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There’s no arguing that a lot of what we consider stereotypically Japanese actually came from elsewhere.

Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language, which is also where ramen is from. Tempura, konpeito, and castella cake came by way of the Portuguese; likewise, curry was introduced by the British. The gakuran and the sailor uniform were modeled after European military and naval uniforms, and radio calisthenics is from the good old US of A.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found out the reverse has also happened: fortune cookies, that staple of Chinese restaurants in the US, is almost certainly Japanese.

Japanese Fortune Cookies…

In Japan, fortune cookies go by the names tsujiura senbei, o-mikuji senbei, and suzu senbei. They’re slightly bigger, and the addition of miso and sesame makes them browner and savory instead of sweet. Otherwise, though, Japanese fortune cookies are pretty much identical to the mass-produced stuff.

fortune cookies comparison collage

Image sources: panda50ban, me

Left: Japanese fortune cookies; Right: “Chinese” fortune cookies, made in Hong Kong, from a Korean grocery store down the road

If old tales are anything to go by, Japanese fortune cookies have been around since at least the 19th century. The following illustration, for example, was found in a book of stories that dates all the way back to 1878. Check out the unmistakable C-shaped cookies on the grill – and even more tellingly, the noren at the top that reads tsujiura senbei.

tsujiura senbei

The sign is really old school; read it from right to left.

The other name for fortune cookies, o-mikuji senbei, is also a clue. Those little paper fortunes that you can get for a small fee at shrines and temples? Yep, they’re called o-mikuji. Kyoto literally has thousands of shrines and temples – one of the more famous being the Fushimi Inari shrine. Now is it mere coincidence that there are several shops in the area that still make fortune cookies by hand? I think not.

making fortune cookies collage

Spooning batter into the mold, lifting out the cookie, tucking in the fortune, and folding up the still-warm cookie.

But this is only half the story.

… and How They Became “Chinese”

The person who invented the “Chinese” fortune cookie is up for debate. Several people have put their hand up, but I reckon only two claims are worth serious consideration: some people believe it was Kito Seiichi of the Fugetsu-do shop in LA, and others believe it was Hagiwara Makoto of SF’s Japanese Tea Garden.

Both men were Japanese immigrants and likely knew about fortune cookies and how to make them – but my money’s on Hagiwara Makoto. As the story goes, he first made and served it alongside green tea in 1914. This modified, sweetened version was so popular that Hagiwara decided to get them made on a commercial scale. In 1918, Benkyodo stepped in to become the Japanese Tea Garden’s exclusive supplier of fortune cookies. Descendants on both sides corroborate the other’s story, which I think is as good as it’ll get in terms of evidence.

japanese tea garden benkyodo collage

Image sources: 1, 2

Left: the tea house at the Japanese Tea Garden; Right: Benkyodo Candy Factory

Soon, several other bakeries began to make and sell fortune cookies; Umeya, for example, supplied them to both Japanese- and Chinese-owned restaurants. The bombing of Pearl Harbor really put a spanner in the works though. Japanese-Americans were sent away to internment camps, which basically meant the end of many Japanese businesses.

Now that the competition had been taken out, Chinese businesses experienced a huge boom. Chinese restaurants still served fortune cookies, of course, and people just began to think of them as a Chinese thing. There was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment at the time, so I really don’t blame the Chinese for keeping mum and letting their customers believe what they wanted to believe.

In any case, although several Japanese bakeries did make a comeback after WWII, by that point fortune cookies were irrevocably Chinese. They were still as popular as ever, though: it was only a matter of time before it spread all over the US, and then all over the globe. Well, except for China, anyway. “Too American,” apparently.

Oh delicious irony.

Fortune Cookies Remixed

Nowadays there really aren’t any rules when it comes to fortune cookies. Just look at some of the varieties I found:

fortune cookies varieties collage

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Purists, look away.

Well… not my thing to be honest, although I suppose there must be a market for them.


So, did you already know that fortune cookies are actually Japanese? Have you tried both Japanese and “Chinese” fortune cookies? Which did you prefer? What was the last fortune you got? Let us know in the comments!

  • DAVIDPD

    Thanks Fiona. Your work is always thoroughly entertaining and informative to read. What’s really funny is that in some parts of China you CAN actually find cookies that resemble the Japanese versions. Look at Pig’s Ear cookies for example. Convergent Evolution???

