Yakitate!! Japan is a popular manga series. So popular in fact that it's one of the few manga that's available (legitimately) in English. There was also an anime series, which so far is only (legally) available in Japan. It sort of belongs to a genre of manga called Gourmet (gurume) Manga, manga whose main theme is food-related. The Wikipedia Japan page for Gourmet Manga lists more than 100 titles in this genre, though as far as I know only Yakitate!! is available in English at the moment. (I'll be talking about other gourmet manga eventually.)
The Yakitate part of the title means "freshly baked". The Japan part is a pun of sorts: pan is the Japanese word for bread (the word was imported from Portuguese most likely), and the goal of the main character is to find the ultimate JaPan, or Japanese bread. The title sequence of the anime says that "There's furansu pan (French bread), igirisu pan (English bread), doitsu pan (German bread) but no bread to represent Japan". The story unfolds in the form of several big Iron Chef style baking competitions, where the main character Kazuma Azuma and others vie with each other for fame and glory. A running gag is that the bread creations are so delicious that they make the eaters, especially main judge Kuroyanagi, have extreme reactions like dying and going to heaven, or (from another judge) sprouting a live peacock out of his head.
I have up to volume 16 of the manga in Japanese, but the series really runs out of steam (sorry for the pan..er pun) somewhere around volume 9 or so, especially from the food/baking sense. To me, the humor and gags sort of get stale (argh) around there too. I don't have the concluding volumes, but judging from the 1.5-star review average of volume 25 on Amazon Japan a lot of people aren't happy with it. The earlier volumes though, which are the ones that have been translated to English so far, are quite fun.
Sprouting peacock heads and all that aside, is there any realism to the depiction of Japanese bread baking? Well not really, though a bread manufacturer Yamazaki Sei Pan did actually produce a link of Yakitate inspired breads that were sold in Lawsons convenience stores. It does at least give a glimpse into what kind of breads are popular in Japan. The base premise of the storyline, that there's no real Japanese Bread, is a bit of a lie - there are plenty of uniquely Japanese Breads, but a lot of them may not taste that good to non-Japanese people.
I actually think Yakitate!! Japan depicts Japanese culture and ways of thinking in non-bread ways. For instance, Pantasia and its rival Saint-Pierre are big bakery companies with tons of branches all over the country. While more people in Japan may be going into business themselves or working for smaller companies, it's still considered more desirable by a lot of people to work for a big corporation. You certainly wouldn't see working for a big bakery as the ultimate goal in a story set in France, or any other European or American culture. Another rather Japanese part of it is the contrast between the idiot savant type vs. the normal person who must work extra hard to achieve what the natural genius can get almost without thinking. This is a sort of recurring theme in a lot of Japanese literature (also the theme of Amadeus, where Mozart is the idiot savant and Salieri is the hard working, educated, regular shmoe). There are also depictions of Samurai-culture derived intense meditation and/or training leading to enlightenment and a better way to make bread. Not that you should read it so seriously of course - it's basically a slapstick comedy with bread.
Addendum: Japanese breads
In general, Japanese people like bread that's soft, puffy, rather moist, doughy, whiter than white, and a bit sweet. Tastes are changing and expanding of course, but the core lineup available at most bakeries in Japan consists of these breads:
- Shokupan - standard white bread, often sold sliced or sliced to order - much like Pullman bread or pain de mie, baked in a closed box with a soft crust. More like standard sliced white English bread in taste than French pain de mie though - puffy, soft, large slices. Shoku means 'food' or 'to eat' so this is 'eating bread'. It should be noted that bread machines turn out very good shokupan - no wonder, since the machines were invented in Japan.
- Anpan - a slightly sweet bun with a sweet azuki bean paste filling (most often tsubuan, or the smoother koshian). Made popular by the cartoon character Anpanman.
- Various kinds of okazu pan - savory filled breads. The breads are either filled then cooked, such as curry bread (recipe on site), or are sandwiches using a soft sweet roll rather like a hotdog roll. Some popular sandwich-type okazu pan include yakisoba pan, a soft noodle sandwich; katsu pan or katsu sando, a fried pork cutlet sandwich; and korokke pan, potato croquette sandwich...yes that's a sandwich bun with a deep fried potato croquette filling. Carbs!
- Melon pan - a bun with a sweet sugar cookie dough topping. It's called melon bread because of the shape, not necessarily because it has melon flavor. If it does have melon flavor it's usually added in the form of melon extract to the cookie part. (I don't know of any melon pan recipe that calls for real melon.)
- Kureemu Horn - a cornet shaped bread with custard/pudding filling. Related: Choco Korone - a cornet with chocolate flavored custard/pudding filling.
- Various other sweet buns with sweeter fillings, like jam, custard cream, various bean pastes.
- Koppe pan - A basic plain crusty bun.
(Years ago, a Japanese bakery/grocery in New York which shall remain nameless had a sign in their windows "We have Ham Sand". This was quite confusing to the average passerby. They had just used the Japanese word/abbreviation for Sandwich.)
Except for the rare fit of nostalgia I must admit that I don't miss Japanese breads like these at all, except for the standard shokupan, which makes wonderful sandwiches. But when I make it to a Japanese bakery in New York or London etc. I do raid them for a taste of the past. I can certainly go for a yakisoba pan or so once every few years. I do miss shuu kureemu, custard filled cream puffs, also a bakery staple, to make them myself sometimes.
If you are tempted to try the rice cooker bread in Yakitate by the way, don't bother. It takes more than 5 hours, and the result is quite...blah. Make some normal bread in the oven instead in half the time or less! But if you're really curious the recipe is floating around the interweb.