The Armenian Who Invented the Japanese Sweet Bun
By Artsvi Bakhchinyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
TOKYO — Wheat bread was introduced for the first time to the rice-eating Japanese people in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries. Because of Japan’s complete isolation from the world, the wheat culture remained unknown until the middle of the 19th century. Over the next century, the Japanese began to open up to the world and try different cultures, including food culture.
After World War I, one of Japan’s most influential and wealthy people, Okura Kihachiro, who was a representative of Okura guni major financial institution and founder of the Tokyo University of Economics, came to Harbin, China, specifically to seek out a skilled baker from Russia whose fame had reached Japan. Kihachiro asked him to move to Japan on favorable terms, and the baker agreed. When in Japan, he was able to create the sweet bun melonpan that is widespread in Japan today…
The baker’s name was Hovhannes (Ivan) Ghevenian Sagoyan. Little is known about him. Born in 1888 in Karin (Erzurum), he probably moved to Moscow at an early age, where he became the personal baker of the Romanov house. The Russian royal family loved the assortment of breads Sagoyan made, which he based on French and Viennese baked goods. After the revolution of 1917 Sagoyan escaped to China and settled in Harbin and became the baker of the New Harbin Hotel.
Accepting the invitation to work in Japan, Sagoyan settled in Tokyo’s Meguro suburb, worked at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and opened a bakery named Monsieur Ivan. In Japan, Sagoyan made a new sweet bun with the shape of cantaloupe melon, combining two types of dough and called it melonpan (melon bread in French) or sunrise-pan (sunrise bread). It was immediately adopted by Japanese, and still remains widely popular and soon became a national brand. Melonpan is also widespread in Taiwan, China and Latin America. It is made from plain sweet dough with yeast covered with a thin layer of dough with butter and egg. Melonpan usually does not taste like melon, but recently some producers have added melon to the bun. There are varieties of these bakery products: with creams, chocolate, caramel, maple syrup, whipped cream…
It is also important that Hovhannes Sagoyan trained several generations of Japanese bakers, with his most famous student being Fukuda Motoyoshi, the creator of the so-called Japanese hotel or milk bread.
Sagoyan married Tsuruko (Tsuru) Sagoyan (1888-1962), neé Miakozawa, and had three daughters. They did not have Japanese citizenship, as according to Japanese law, children born to Japanese and foreigners could not be Japanese citizens. Sagoyan’s daughters, though almost with no knowledge of Armenian, considered themselves Armenian and attended the main cathedral of the Japanese Orthodox Church – Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Chiyoda, Tokyo.
Archbishop Ruben Manasyan of Echmiadzin, who visited Japan in 1925, wrote the following in his report to Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg V (the letter is kept in the National Archives of Armenia): “In Tokyo, Hovhannes Ghevenian from Erzurum, who has lived in Japan for many years, had a Japanese wife and three daughters who had not yet been baptized. The wife, Tsuruko Miakozawa and daughters — Kimiko, Eugenia and Lily — were baptized by my hand, accepting Armenian Apostolicity, and Hovhannes Ghevenian and Tsuruko Miakozawa were married according to the Armenian Church ritual.” In other sources the names Jane (Jenny) and Anna are also mentioned for Ghevenian’s daughters: we are not sure whether they are the names of other daughters or are the second names of aforementioned people.
The Sagoyans were referring to a letter sent by a Boston-based Armenian (with signature H. Kh.) to the Hairenik (Homeland) Armenian newspaper in 1932. “In Tokyo (Japan) I have a friend who is married to a Japanese girl, they have three daughters, one is 12, the other is 15 and the third is 18. My friend expresses a desire to come to America permanently or temporarily to create opportunities for her daughters to receive American education.” However, Ghevenyan’s wish did not come true.
One of Sagoyan’s daughters, Lily, looked Armenian. Prior to 1941 she was a correspondent for the Hairenik weekly English newspaper of Boston. In 1943-1945 she worked as a typist at Radio Tokyo. At times, she conducted the English-language propagandist program “Zero Hour,” which was circulated to anti-Nazi factions in the Pacific. Thus, Lily became a member of Tokyo Rose – this name was given by Allied troops in the South Pacific during World War II to all female English-speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda. By the way, Lily Ghevenian was interrogated as a witness during the famous trial of American-Japanese radio host Iva Ikuko Togur d’Aquino (the latter accused of collaborating with the so-called Axis Forces in World War II).
Ivan Sagoyan died in 1952 in Tokyo. He is buried in the Yokohama Foreigners’ Cemetery,. His daughters wrote the father’s name on his tombstone in English.
Famous Armenian opera singer Gohar Gasparyan testified that after her trip to Japan in 1957 she received a letter from a Japanese girl she met in the city of Matsuyama, which was signed as Sakanyan in Armenian letters (“What a mystery it was, I cannot understand,” the singer said). Of course, this Sakanyan is one of the daughters of the Sagoyan family, which shows their father has taught them at least to write their family name in Armenian…
Today, the Japanese remember with gratitude the Armenian baker who created a treat beloved in the country; his name is remembered in various articles and in popular literature (for example, Ida Yukiko’s The Origin of Frequently Used Things, We Begin to Know the World, volume first, “Bread,” 2000, pages 20-21. This information is provided me by Tokyo-based Melania Baghdasaryan-Nakajima).
Hovhannes Sagoyan Ghevenian’s Monsieur Ivan bakery operates to till now. There, master classes are organized for bakers, faithfully maintaining the bakery traditions and the technology of the Armenian baker…
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