An Abridged History of Japanese Bread (and 10 Varieties to Try)

japanese bread

An Abridged History of Japanese Bread (and 10 Varieties to Try)

Bread in Japan has a bit of a convoluted history. According to the official records, it has been around since the mid-16th century. While it garnered a certain level of popularity upon its arrival, after a few decades, it nigh-disappeared in the times of political tribulations.

The real history of Japanese bread started at the end of the 19th century when Japanese bakers started slowly and tentatively putting their own spin on European pastries. But once the bread was in, it was in. While not considered a strictly traditional Japanese food, it’s massively popular, with Japanese bakeries dotted around every corner in large cities (and easily found in smaller ones). 

But most importantly, Japanese bread has undoubtedly managed to cement itself as its own distinct thing, with Anpan, Shokupan, and Melonpan becoming names as recognizable for food lovers across the world as cornbread, baguette, and ciabatta.

In the article below, we’ll do a brief overview of how bread came to Japan, why it disappeared, how it reappeared, and track the timeline of popular varieties hitting the market from the first distinctly Japanese bread to the long list of options we find in bakeries and convenience stores today.

How Bread Came to Japan:

Bread first arrived in Japan in the middle of the 16th century with Portuguese missionaries. The Japanese word for bread, Pan, originates from Portuguese Pão

While bread didn’t exactly become a staple, it found moderate popularity among the locals, not in the least due to the efforts of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most prominent Sengoku Era Daimyos. According to the records, Nobunaga supported the spread of Christianity and, along with it, the spread of goods brought by the missionaries. Nobunaga’s rivals were Buddhists, and he viewed the people converting to the new religion as a tool to solidify his position while undermining the rest of the Daimyos. 

But after Oda Nobunaga’s death in 1582, Christians slowly turned from friends to foes under the eyes of the Shogunate. Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, issued Bateren Edict in 1587, banning missionary activities (though he didn’t allow direct harm to the missionaries), effectively curtailing the trade and with it the spread of European goods, including bread.

By the time the Sankoku Edict of 1635 was issued, restricting the trade even further, the bread was already virtually gone from the Japanese diet.

It only started coming back in around the 1840s, when the military started adding bread to the soldiers’ ratios during the second Opium War. Egawa Hidetatsu, who was in charge of coastal defenses around Tokyo Bay during the time, enlisted a military science researcher to create a hard, long-lasting bread as an additional field ratio that would be both convenient to transport and easy to grab on the go in the field. Under the military’s influence, ordinary people slowly but surely started adding bread to their ratio. A few decades later, it was already familiar enough that bakers could experiment with it without fearing Japanese natives rejecting new products.

The final surge in bread popularity happened after World War II. With Japan facing food shortages, a large quantity of wheat was imported in an attempt to provide people with affordable substitutes. Once the worst had passed, the bread was entrenched in Japan’s everyday life and has never left since. If anything, it keeps steadily growing in popularity from year to year (even though it has yet to catch up to rice).

Anpan: The First Signature Japanese Bread

The first undoubtedly Japanese take on European bread is thought to be Anpan: Anko-filled (a thick sweet paste made from Azuki red beans). Created by Kimura Yasubei in 1874, it found great popularity over the next few years, becoming the flagship product of Kimuraya Sohonten, Kimura Yasubei’s bakery. It turned Kimuraya into one of the most popular stores in the country, a trend that has apparently remained steadfast over the next century and a half, considering Kimuraya still stands today.

In 1875 Anpan was presented to the Emperor at the request of his chamberlain, Yamaoka Tesshu. The story of the Emperor asking Yasubei to present him Anpan every day spread, and the popularity of the Anko-filled bun surged.

Interestingly, Anpan roots clearly have stronger ties to local cuisine than European bread. It’s quite similar to another popular Japanese food, Imagawayaki: an Anko-filled thick pancake that became popular during the late 18th century (Edo period). If the product sounds familiar, it’s likely due to its similarities with Taiyaki, the fish-shaped Anko-filled Japanese pancake that’s also a newer interpretation of Imagawayaki. 

Shokupan: The Famous Milk Bread

If Anpan is significant because it was the first distinctly Japanese bread, then Shokupan is significant because it’s the most famous Japanese bread. Its origins are murky, though most sources trace it to the 1880s Yokohama. A little while after, around the 1890s, bread was added to the Japanese Navy diet in an attempt to battle vitamin deficiency. With the bread’s popularity surging and Anpan adding fuel to the fire, more and more bakeries started experimenting. Shokupan is sometimes attributed to British ex-pats, though this claim is fiercely disputed. 

Shokupan (literally “eating bread”) has a very soft and fluffy (often described as “pillowy”) texture, thin crust, and mellow sweet flavor. It’s considered a perfect bread for sandwiches but is also often eaten either as is, by itself, or lightly toasted with some jam. 