  • Mescale

    I’m not sure Japan really has to thank China for their language.

    Its generally accepted by linguists that the origins of the language are not that simple though there is an increased belief that it is related to the altaic languages, what they do all agree on that it is not related to Chinese of any flavor.

  • DenjinJ

    I was thinking the same thing. They borrowed the writing system – but so did Korean and Vietnamese, probably others. Common alphabet really doesn’t indicate a common language root though as languages may often exist before writing.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Guess I should have been really explicit and specified “written language” – whoops!

  • Komodovaran

    But Japanese still contains a lot of words made of Chinese-derived Japanese-ified on-yomi pronunciations. Thus, spoken Japanese does have some degree of Chinese influence.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Thanks David I’m glad you enjoyed it : )

    Have you got a picture of these Pig’s Ear cookies? My google-fu is lacking; all I got were palmiers and some sort oddly wavy cookies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.jasper.144 James Jasper

    think of all those compounds and onyomi.

  • Guest

    Credit to my favorite food blog ieatishootipost for the picture. I had these many times when I lived in Singapore.

  • DAVIDPD

    Credit to my favorite food blog, ieatishootipost, for the picture. I ate these very same ones when I lived in Singapore!

  • Mescale

    I know right, its like, they’re practically Chinese right, they all look the same, and speak all ching chong chong right.

    Why would a Japanese ‘people’ ever get upset that their culture is marginalized as a mere offshoot of China.

    Americans would never get upset if they were marginalized as just an offshoot of England, they’d never get upset if anyone pointed out their language doesn’t even belong to them.

    Its not like national identity is important to every culture.

    No its fine, as long as we can find some pedantic way to be right even if it means be-littling an entire other country, its fine.

    China /has/ had a great deal of influence on Japan, but honestly do you think Japan should really thank China for their writing system? Have you ever had to learn Japanese?

    Just thinking this matter is so small, to even make this mistake, is exactly what is wrong with gaijins, Japan has a great amount of pride in their national image, history, uniqueness, but smelly gaijins like to come in and belittle all that like, OMG UR JUST CHINESE LOLOLOLOLOLZORS

    Your ruining it for the rest of us.

    ALSO KOICHI, ITS NOT FUNNY TO JOKE ABOUT HUGGING PILLOWS. HOW COULD YOU BE SO HEARTLESS YOU KNOW HOW DAKIMAKURA_TAN BROKE MY HEART>

    I HATE YOU ALL. ( EXCEPT HASHI OF COURSE)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    ♥♥♥

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Also still waiting for the April edition of the Mescale Newsletter

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    America is my second-favourite spin-off, after Frasier.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.morris.186 Steven Morris

    This is great! I honestly had no idea about all of this. However, I’ve yet to see fortune cookies in Japan. I’m sure I could find some in a store right away, but I’ve never heard them mentioned or seen anyone partake in them. Is there a time of the year that people generally eat them?

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Got a big laugh from that banner. “That wasn’t chicken.”

    In the morning, someone is always feeding the seagulls. There’s always a huge flock of them in the parking lot. However, by nighttime…
    That and those wings are just way too freaking big to be from a chicken.

  • MOCHI

    ITS BE

  • MOCHI

    *ITS BECAUSE: the Japanese invaded the chinese a while back in history(some war..)-recked havoc among them, and then mao zhe dong rose to power-and rebeled against the japanese. so then the japanese left. I guess they picked up some of the chinese language while terrorising them, eh? -_-” nomnomnom…mochiii

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Why yes, I do see some resemblance :D
    No fortune though?

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    “do you think Japan should really thank China for their writing system?”

    Thank as in “to show gratitude”, no.

    Thank as in the expression which is more along the lines of “because of”, “influenced by” etc, yes.

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    Inspite of the article it self, i love the header of this post. :D Aya your doing a great job again XD
    okonomikatsu.blogspot.com

  • DAVIDPD

    Nope. And just as a note, they don’t taste like a pig’s ear, but are supposed to be of a similar shape. They actually taste more like a slightly vanilla’d cracker.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hogyokudo seems quite popular (search for 宝玉堂, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan on google maps).

