Baking Networks Across Japan (and Taiwan)
In my efforts to better understand baking networks striving for breads that reflect a national sensibility in Japan, I talked with Kondo, a baker, whose bread is widely received in his community in a residential area in Tokyo. He has over 20 years of experience in bread making. He runs the bakery upstairs while his wife runs the cafe in the basement. The floor space of their bakery is small — perhaps only three to four customers can fit in the bakery comfortably at any one time to order bread from the counter - yet his bakery exhibits an impressive variety of breads and pastries behind glass. Kondo and his wife visit France on a yearly basis during the summer for short-term training, and they have also visited Taiwan to teach seminars. Kondo’s latest workshop in Taipei in December 2015 was on the use of Taiwanese and Japanese flour in baking bread.
Kondo elaborated on his perspective of bread history and culture in Japan: ‘When I talk to foreigners, they often want to know what the roots of Japanese bread are, but no matter what, I can only remember the bread that came after [Japan] entered the war [World War II]. After the war, after Japan lost the war, American wheat and American food culture came into Japan. In Taiwan there are also breads that are new, that didn’t exist a long time ago. Now they put in all kinds of things.’ He goes on to discuss new endeavours of young Japanese bakers: ‘We want to make new breads coming from Japan... until recently in Japan people have imitated French bread, but now young people are really [using] Japanese techniques of crafting. Japanese are good at absorbing other kinds of cultures. Bringing in French culture as it is, making French bread [has been done], but from now on to have a more essential grasp of it, and make bread that matches our, national, Japanese tastes ... everyone in [this baking network pushing for this movement, referring to a community of bakers he is in] is [doing] that.’ I asked him if his bakery is also implicated in this endeavour. ‘My bakery is also like that. I like France, but I’m also doing that [making bread that reflects ‘our/national/Japanese tastes’]. The shape is French bread, but the inside is Japanese bread. It’s a bit difficult [to explain].’ When I asked him to explain what he meant by that, he said, ‘To put it directly, for example, shokupan, [which are] tastes that Japanese people like. To put it more generally, of course, using wheat harvested from Japanese land to make bread, so, in that way, the Japanese production of wheat is not the same as France’s. It becomes completely Japanese bread.’56
From Kondo’s account, we can see that there is currently a movement striving to create a kind of bread that reflects Japanese sentiment, taste and sensibility, in which he uses ‘national’, and ‘our’ (for ‘our breads’), as well as ‘Japanese’. In this case, in the word ‘Japanese’, he specifically uses the term nihon no pan, a term I reference earlier to signify established Japanese breads such as sweet buns and savoury breads like fried curry bread, and yet he uses this term to refer also to breads that may appear French, but to him entirely reflect a national sentiment in execution and conception: ‘completely Japanese bread’. The process involves combining French or other
European techniques with Japanese techniques and ingredients to craft a kind of product that is uniquely and completely Japanese, as he puts it.
This phenomenon is not limited to Japan, as he also explains that experimentation in Taiwan is gaining ground as well. While Taiwanese bakers strive to produce signature breads using local products, they also draw from Japanese techniques, both for practical know-how and as a kind of branding for prestige. As David Wu puts it, ‘In Taipei, however, once the bakery claims or is known to be Japanese, it commends exceptional admiration and prestige for customers.’
Taiwan’s placement in the top three in several World Cup Baking competitions and the proliferation of these award-winning breads (often sold out) at bakeries from which the competing bakers hail attest to the growing awareness of a ‘Taiwanese’ bread that reflects this sense of Self. In Taiwan as well as Japan, bakers and bread enthusiasts grapple with the notion of how to create breads that reflect a national sentiment of Self, while moving beyond standardized forms of soft, white, sweet bread.
-  There are also other shops that focus on other types of European breads (and to some extentAmerican), but the most prevalent European influence at least in the Tokyo area and perhaps in allof Japan is French, as many bread labels are written in French rendered into ka.ta.ka.na (alphabet forloan words). However, there is a variety of influences, especially in metropolitan areas.
-  Wu, ‘Cultural Nostalgia’, 116.
-  On the emerging craft of making European-style bread reflecting Taiwanese identity, see: Yang,Oushi mianbao zai taiwan fazhan zhi chutan (1962—2011).