Jam Pan: Ushering in the Sweet Bun Craze

By 1900, Anpan was nigh-ubiquitously loved in Japan due to its combination of soft and moist texture and sweet Anko filling. The third head of Kimuraya bakery decided it was time to add a new product to the line and attract more customers. He did so by creating a new version of Anpan: a sweet jam-filled bun that was more oval in shape than round to differentiate from the original. Interestingly, to this day, Jam Pan is often oval-shaped, regardless of the bakery.

Cream Pan: Building Upon the Sweet Bun Craze

Kimuraya’s rivals cottoned onto the fact that Japanese people had become fond of not only the classic Anko-filled sweet bun but weren’t against a new, more European approach to the bread. If Anpan was an attempt at creating bread that fit Japanese tastes, Cream Pan was an attempt at bridging the gap between Japanese and European tastes. It was created in 1904 by Aizo Soma, creator of the Nakamuraya company, based on the French Choux à la crème. The bun can be filled with several types of cream: custard cream is the most popular option, but regular pastry cream or whipped cream (along with some fruit) is also common.

Choco Pan

There are two versions of Choco Pan, a chocolate bread popular in Japan. One is similar to the Cream Pan described above. The only difference is that it’s filled with chocolate cream instead of custard. The creator is said to be the same, with Choco Pan created around the same time, maybe a year or two later than Cream Pan.

The second version combines two types of dough, white and chocolate-flavored, and adds chocolate marbling to the white bun instead of a filling.

Korone: Sweet Bun, Now in Cone Form

While Korone - a filled cornet-shaped bun - is obviously a twist on a classic Japanese filled bun, its origins are harder to pin down. I haven’t been able to find a reliable source that points to its origin, so feel free to fill me in, but I’ve found a few anecdotal stories that point to it already being a staple in the early 1990s. There are two widespread Korone varieties: Choco Korone, filled with chocolate cream, and Custard Korone, filled with custard or white cream. 

Melon Pan: Part Sweet Bun, Part Cookie

Melon Pan, Melon Bread, or Melonpan has actually nothing to do with melons. The name comes from the visuals, as the bun is thought to resemble a cantaloupe, not the flavor. Though these days, it’s sometimes artificially flavored to taste like melon.

Melonpan is a soft sweet bread dough covered with cookie dough. During the baking process, the cookie dough hardens and gives the bun a sugary, crunchy outer shell and a soft inside. 

Melonpan is also hard to pin down. There are multiple versions of its origin story, with some dating to as early as the 1910s, while others point to the post-World War II period. 

Curry Bread: Favorite Lunchtime Snack

Curry Bread, or, as the Japanese call it, Kare Pan, is a savory pastry filled with thick curry paste. It’s most often additionally breaded and deep-fried, but there’s a lighter version that’s baked, called Yaki Kare Pan. Curry bread can be either vegan, with just vegetables, vegetarian, with cheese mixed into the filling (and often the bun topped with cheese as well), or may contain beef. It’s a popular lunchtime snack, found everywhere from convenience stores to bakeries to school cafeterias. Curry Bread was first created around the 1920s, with the earliest mentions popping up in 1927!

Yakisoba Pan: When Noodles Meet Bread

Yakisoba Pan is a Japanese hot dog. Or at least, the local legend claims so. It’s said to have been created in 1950 by a street vendor who was selling fried yakisoba and bread rolls. A customer was having trouble holding both simultaneously, so the vendor advised them to combine the two. The customer enjoyed it so much that he advised the other patrons to try it, and thus the habit of stuffing yakisoba into soft buttery rolls spread. Is it true? Who knows, the original stall (or the shop, as other accounts claim) has long closed. But Yakisoba Pan remains one of the most iconic and popular Japanese sandwiches to this day.

Katsu Pan

Katsu Pan is not precisely bread; it’s a type of sandwich. But its popularity has led people to separate it into its own category. There are several types of Katsu Pan: the most popular Tonkatsu Pan, made with breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet; Meshi Katsu Pan, made with deep-fried ground meat cutlet; Ham Katsu Pan, made with breaded and deep-fried ham slices, and arguably, Korokke Pan, a soft roll stuffed with pork-and-potato croquettes (similar to Yakisoba Pan).

Are Other Types of Bread Popular in Japan?

Yes, of course! While Japanese bread has emerged as a clear victor in the popularity contest on its home turf, other bread and pastries can easily be found right alongside the beloved pans in Japanese bakeries. Japanese people seem to be particularly fond of baguettes which they call Furansupan (literally “French bread”), castella cakes, cream puffs, and, interestingly, German Baumkuchen.

If you’re interested in trying what has endeared specifically these products to the notoriously picky Japan, take a look at our assortment of Japanese pastries and give them a taste. We suspect you will find an interesting new aspect to them, even if you’ve tried all the pastries on the list before one way or another.
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