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Yakitate Japan and the Culture of Food

Yakitate!! Japan is a comedy anime all about the power of good food. The title of the show is a play on words, and when translated, comes out to “Freshly baked Japanese bread”; so of course, one of the major themes of the story is food culture. In Japan, rice is the staple food, so Kazuma Azuma’s goal is to make bread into something that the country can celebrate and adopt into mainstream culture (similar to how castella and ramen, which were brought over from Portugal and China respectively, have been adopted as mainstream Japanese foods). But in real life, has Kazuma’s dream of a Japanese bread already come true?

In the first episode, Kazuma’s sister Inaho asks her mother if she can have toast for breakfast, since all of her classmates have toast regularly. Is this true? Well, Makiko Itoh of The Japan Times wrote an article titled Japan’s Secret Love of the Breakfast Loaf, documenting the country’s obsession with bread. She says that now, “Many people prefer toast for breakfast over a bowl of rice, and sandwiches... are just as popular for lunch as bentō and rice balls.” The reasons why may surprise you.

According to Slate’s Nadia Arumugam in her article Waves of Grain: How did Japan come to prefer wheat over rice?, the United States government had a hand in changing Japan into a nation obsessed with bread. “Back in the early 1900’s, the Japanese consumed some wheat, but in small quantities, and certainly not as a staple. ... Urban working-class folks also encountered wheat, but mostly in the form of udon noodles from street stalls or restaurants, and even then as a snack rather than a main meal.” Like Grandpa Umataro in Yakitate!! Japan, most farmers were completely unfamiliar with wheat. They had rice, vegetables, and fish, and many liked it that way.

But the Sino-Japanese War and World War II led to rice shortages, and postwar Japan was on the brink of starvation. Kazuma’s grandmother recounts how the U.S. Army provided bread to people during the American occupation following World War II, and this is based on real history – Americans gave aid to the Japanese in the form of wheat flour and lard. However, the biggest impact on Japan probably came from school lunches. Japanese kids were given bread at lunch time, which largely affected the taste of future generations. The program was such a huge success that the U.S. continued to provide free wheat even after the occupation ended. It’s no coincidence that in Yakitate!! Japan, a lot of the challenges that Kazuma and the others face during the Pantasia Rookie Contest are to make breads that are commonly eaten for school lunches!yakitate japan

Over 90 percent of the wheat consumed in Japan is imported, mostly from the U.S. Recently rice flour has emerged as a healthy alternative to wheat though, which is a plus for rice farmers in Japan like Kazuma’s family! Rice flour is now being used all over Japan, since the demand for bread shows no sign of stopping. For example, as recently as 2010, Pizza Hut restaurants in Japan began incorporating rice flour into their pizza dough. As an interesting note, one of the characters in Yakitate!! Japan makes bread out of rice, which he calls Gopan, a combination of the Japanese words for rice (gohan) and bread (pan). Now, electronics manufacturers like Sanyo sell an appliance called Gopan that makes noodles, bread, cakes, and pastries out of rice. Could there be a connection...?

Food has a lot of power. Even in Yakitate!! Japan this comes through, in the form of laughter, camaraderie, and a fighting spirit that can overcome any challenge. Good food can bring people together and change a whole country (or even inspire them to make a hilarious TV anime about it)! If you’re a fan of good food and good times, then do yourself a favor and watch Yakitate!! Japan, because it’s bound to satisfy anyone’s appetite for both comedy and culture.

Rice Cooker Ja-Pan - (from Yakitate!! Japan, Episode 27)

Wondering what it’s like to create strange new breads, just like Kazuma in Yakitate!! Japan? Well then break out your rice cooker, because it’s time to make some Ja-pan of your very own!

12 ounces Bread Flour
0.75 ounces (or 1 and 1/2 tablespoons) Butter
4 teaspoons Sugar
2 and 1/3 tablespoons Milk
3⁄4 Cup Water
1 teaspoon Dry yeast
1 teaspoon Salt

First, measure out your ingredients, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, dry yeast (dissolved in water), water, and lastly, milk into the pot for your rice cooker. Then mix. Knead the ingredients together with your hands. After that, add in the butter, and knead it once again. Once it’s no longer sticky, roll it into a ball shape. After that, leave it in a warm place for an hour to let it rise. It’ll swell up and get bigger! After it’s done with its first rise, you’ll have to get rid of the extra gas by gently pressing down on it – don’t smack it! After that, we have to leave it sit for another hour to let it rise again.

Now it’s the time to cook it! Simply put it in your rice cooker and use the “cook” button. Let it cook for an hour. Then open your rice cooker, flip the bread over, and cook it again for another hour. When the second baking period is done, flip it one more time, and cook it for a third time. Once that’s done, then you can enjoy some hot, fresh-baked Ja-pan! You can even add in other things to the mix, like matcha (green tea powder). Rice cookers are really versatile little machines and can be used to make a lot of things! <

Don’t be afraid to experiment!