text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
At some point last spring, around the time of the first anniversary of the great earthquake of 2011, in one of their editorials which could have very well been sponsored by the Japanese government to help boost the country’s suffering tourism, the “New York Times” (I think) presented the reasons why Japan wasn’t finished yet, regardless of what many international publications said. To support his position, the writer presented various Japanese imported “industries” (besides the obvious i.e. cars, electronics etc.) which, although less glamorous than the others have managed to outpace in quality the originals, European and American; as examples he mentioned, among others, the jean clothing and the Western food industry with a particular emphasis on bread.
The writer wasn’t exaggerating: Japanese bread is indeed one of the best one can find (having travelled enough in Europe, I can favorably compare it to the French or the German!) especially if one shops at the various “panya” (“パン屋”), that is the bakeries that are very close to what the French would call “boulangerie” since they offer dozens of different baked goods (both sweet and savory) besides the common bread used as a supplement to lunch. A few of these bakeries belong to chains (some of which started by foreigners living in Japan) while others are small local businesses; either way their products are exceptionally delicious and the variety is equal to what one could find in Europe even though, as expected, some of the choices are obviously designed for the Japanese palate (such as the curry filled buns).
What the article doesn’t mention (and what many people don’t know) is that Japan’s relationship to bread (or, to be more precise, to wheat) is quite old: it starts during the Second Sino-Japanese War and climaxes after the Second World War defeat and the American occupation, when the US through a series of commercial agreements (and with the conqueror’s power) managed to inflict their flour on the Japanese diet; apparently, the strategy was so effective that consumption of wheat products has surpassed that or rice products, a fact for which Japanese media lament at least once a week. And even though from a purist’s viewpoint it is a sad reality, the basic argument of the “Times” editorialist is valid: the Japanese can take any idea in the world and improve on it so much that it will surpass the original; a visit to any “panya-san” will confirm it in the most enjoyable way.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/