Why Japan Lacks a Sandwich Culture

Japanese food is great.  Before I came to Japan, I knew of teriyaki and sushi, but little did I realize how much  variety there truly is.  Over the past few months I’ve been blogging each week about the different school lunches we get, and while not all the food served is Japanese, it can give you a good idea of the range in Japanese food.

Not convinced?  Here’s just a few Japanese foods:

Tempura

Tempura is a simple flour based breading used for deep-frying.  Even with this seemingly simple item there are a lot of differences.  The method linked above is a combination of vegetables and meat cooked together.  From there, tempura goes to the famous fried panko breaded shrimp, or even fish sticks.  The possibilities are boundless.

Sushi

Sushi is a staple of Japanese cuisine.  As someone who never liked fish, let alone raw food before I came here, I can sympathize with people who shudder at the idea.  Yet, coming here and sampling the amazing complexity of food available in just this one style has changed my mind.  The fresh fish available in Japan has made some types of sushi my favorite foods.  Sushi can include simple cut fish (sashimi), cut fish over sushi rice (sushi), rolled rice and fish/veg (maki sushi), or even non-fish dishes like inari or egg.

Sushi can and is offered with nearly every type of fish available in Japan and beyond.  I’ve found ones I like and a few I hate, but the style and differences provide innumerable possibilities.

Noodles

Here’s another huge category of food in Japan.  The traditional noodles are soba and udon, though ramen has been widely adopted as well.  Noodles are easy to eat with hashi (chopsticks) and vary by region.  They are fried, put in broth, and served on wooden trays. Soba are usually buckwheat, while udon are larger thicker noodles found also in nabe and other dishes.

Fish

Aside from raw preparations in sushi, fish is served in innumerable ways in Japan.  Its baked, fried, stewed, crunched, and even serves as the base of many soups and seasonings.  It’s no wonder that living on an island nation, has led many Japanese to develop various uses for fish.  From mini whole fishes to stews with fish eyes, to huge stacks of smoked tuna from a giant fish, there’s a lot to experience in Japan

The Title Mentions Sandwiches?

Get the idea? There’s a lot of traditional foods in Japan.  There are also a lot of foreign foods being widely accepted in Japan.  Katsu is now a popular Japanese soul food introduced by foreigners when Japan was open to the international community.  There are a whole host of Korean, Indian, and even American restaurants around Japan.  So, where are the sandwiches?

Sandwiches have, in my opinion, been one of the slowest foreign foods to take off in Japan.  While its true that convenience stores often have a few sandwiches in their cooler sections, and there even a few Subway restaurants, sandwiches are not as popular here as the United States. (There were 3 major chains of sub shops in Tucson alone when I went to school there)

So why no sandwich love?  Lets take a look at Japanese history and culture for the reasons why sandwiches have been slow to take hold.

Japan is mountainous, which means it’s also wet a lot of the time.  This made rice farming possible, and so rice was adopted as a staple crop.  Rice is a grain that doesn’t lend itself to making bread.  Its far easier to eat boiled or in a rice cake.  Either way, rice became a main food item (at least for those who could afford it).  Since forks and knifes aren’t the best utensil for eating rice, hashi became the primary utensil used in Japan.  Without large amounts of other grains in use, there was less need of bread.  The humid climate also meant that grains could be kept longer if they were boiled only when used.  Flour would have been harder to keep, and bread even more-so.

Another interesting aspect of traditional Japanese culture is the fact that social hierarchies  were often reinforced during meal times.  The higher up a person was, the more dishes they would receive during meals.  This led to the extravagantly prepared meals of small dishes that can be found in Kyoto and many other popular Japanese restaurants.  This style of eating lends itself to more relaxed time-consuming eating, and an artistic appreciation of food and its appearance.  Even if the lower castes could not enjoy the same meals, social forms flow down, and the lower castes would often emulate the upper castes to the best of their ability.  If most people strove for longer more spread out meals, the idea of a quick sandwich equivalent would have been less appealing, though rice balls did exist for the purpose of a quick portable meal.

Finally, throughout the majority of Japan’s history, livestock were scarce since land to feed them was limited.  What animals existed were usually for working or occasional travel and not as food.  If the lower castes were lucky to get rice with their meal, there was no way they’d get an ample supply of meat for a sandwich.   With limited meat supplies, it is not surprising that delis and butcher shops never became popular in Japan.  In fact, religious and social pressures actually further limited the appeal of many meats even after they became more available.

Don’t get me started on cheese.  Yes it’s here, you can get it, but its harder to get the real stuff, goes along with that whole lack of livestock thing.

Modern Japanese Cuisine

Today you can find sandwiches in Japan.  If you somehow end up in a Japanese McDonald’s you’ll get buns and all.  If you go to a Japanese restaurant, though, you’re just as likely to find hamburgers served in place of a steak with other sides.  Japan’s long history means that many traditions and cultural nuances are highly ingrained.  There just isn’t the same cultural drive to combine a whole meal into one mobile packet as there are in other parts of the world.

With innumerable small restaurants in big cities, and the availability of amazing bentos (Japanese style Lunch Boxes), it’s no wonder there is little pressure to change.  Still, there is bread and most towns have bakeries.  Doughnuts are even popular.  It’s just that most bread ends up as a side that gets pulled apart or toasted instead of getting to hold onto a nice selection of meat, cheese, and veggies.

I for one, miss my Jimmy Johns, Silvermine, and Subway sandwiches.

Do you miss sandwiches or have you found a great sandwich shop in Japan?  Let us know in the comments!