Food History & National Myths

Food History & National Myths

Editors Note: Learn more about ramen at Ramen Rules New York, a lecture and tasting at Japan Society on Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 6:30 pm.

Ramen, the ubiquitous Asian noodle soup, has come to symbolize Japan. Japanese are so devoted to the noodle soup that rock groups have even put lyrics to music to pay homage to ramen. Some of the titles dedicated to noodles are: Ramen Heaven, Ramen Blues, Ramen Tears, I wanna eat Ramen, Ramen Power, and The Ramen Rap, to cite just a few. Japan may be the only nation that sings praise to noodle soup. Songs about ramen have even become theme songs for television shows, including this popular, if tongue-in-cheek number, entitled, Chicken and Egg Ramen.

In the sky when the stars are asleep
Somewhere a flute player in a rackety kart is calling
The old man in the Chinese cap always laughs as he calls out:
“Ramen! Ramen! Chicken and Egg Ramen”

The old man would say,
“There’s an old saying in China,
that everyone who eats ramen is good.
That’s why foreigners don’t say ramen when they pray
but…uh, amen.”

Mr. Sasahara Ken, the Director of the International Division of Nissin Foods, the world’s largest producers of instant ramen, explained to me a mantra I heard over and over again in my interviews with food executives and academics throughout Japan. In a rather stunned response to one of my queries, Sasahara pointed out that “Ramen is so Japanese” and had made such an indelible mark on modern Japanese society that “to imagine a Japan without ramen almost borders on heresy.” 1

But why should we care about ramen? What difference can knowledge about a savory noodle soup make in our everyday lives? Essentially, food is how we define ourselves. As one historian of British cuisine has noted, “all cultural identity is closely bound up with food and cooking.” He added that, “It is no exaggeration to say that, after language, food is the most important bearer of national identity.”2  In the case of Japan, as well, this concept would certainly hold true.


A standard bowl of ramen, or noodle soup. Photo © Barak Kushner.
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Most foreigners, and even many Japanese, believe that ramen has deep historical roots in Japan. The ironic twist is that the noodle’s origins are actually Chinese. Ramen entered the Japanese market as an inexpensive, accessible, low-class food for itinerant peddlers and poor students – including the Chinese - in the early twentieth century. The number of Chinese students living in Japan was not insignificant, one of the largest foreign groups by far. From 1896 to just before 1938 approximately fifty thousand Chinese students in some form or other studied in Japan, greatly influencing lower and middle class restaurant offerings in most urban areas. Chinese emigrated to Japan to work. However, after losing to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, they came in increasing numbers to study how Japan modernized so quickly and surpassed China. Students as well as laborers flocked to the new communities in Yokohama, parts of Tokyo, Kyushu, Kobe, and Sapporo in the north. These immigrants were following precedent because Japan had already become a haven for reform minded Chinese such as Sun Yat Sen, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Ramen tells an historical story different from our stereotyped assumptions of Japanese cuisine and its interaction with foreign communities.

The Japanese absorption of Chinese food products and the remarketing of them as national Japanese dishes unlocks mysteries of Japan’s late Meiji (1868-1912) and early Taisho (1912-1926) era foreign communities and their influence on the development of the Japanese diet and national identity through food. The background of ramen’s history in Japan opens a path to visualize how the Japanese diet evolved and thus how Japanese society changed over the last two hundred years, if not two thousand years. Historically, the Japanese ate little meat, little rice, little oil, and very little spice. To make, market, and enjoy ramen Japanese society turned its national cuisine on its head in the last half of the 20th century. The Japanese learned to enjoy pork, which they previously despised, and came to cherish a whole panoply of spices. In addition, the influx and spread of Chinese culinary tastes within Japan broke the stranglehold soy sauce had as the one condiment that blessed Japanese cuisine. Ramen, which laid the roots of noodle worship prior to World War Two, also allowed Japan to break free from a rice-dominant cuisine in the postwar. To comprehend all these changes we need to trace the history of Japanese food preferences, the introduction of meat and oil into the daily Japanese diet, the political changes and relations Japan had with other countries, and Japan’s international conditions over the last two millennia. Ramen did not originate in Japan, but slowly emerged during the postwar and it now dominates East Asian food markets as a single item. The appearance of ramen as the outgrowth of colonial expansion and a merging of national tastes raises questions about national identity through food consumption, competition for consumers through ethnic marketing, and appropriation of national symbols to gain profit.