    Also, if you can read Japanese, check out the following link. The author also mentions a few other shops in the area:

    http://ikuiku-1919.at.webry.info/201301/article_21.html

  • Mescale

    But how would you show that “thanks”

    Maybe instead of calling kanji kanji, they could give it a more descriptive name like chinese characters, obviously whatever the Japanese translation of that would be.

    That way the Japanese wouldn’t be able to hide behind the obfuscation of the origin of their written system by using such a foreign sounding and obviously fake word like kanji which only serves to backup the Japanese propaganda that they are entirely independent country, society and culture and have never ever been influenced by anyone else.

    Take that Japan, your writing system doesn’t use kanji any more, it uses chinese characters, thats right, from China, your language overlords, be thankful because they built your society using funny little pictures that mean things.

    We totally told Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    They don’t really look like pig ears, to be honest…

  • hinoema

    “Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language,..”

    Japan has China to thank for the writing system adopted to express the already existing Japanese language. There’s a big difference there.

    Anyway OM NOM COOKIES

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the use of kanji may, in fact, predate World War II.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    “Niles, this colony turned-sovereign nation is impeccable!”

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    You’re right, and as in my reply to Mescale above, I agree I should have explicitly specified “written language” – because gosh I didn’t realize it would touch such a nerve! Especially since other parts of that paragraph are simplified too yet haven’t been criticized; e.g. you could also argue that curry came from India instead of being introduced by the British. This balance between simplifying for brevity and not straying foot far from the main topic, and clear, absolute unambiguity is tricky thing.

  • ChristFighter

    They didn’t just import the writing system, though, they imported the pronunciation. A HUGE portion of the Japanese language IS badly-pronounced Chinese, not unlike the way English contains a whole lot of badly-pronounced German and French.

    You weren’t wrong. Oversimplifying, perhaps, but it isn’t wrong to say that the Chinese gave Japan their language. Hell, hiragana, which so many people say the Japanese invented? If you look at Chinese calligraphy? Hiragana’s there. Hiragana is just Chinese cursive. They didn’t invent hiragana. They adapted it from Chinese cursive. Japan owes a LOT to China – they just don’t want to admit. Don’t let a bunch of weeaboos make you let Japan off the hook.

  • ChristFighter

    “do you think Japan should really thank China for their writing system?”

    Um…yes? What are you even talking about? Japan? Marginalized? You’ve obviously never been here – they are some pretty racist and chauvinistic people.

    Do you even pay attention to the news? Japanese people are racist as fuck to Chinese and Koreans – and they flat out refuse to acknowledge JUST HOW MUCH of their culture comes from mainland Asia.

    Do I think they should thank China? Well, maybe not thank, but they sure as hell should cut their racist bullshit and at least acknowledge the factual history of where they come from.

    And, uh, no, Americans all study in detail how we were once a colony of England. It’s common knowledge. NO ONE in America would ever claim that we didn’t come from England. Japanese people? They sure do love to try to pretend that none of their culture whatsoever is foreign.

    I had a student the other day, in blue jeans and a baseball cap, tell me he didn’t “get” foreign stuff. I just said, “Son, your whole LIFE is foreign stuff. Who do you think invented baseball?” Japanese people just don’t get how many of their most precious possessions are from other countries – they insist on believing that they are “mono-cultural.” Uh, no.

  • ChristFighter

    …”Kanji” does literally mean “Chinese characters.” That’s what the “kan” in kanji means.

    “Japanese propaganda that they are entirely independent country, society
    and culture and have never ever been influenced by anyone else.”

    You literally know nothing about Japan, do you?

