The not-so-all-American hamburger
These days, you can find a burger anywhere in Japan – from fast-food franchise to mom-and-pop sandwich shops. But few reveal the secret sauce on Japan’s hamburger history: The U.S. military.
It is said that burgers came to Japan from the U.S. after World War II. Today, some local burger shops near U.S. bases are popular spots where Japanese, tourists from all over as well as American military personnel regularly stop for a bite of their special burgers.
The most well-known Japanese burger is the Sasebo Burger, which was born and raised around Sasebo Naval Base in Nagasaki. It is common to see people lined up in front of burger joints throughout Sasebo City to get their favorite burgers on weekends.
The official standards for a Sasebo Burger, according to Sasebo Tourism Office’s Hideo Miyachi, are a homemade cooked-to-order patty served on a bun with as many local products (like tomatoes and lettuce) as possible. On average, Sasebo Burgers are 4.7 inches tall, and most city-certified burger shops have their own unique twist on the iconic sandwich.
Some of these interesting takes include substituting the beef patty with Berkshire pork, chicken cutlet, meat loaf or an omelet. Others proudly adhere to the tradition of a 100 percent beef patty, while others tout ground pork. Finding your favorite burger, which can range from $4 to $10, is a fun major attraction in Sasebo City.
“It was amazing,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jay Idanan from Sasebo Naval Base, after sampling a special burger at Log Kit, a popular burger shop in a town. “The bun was very soft; and I liked the mayonnaise, too. I would say this is lot better than the ones in the States. I think I will tell my friends about this.”
Sasebo’s hamburger culture has its roots in the tastes of U.S. service members like Idanan. Not long after the war, locals were looking to appease such preferences, according to Hidenori Fujitani, 78, owner of Hikari, Sasebo’s oldest burger joint. It was a time when hungry troops frequented the city craving a taste of home.
“My father used to own a cleaning shop and bicycle rental shop right in front of the main gate,” said Fujitani. “We had this idea to sell something for soldiers to eat from the corner of our shop because many were very hungry and always looking for food after a night out on the town.”
It was a family friend, a Japanese-American from the States that worked on base, that taught his father how to make hamburgers, he said.
“We had no idea what a hamburger was; the economic situation in Japan was very poor back then,” Fujitani said. “So, he showed us everything. He told us how to grind the meat, how to bake buns and make burgers. Then we started selling take-out burgers to soldiers in 1951.”
In 1972, Fujitani renovated the burger stand into the current eat-in burger restaurant, Hikari, to target more Japanese as well as Americans. This came on the heels of McDonald’s 1971 debut in Tokyo’s Ginza district. He said he has since adjusted his burgers to fit Japanese tastes, like adding mayonnaise to make them a little sweet.
“At first, only young local people came to our shop to try something new,” Fujitani said. “But now, Sasebo Burgers are so famous. People, from kids to seniors, come to try our burgers. It has been more than 60 years since I first started making burgers and I am proud to be a part of the history of spreading hamburgers in Japan.”
The Sasebo Burger trend really took off in 1988 when Sasebo City cooked up a promotional campaign to attract tourists with local foods. There are now about 30 Sasebo Burger shops in Sasebo alone – and countless others, or others like them, throughout Japan.
Not to be left out, Yokosuka City gave birth to the Navy Burger in 2008. That year, U.S. Navy officials presented their traditional recipe to city officials to promote friendship. Dubbed the Yokosuka Navy Burger, the 100 percent beef burger takes its place alongside Yokosuka Kaigun Curry as a city-certified delicacy, according to the city office. (Yokosuka Kaigun, or Navy, Curry boasts being the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s official recipe.) There are 13 certified Navy Burger shops in Yokosuka.
In Misawa, home to Misawa Air Force Base, the Misawa Air Force Burger was created by city officials in council with an American cook from the base in 2011. It’s described as a burger that’s well grilled (with grill marks to prove it) with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, ketchup and mustard served on the side. Currently the official Air Force Burger is only served at Kurema Park Restaurant in Michino Eki Misawa, a road side rest area.
In Okinawa, the story is little different. Long influenced by a U.S. military presence (and more heavily than anywhere else in Japan), the island can lay claim to American-inspired taco rice.
But perhaps since burger joints have been here for so long, there is not (or not yet) an official Okinawa Burger. Nonetheless, there’s probably no easier place in country to find a good burger.
Good burger shops are everywhere throughout the island of Okinawa. Even though they don’t have a brand name like Sasebo Burger, there are variety of local favorites – from Captain Kangaroo’s Sparky Burger to Jetta Burger Market’s Texas Extra Burger – to choose from.
So, no matter where you are in the Land of the Rising Sun, check out a few burger joints for a true taste of your host nation that is sure to remind you of home.
Did you know?
The big Sasebo Burger bang has made itself heard – and tasted – on at least one U.S. military bases in Japan. The Sasebo Burger is now available at Galaxies Nightclub on Sasebo Naval Base.
“In 2003, after checking Sasebo burgers in town, I wanted to make our original Sasebo Burger for service members,” said Efrain Gracia, the base’s food and beverage director. “We use 100 percent American beef and Sasebo local vegetables. It is a special combination of real American burger and local style, which became one of our popular dishes here on Sasebo Naval Base.”
Local burger shops
Popular burger: Sparky Burger (800 yen / $6.68)
Address: 183 Umusa, Nago, Okinawa
Open: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Closed on Wed)
Popular burger: Double Cheeze Burger (1,000 yen / $8.35)
Address: 100-530 Sunabe, Chatan, Okinawa
Open: Breakfast / 8 a.m. – 11 a.m. (Only Sat & Sun), Lunch & Dinner/ 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Jetta Burger Market
Popular burger: Texas Extra Burger (680 yen / $5.68)
Address: 2F, 9-19 Mihama, Chatan, Okinawa
Open: Mon – Fri / 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sat & Sun / 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Tetsu's Teriyaki Burger
- 1 pound of ground beef
- 1 Onion
- 2 egg
- 2 tablespoon of bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoon of milk
- Salt or garlic salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 4 hamburger buns
- 4 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 4 tablespoon of mirin (sweet rice cooking wine)
- 4 tablespoon of sake
- 4 tablespoon of sugar
- Mix soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar in a bowl. Heat at a low even temperature while stirring until the mixture thickens – for about five minutes.
- When the sauce thickens, remove from heat, cool and refrigerate.
- Chop onion well and stir fry until it turns slightly yellow.
- In a large bowl, mix beef, stir fried onion, egg, milk, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and nutmeg by hands. Mix well until the mixture is barely able to hold together easily.
- Form 4 patties.
- In a frying pan, cook the patties, being careful not to overcook them.
- Take out sauce from fridge, and pour it over the patties in the frying pan.
- Assemble burgers from the bottom up (bun, mayonnaise, teriyaki burger, lettuce, tomato and bun). You can add cheese or avocado if you like.