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An Pan: Royal Patronage and Cartoon Characters

Bread, bean paste and an pan

by Elizabeth Andoh

Before McDonald's came onto the Japanese food scene in the 1970's, hamburgers, and the round, flat buns on which they are traditionally served, were virtually unknown to the general populace of Japan. Ground beef could be bought (for a dear price!) and shaped into patties by those foreign residents who craved a taste of home. The real challenge, though, lay in finding the bun. Although loaves of soft white bread and crusty french-style baguettes could be found in neighborhood bakeries, rolls and buns were another matter entirely. What looked like hamburger buns -- they were, after all, round and flat -- turned out to be "an pan" with a thick, cloyingly sweet, bean fudge filling inside.

I suspect there must have been more than one American who made this unpleasant discovery, because in the essays of several Japanese food writers, the "American tendency" to mistake an pan for burger buns is humorously depicted. What I remember most about my own first encounter with Japanese sweet buns was not the filling so much as the dough itself. It had an unusual aroma, quite different from ordinary yeast breads. I later learned that this distinctive smell was due to sake kasu, the lees that remain from the process of fermenting rice to make sake wine.

It seems that bread baking in Japan, by and for the foreign community, dates back more than 400 years to when the Portuguese first sent their missionaries to the Pacific (the Japanese word pan derives from the Portuguese language). As the Dutch, French, and English arrived on Japanese soil, they too, set up bakeries in their own communities to supply themselves with bread. Although a few adventuresome Japanese probably did sample these foreign baked goods, bread remained alien to the local population until the later part of the 19th century.

The initial, and tremendous, popularity of bread among the Japanese is attributed to Kimura Yasubei, an enterprising gentleman who opened a bakery, Kimura-ya, in Tokyo in 1871, early in the reign of Emperor Meiji. At first his bread was modeled on Dutch loaves since his chief baker had worked as a chef in a Dutch household in Nagasaki. But Kimura's son, Eisaburo, was unhappy with the original recipe and looked for something that would appeal more to Japanese tastes. The actual inspiration to use sake kasu in lieu of conventional yeast is credited to a young baker, Kodo Katsuzo, who is said to have dumped his early, inedible experiments in Tokyo Bay after trying, unsuccessfully, to peddle them to foreigners in Yokohama.

A hundred years ago it was unthinkable that bread might replace rice as a mealtime staple. The idea of bread as a confection, what the Japanese call kashi, made more sense to the local populace. Eventually, the recipe that found favor combined sake kasu for rising the dough with an (sweet bean "fudge" as a filling. Cherry blossoms, having been chosen as the symbol of the "nation" of Japan, and being a personal favorite of the newly re-instated Emperor, found their way into numerous dishes. The now-familiar salted cherry blossom "belly-button" garnish on an pan was first added to Kimura's bun in 1875, in honor of the Emperor Meiji. Indeed, the enormous popularity of an pan was probably due in large measure to early royal patronage. According to Kimura-ya 20,000 people a day lined up at the Ginza shop and bought an average of 5 buns apiece. That makes a mind-boggling 100,000 an pan each day! Current sales figures for the flagship operation in Ginza show 18,000 an pan are typically sold on a busy Saturday. When you consider the relative difference in size of the population of Tokyo, then and now, the sales figures are even more remarkable.

In many ways, the appearance of bread in the daily diet parallels other sweeping social and political changes associated with Meiji Era Japan. The Imperial Army and Navy incorporated bread into their troops' daily rations after an interesting "medical experiment" was conducted. Beriberi was a serious problem among Japanese troops. At the time, it was thought that European soldiers suffered less from this ailment. In order to verify this claim, half the military patients at a municipal clinic in Kanda were treated with Western-style therapy and diet; the other half, in a traditional Asian manner. Patients treated with a Western-style diet that included bread and milk fared better. At the time, bread-eating was credited with medicinal powers, though modern science tells us it is more likely that the vitamin-B rich milk was responsible for the positive results. In both the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904) Japanese troops brought bread to the front lines, and fought successfully. This only reinforced the impression of bread-eating as being "healthy" and, more importantly, as a source of political and social empowerment.

Throughout the Meiji Period, foreign and exotic tastes were embraced, then rapidly adapted to suit native sensibilities. In the area of culinary endeavor, hundreds of hybrids sprung up. Those that remain in the Japanese mainstream diet more than a hundred years later include karei raisu (white rice with a thick curried gravy), tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet), and an pan. In particular, an pan has undergone a recent revival. As is often the case, serendipity played a role in this process.

In the mid-1970's an illustrator of children's stories, Yanase Takashi, brought forth an endearing character named An Pan Man (Mr. Sweet Bean Bun). With his bulbous nose, ruddy cheeks, and flowing cape, An Pan Man bears a faint resemblance to other well-known American characters: the Campbell Soup Kids, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Superman. This infectiously cute fellow zooms about championing good causes. He and his sidekicks, Karei Pan Man (Mr. Curry Bun) and Shoku Pan Man (Mr. White Bread) battle the evil Baikin Man (Mr. Bacteria) and his alluring, but selfish girlfriend Dokin-chan (Miss "Sets-My-Heart-A-Flutter". With the growing popularity of these characters, Kimura-ya Bakery introduced a full line of variously flavored an pan including buns filled with kuri (chestnut paste), matcha (ceremonial tea), miso (fermented bean paste), and cream cheese! Other commercial bakeries quickly followed suit.

I venture a guess that there isn't a supermarket, convenience store, or grocery in Tokyo today that doesn't sell an pan. As for hamburger buns, if you look hard enough, you'll find them... perhaps not far from the bagels that are finding fashion with the next generation.

See also:

(originally published in the Daily Yomiuri on April 26, 1997. Copyright (c) Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.) Published with permission.
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