were not a big part of the Japanese diet at this time, so rice – and then bread – truly was their staple food.)

Artisanal brown bread in Japan.

Artisanal brown bread in Japan.

Brown bread

Fast-forward and bread in Japan is still a culinary staple. However, the days of white bread’s monopoly – up until at least the 1980s – are over. While you will still find stores where the bread on offer is white only, you don’t have to go far to find healthier alternatives. Nearly all supermarkets will have at least one type of brown bread in the bread section. Bakeries, too, have been on the increase for at least a decade, with more and more of them making “artisan” styles of bread using whole wheat. There are event bread festival events in Japan now, dedicated to creating great bread.

Flour in Japan

According to the website of the Japanese foodstuffs giant Nissin, the average Japanese person today consumes about 33kg of flour per year, and about 55kg of rice. (This flour does not necessarily comprise bread, though. Udon noodles, for example, also use flour.) Japan produces only about 15% of its flour. Of the remainder, about half is from the United States, 30% from Canada, and 18% from Australia.

Bakery favorites

My favorite bakery chains in Japan include Peck, Donq and Paul.

Peck is only in Takashimaya department stores, so there are only 16 branches throughout Japan at the moment. However, there are Peck branches in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, too.

Donq “boulangerie francais” began in Kobe way back in 1905, and has over 130 stores throughout Japan and about 20 overseas. Donq also runs several other brands of bakery.

Then, Paul is a chain with currently 21 bakeries throughout Japan (10 of them in the Tokyo region). Paul is the Japan franchise of a French chain of bakeries dating back to the 19th century. Paul came to Japan in 1990, and has over 20 stores, most of them in Tokyo. The Paul franchise owner is Nagoya-based breadmaker, Pasco Shikishima Corporation.

Talking about bread in Japanese

Finally, if you have to ask where the white bread is, don’t call it “shiroi pan” (literally “white bread”). It is shokupan in Japanese. And if you have to ask where the brown bread is, don’t call it “chairo pan” (literally “brown bread”). No one will understand you – really, no one. Brown bread is zen-ryuu-ko pan (literally “wholegrain flour bread”).
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