How Japan Learned To Love Wheat Instead of Rice

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 2 2012 6:15 AM

Waves of Grain

How did Japan come to prefer wheat over rice?

A loaf of bread.
The story of Japan’s conversion from rice to wheat involves a long, relentless campaign by the best propagandists in the business—the U.S. government

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Unlike other popular Japanese gadgetry, the Gopan bread maker isn’t sleek, nor does it fit in a trouser pocket. But Panasonic's $600 kitchen aid does boast a trump card: It produces freshly baked loaves from raw, whole grains of rice.* Since its launch in November 2010, the appliance—whose name is an inspired play on gohan, meaning “cooked rice,” and pan, meaning “bread”—has been selling like hotcakes in Japan (the only country where it’s currently available).

You might not be surprised that a rice-oriented appliance is popular in Japan—it is, after all, the home of sushi and okayu. But you should be. The engineers behind the Gopan were tasked to come up with a machine to encourage consumers to eat more rice. That’s because over the last 40 years, the Japanese have increasingly favored wheat-based foods like bread, pasta, pizza, and noodles, while rice consumption has declined by more than 50 percent.

How did Japan come to be a wheat-obsessed nation that needs gimmicks like the Gopan to eat rice disguised as wheat flour? The story of Japan’s conversion from rice to wheat involves a long, relentless campaign by the best propagandists in the business—the U.S. government, of course.

Back in the early 1900’s, the Japanese consumed some wheat, but in small quantities, and certainly not as a staple. The aspiring middle classes frequented fashionable Western-style cafes that served pastries, cakes, and sweet buns called anpan filled with black bean fudge. Urban working-class folks also encountered wheat, but mostly in the form of udon noodles from street stalls or restaurants, and even then as a snack rather than a main meal. (Soba noodles, made from buckwheat—a flowering plant unrelated to wheat—were also a traditional snack.) Farmers and the rural population were almost entirely unfamiliar with wheat; they subsisted on a combination of rice, barley, and millet supplemented with vegetables and fish. And most Japanese liked it that way—when the Japanese Navy tried to introduce a Western-style diet including bread and a hard, dry wheat cracker called kanpan in 1890, the servicemen went on strike.

Wheat began featuring more prominently in the civilian diet during Sino-Japanese War (which began in 1937) and World War II—but out of necessity, not desire. Wartime meant extreme rice shortages and meager rations at home, and much of what rice was available went to troops. In addition to fueling up on new substitutes like soybeans, squash, and sweet potatoes, civilians resorted to crude bread, kanpan, dumplings, and homemade udon noodles.

Shortages worsened after World War II—in the postwar period Japan approached the brink of mass starvation—and American emergency aid began to arrive in the form of wheat flour and lard. (Beyond humanitarianism, the Truman Administration’s motives included winning over Japan’s working classes and deterring Japan from Communism.)

As bread became popular, so did cheap, belly-filling Chinese-style fare made from wheat. As Japanese historian George Solt argues, the abundance of meriken-ko (American wheat flour) combined with war vets returning from China with knowledge of that country’s cuisine led to a flourishing of gyoza (dumplings) and chuka soba (wheat noodles in broth, which were eventually known as ramen).

In the mid-1950s, having averted a red scare in Japan, America’s rationale for providing aid to Japan took on a more commercial dimension—and the Japanese government, eager to rebuild its arms industry, was happy to strike a deal. Between 1954 and 1956, the two nations signed a series of agreements in which Japan consented to buy U.S. surplus wheat (of which there was plenty). In return, through a series of clever maneuvers, the United States loaned money to the Japanese weapons industry.