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    There are those who say that the early Japanese language was likely derived from the early languages spoken in the Korean peninsula–after all, the northern coastline of Kyushu and western end of Honshu are probably about 1-2 days trip on a sailboat from what is now Busan. Indeed, it’s generally agreed that kanji was introduced by Buddhist monks to Japan when Buddhism started to spread to Japan from Korea during the Kofun period of Japanese history (250 to 538 AD); the Korean language at the time was written in Chinese characters (called “hanja” in Korean), so it was obvious that Buddhist monks/missionaries coming over from the Korean peninsula to Japan adapted the writing system they knew to the Japanese language.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Speaking of Japanese writing, I believe that until 1946 with the reforms to the written language, Japanese characters were read right to left even horizontally. Alas, that can sometimes cause confusion to modern Japanese visiting many older historic sites, where many inscriptions on Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are written right to left.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Which is too bad because most scholars agree that both Buddhism and the kanji writing system came to Japan from Buddhist missionaries/monks that migrated over from the Korean peninsula–Buddhists that not only spoke the Korean language of the time, but wrote using hanja–the Korean adaptation of Chinese characters. After all, northern Kyushu and the western end of Honshu are only 1-3 days’ boat ride away from the Korean peninsula by sailboat….

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Actually, modern English owes circa 40% of its words from the early French spoken by the Norman invaders who took over England at the 11th Century AD. If the Normans had failed in that conquest, English would be much more like German in its grammar in modern times, since Old English was based on the language spoken by the Angles and Saxons from what is now northern Germany that conquered England.

  • Lily Queen

    Linguistically speaking, a writing system is NOT a language. I think you ought to correct this, because unlike the other simply generalized statements, this one is just wrong.

  • Lily Queen

    …but if we wrote “England has Rome to thank for the English language,” we would be incorrect.

  • ChristFighter

    Oh, good, because the Japanese are even MORE racist against Koreans than they are Chinese. It’s pretty common to hear people in Japan say that “all our crime is actually committed by ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Japanese people don’t commit crimes, only Koreans.”

    Japanese people sure as hell don’t acknowledge for a second that any of their culture could have possibly come from Korea, so, considering that the Japanese tried to wipe the Koreans out, and continue to look at them with disgust, yeah, a touch of gratitude might be nice in that direction. If their writing and religion, two of thr most civilized concepts in their culture, came from Korea, yes, I’d like to hear a few more Japanese people speak of the rich, deep cultural debt they owe to Korea rather than simply blaming them for all their crime.

    (I’m rusty on the history, but I’m pretty sure I knew Buddhism came to Japan via Korea – wouldn’t say Japan really ought to be grateful for that, though, for various reason – I know nothing of the scholarship on the link between Korean writing and Japanese, though, so I’ll have to check that out.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.morris.186 Steven Morris

    Thank you for the info!! I’ll have to check that place out if I’m in Kyoto again sometime soon!

  • KOH+

    Actually Japanese pronunciation is similar to Ancient Chinese pronunciation, certainly not something like “bad” pronunciation there lol.

    And almost half of modern Chinese vocab sourced from Japanese words in the early 20th Century. So I guess that’s a tie up there.

    But seriously why care where the origin is from?

  • ChristFighter

    Mainly because, when you’re foreign in Japan, you hear a lot about how Japanese Japan is and how foreign everything else is. How unique and different they are from each other.

    Japan is a melting pot. Always has been. On top of that, they aren’t and never have been homogenous, as they have an insane variety of dialects in their own language, multiple native ethnicities, and something like ten or more separate indigenous languages. Obviously, I don’t think this is bad – I think this is wonderful and beautiful. Strangely, Japanese people also use their misconceptions about their homogeneity to insist that they are inferior – I can’t TELL you how many times people tell me, “I’m Japanese, so I can’t POSSIBLY understand that foreign thing.” So as a teacher and parent, it is VERY important to me to dispel that misconception as much as I can (I HATE when my kids try to pull that on me.)

    So the origins of words are important, because some of it flies in the face of what people commonly believe. I like facts. I think it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s my job.

  • KOH+

    hmmm i totally agree with you on this one :)
    Japan also has a long history of suppressing indigenous people (i.e. Ainu) living in the country and assimilate them. So the “homogeneous society” is pretty much just an illusion.

  • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

    Though I agree with you that you cannot fully say the Japanese language “owes” that much to Chinese (Mandarin), the whole Altaic myth has long been debunked by linguists even before information on this asserting that Japanese is related with the likes of Mongolian, Turkish, Manchu, Korean and Kazakh have ever reach us through the internet.

  • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

    I almost liked this article if it weren’t for that “Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language” part. Sorry, but it sounds as if Japanese directly evolved FROM Chinese, which is NOT.

  • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

    Spoken language does not always have any correlation to the origins of the orthography/written form.