The cuisine of a nation can tell us a lot about the society itself because there is a link between what people eat and how they perceive the world. Early Japanese travellers to Taiwan and China frequently commented on the “dirty” qualities of Chinese food, disdaining it as uncivilized. In 1911 Kodama Kagai described a Tokyo quarter packed with entertainment venues and small restaurants where numerous Chinese students boarded. He wrote, “There were many Chinese restaurants. They are covered in a kind of rodent-colored film of dirt. When you opened the door, smoke billowed out with the stench of pig fat and you got the feeling it was a sad and decrepit place. Pork is tasty but it’s the food of an indolent and decrepit people.”3 The Japanese of the early Taisho era (1912-26) considered Chinese cuisine backward. Not until after World War Two did Chinese cuisine gain recognition as something worthy, when millions of Japanese repatriates, known as hikiagesha, began to return from the fringes of the shattered empire in 1946. An analysis of ramen’s transformation, as a Chinese cuisine translating across cultures and as a Japanese adoption of Chinese cuisine into a new Japanese national dish, provides us with a lens into how food appropriates national identity. Cuisine transformed cultural concepts about national identity not only through the acquisition of new linguistic labels also captured through the stomachs of its citizenry.

In Japan, there is still no consensus concerning how to describe national cuisines -with terms loaded in historical significance such as 中華料理 (chûkaryôri), 支那料理 (shinaryôri), 日本料理 (nihonryôri in Japanese, currently used in Chinese - riben liaoli - to denote Japanese food), 和食 (washoku) (just a few of the numerous terms for Chinese food and Japanese food employed in both the Chinese and Japanese languages). There was no agreement regarding what to even call food from China and Japan until the 1930s and 1940s. This later calcified postwar. This indecision concerning which words to use to talk about Japanese, Chinese or even western cuisine started in the mid 1800s when the existence of a national cuisine and the tools used to consume were suddenly considered markers of civilization and enlightenment. When Fukuzawa Yukichi first published his 1867 book on the material culture of the west the Japanese had no word for fork, so he invented nikusashi or meat skewer, and used the Japanese reading of the traditional Chinese character for spoon (匙).4


Inside of a typcial ramen shop. Photo © Barak Kushner.
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In recent years ramen has also gone international, headlining as the main dish in kitchens and on dining tables from New York to Paris to Korea. Ramen is also more than just a food, and according to a growing group of “noodle scholars” in Japan, the soup has begun to dominate appetites on an international scale. Ramen is big business and an offshoot product created in 1958, instant ramen, now sells more than 65 billion bowls every year (as of 2008).

One group of scholars has even recently launched an academic journal called Noodle World devoted to the anthropology, sociology and economy of noodles around the world. Okuyama Tadamasa, one of the editors, is the author of several scholastic treatises on ramen and a former professor of business and finance. He claims that the proliferation of ramen franchises in Japan and its spread from the Far East into the rest of the world demonstrate the end of western dominance over national cuisines.5 Okuyama is a fascinating character and perhaps the real focal point for renewed academic interest in food. I met him in the lobby of a large hotel in Hakata where we discussed the history of ramen for several hours.5 Perched on a leather reclining chair but poised forward in an excited manner, Okuyama, with his background in business, expounded on his numerous theories about the significance of ramen. It may sound strange but he is quite convincing on the need to look at food history as a barometer for economic analysis. He sees ramen more than a cuisine but as an avenue for studying the evolution of society as a whole. Okuyama has taught in Japan and in 2004 was still traveling by hydrofoil to Pusan, South Korea, a three-hour ride, to teach finance at a local university. Obviously, his business experience and international travel has provided him with an insight other cultural historians lack. Statistically he is correct; more people around the world eat ramen in some form on a daily basis than any other foodstuff. Ramen deserves to be taken seriously as a topic of historical inquiry.