It was during this phase that the propaganda came out in full force, starting with a nationwide campaign led jointly by the Japanese and American governments to persuade the Japanese to trade their rice for bread. Nutritionists told citizens that a rice-based diet was not only incomplete, but it actually caused brain damage—a thesis they were fed by American scientists. Advocates from the Oregon Wheat Grower’s League traveled to Japan to promote trade fairs, taste-testing in department stores, training of Japanese millers and bakers, and nutritional seminars for Japanese home economists. The League sent 12 “kitchen on wheels” demonstration buses throughout rural areas of Japan to show hundreds of thousands of Japanese housewives how to prepare meals from imported bleached flour. (An unexpected setback: Few Japanese households had ovens, which rendered the League’s best baking recipes irrelevant.)

What made the biggest impact of all was the school lunch program. The project, initiated by the U.S. government during the occupation, guaranteed that Japanese schoolchildren were provided a daily meal that included bread, powdered milk and a meat-based stew. The program molded the taste buds and dietary preferences of a whole generation of Japanese youth to accommodate American imports, particularly wheat. The lunch program was so successful that the United States continued to provide free wheat for the program even after the occupation ended in 1952.*

Once instant ramen entered the scene, there was no going back. Created in 1958 by Taiwanese-born businessman Momofuku Ando to absorb the influx of American wheat, instant ramen was at first much more expensive than a bowl of fresh noodles from a street stall. But it quickly evolved from a middle-class novelty to an economical and convenient staple for time-strapped workers. In 1961, Ando’s company Nissin sold 500 million packets; by 1966 that figure had eclipsed 2.5 billion. (Despite the shared staple, David Chang claims the name of his New York ramen eatery Momofuku is a combination of Japanese words meaning “lucky” and “peach,” rather than a tribute to the famous inventor.)

In 1956, Japan imported 1.28 million metric tons of wheat from the United States; in 1974, 3.24 million metric tons (a rate that’s remained fairly steady since then). The Westernization of the local diet has led to a plethora of problems that Japanese government didn’t have the luxury of deliberating over when it first accepted food aid to relieve its starving post-war population. First up, a dangerous reliance on foreign food imports: Over 90 percent of the wheat consumed in Japan is imported, mostly from the U.S., and Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among all the developed countries. As rice consumption has declined, low prices and huge surpluses have crippled domestic rice farmers. Then, of course, there are the burgeoning health problems that tend to come along with a diet heavy in Western-style wheaten fare and its fat-laden accompaniments (burger patties, cheesy pizza toppings, creamy pasta sauces).

Which is why the Japanese government and advocacy groups have reversed tack in recent decades by making several attempts to steer new generations back to rice. In 1976, the National Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (NOKYO) declared a $400-million war on bread, pushing quick-to-prepare “instant” and frozen rice and campaigning for schools to serve rice, not bread, as part of subsidized lunches. In 2008, the Japanese government took a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” tactic. Reconciled to the fact that the nation wasn’t going to relinquish its appetite for foreign fare, it launched a massive media drive with TV ads, cooking classes, and public demonstrations showing how conventional wheat foods like pasta, dumplings, and bread could be made from rice flour instead—hence the Gopan.

In conceiving of the idea for instant ramen in the late 1950s, Ando wanted to find a mass-produced wheaten food in line with traditional Japanese culinary culture—after all, udon and soba noodles had been consumed for centuries in Japan. It’s ironic, then, that just 50 years later, innovators of the Gopan are tempting Japanese consumers back to rice—the most traditional Japanese ingredient of all—by disguising it as the poster food of the Western diet.

So far, the tactic looks to be working. By September of last year—only 10 months after its initial release—the Gopan had sold over 160,000 units. The newfangled machine has even incited a craze for packaged rice-based noodles, cakes, pastries, and pasta. But the biggest indicator that rice is back on the menu? Since 2010, Japanese outlets of Pizza Hut have incorporated rice flour into their pizza dough.

*Correction, April 2, 2012: This article originally stated that the Gopan bread maker was made by Sanrio. In fact, it is manufactured by Sanyo, a subsidiary of Panasonic. This article also originally stated that the American occupation of Japan ended in 1953; it ended in 1952.

Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and contributer to Forbes.com. Follow her on her blog Chew on This and on Twitter.