What Western Foods Are Popular In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Sam asks:

How popular are burgers and fries in Japan? Is it just marketing in anime or are they actually popular? What other western foods are popular over there?

Hamburgers are big business in Japan, and have become a prominent part of the Japanese diet, for better or for worse. Actually probably for worse: nearly all of the burgers consumed there are of the fast food variety. The story goes that in 1967, a bag and shoe importer named Den Fujita visited a McDonalds in America, and was amazed by the place. He reached out to McDonalds and inquired about starting a Japanese franchise, and by 1971 had opened the country's first location, in Mitsukoshi Department Store in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

Prior to then, hamburgers were pretty exotic stuff. "The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years... If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white, and our hair blonde," Fujita once said. Despite the questionable marketing angle, he was incredibly successful. McDonalds Japan now has 3,800 restaurants (2nd only to America in terms of number of restaurants) and revenues of US$4 billion annually.

One reason for its success is that the standard McDonalds menu was changed quite a bit for the Japanese palate. While some items made it through unchanged -- the Big Mac, the Quarter Pounder, the Happy Meal, the Chicken McNuggets and the McFlurry -- there have always been quite a few Japan-only menu items. The Mega Mac, Teriyaki McBurger, Ebi Fillet-O (featuring shrimp), Tamago Double Mac (featuring an egg), and many interesting limited-time items can only be found at Japanese locations. Overall portion sizes are smaller, and restaurants are classier but still low-priced. As a result, they became hang-out spots, particularly for teenagers. However in the last year or so, following food safety scandals and increasing dietary concerns, sales have been cratering. It appears that the cool kids have moved on.

McDonalds isn't the only place to get a hamburger in Japan. Local chains MOS Burger, Loteria, First Kitchen, Beckers and Freshness Burger also compete in the market, alongside American exports like Burger King, Wendy's, and recently Shake Shack and Carls Jr. Japan eats a LOT of burgers and fries.

In fact, quite a few Western food staples are pretty common in Japan in some form, even if they're not quite the same as what you can get Stateside. Pizza is easy to find, for example, but it's much more expensive, and often has toppings like teriyaki chicken, hot dogs and mayo. KFC is everywhere, and is, bizarrely, a christmas tradition. American chain restaurants like T.G.I. Friday's, Hooters, Hard Rock Café and Outback Steakhouse aren't exactly everywhere, but usually have a few locations in major cities. Denny's IS everywhere, although it's basically a different restaurant than the pile of sadness we have Stateside.

When it comes to confectionaries and baked goods, Japan often goes nuts and turns Western creations into works of sugary art. Japanese-style crepes, folded into cones and covered with fruit, chocolate syrup and ice cream are a must-have. High end sweets and cakes are also everywhere -- Japan's patisseries rival France's in terms of quality and inventiveness. Waffles and more recently pancakes, while not breakfast foods in Japan, are a trendy snack, served covered in fruit and whipped cream. Japanese style pancakes can be as thick as two inches!

In addition to all of the genuinely Western things available in Japan, there are quite a few popular dishes that aren't REALLY Japanese, but are a bizarre mix of cultures that came about over time, usually as a result of the American occupation after World War II. "Hamburger Steak" (basically Salisbury Steak cut with panko bread crumbs), omurice (ketchup-seasoned rice tucked inside of an omelette), shrimp, cod roe and squid ink-flavored pastas, and many others are unique fusion dishes that are the result of the two food cultures mingling.

Japan does food very, very well. It is a spectacular country to eat in. And while they don't always get American food right (the pizza and bagels over there tend to be very, very sad), they just as often put their own spin on a Western classic and make it even better.

Sigh, now I'm hungry. I really need to visit Japan again.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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