Ramen is also more than just a food and carries with it a dominant political ideology about what a nation consumes and therefore how it defines itself through cuisine. Okuyama explained to me he believed that the proliferation of ramen franchises in Japan and their propulsion outward from the Far East into the rest of the world demonstrates a type of anti-Huntington thesis. Samuel Huntington, a professor of international and area studies at Harvard, has staked his career on several weighty tomes that explain that arising conflicts among nations are not centered on political ideology but culture. He concludes that we are ultimately facing the ‘clash of civilizations,’ which is the title of one of his most well-known books. The veracity of Huntington’s thesis aside, Okuyama asserts that the popularity of ramen, nay, it’s very existence stemming from the synthesis of Chinese and Japanese popular culture, proves that Huntington is wrong. If cultures symbiotically join, constantly creating new and exciting food products, as Okuyama’s theory of ramen suggests, Huntington is myopically only looking at one arena of culture for conflict. While listening to him detail his theory in the air-conditioned comfort of southern Kyushu you cannot help but be drawn in by Okuyama’s enthusiasm and constant flood of examples and data. I admit he offers a convincing argument. Who else thinks about food as the marker of political international relationships? Okuyama’s thesis posits a happy and peaceful co-existence of cultures leading to tasty treats in the next century in contrast to the more pessimistic view of Huntington. Huntington’s work may be more politically savvy, and Okuyama’s ideology skewed, but I personally prefer the prospect of fusion cafés on every corner to a life of only American domestic dining options.

Although it is sold as a national dish, regionally in Japan various prefectures are struggling within a shrinking market to clearly distinguish themselves from their fellow competitors through ramen. During the prewar ramen was available as a cheap dish; currently in today’s market each specific taste is associated with a different Japanese prefecture: Wakayama on the east coast exalts pork and soy sauce; Sapporo, the main city of the northern island of Hokkaido uses a miso base with soy and salt; Kuji, a city way up in the northeastern prefecture of Iwate, represents the chicken and soy sauce crowd. Tokyo representatives staff a store with a thinner soy sauce soup, and Kumamoto deep in the south shows off with its pork cutlet base taste. Ramen had been synthesized nationally in the prewar and the competition has promoted a further enhancement of this evolution in the postwar.

Ramen has undergone several metamorphoses over the last one hundred and fifty years. The soup transformed in the late 1800s noodle soup as an immigrant food of expatriate Chinese living in Japan into the choice of urban laborers and later postwar as an antidote for starvation with the introduction of instant ramen. Ando Momofuku, the inventor of instant ramen, had started his experiments to create the dry noodle soup in 1948 when Japan really did face mass starvation and cities had less than enough food. By the time he had developed a successful product ten years later, while Japan was not wealthy, the nation no longer faced empty dinner plates. Instant ramen therefore became less of an antidote and more of a recipe for a nation on the move, with workers putting in overtime and searching for a quick meal on the go. As much as the original ramen represented an expanding urban class and the internationalization of prewar Japan, instant ramen demonstrated the new taste of convenience and speed. Ramen further evolved during Japan’s economic boom in the 1970-80s to become an elite dish served with hushed tones in fancy restaurants throughout the Japanese islands. But even the term, ramen, is new and it was not until after World War Two that ramen really took off as a Japanese dish. The story of how ramen developed is the culmination of the long history of Sino-Japanese relations up to the 20th century. Believing ramen to be a timeless Japanese dish is similar to the misconception that fish and chips is a long-time traditional British meal. In both cases, ramen and fish and chips, the dishes actually evolved from early 20th century social and political changes that deeply altered the landscape of their respective national cuisines and until recently were not distinctive features of either culture.

Although ramen did not originate as a Japanese product it now dominates East Asian food markets as a single item. Its appearance raises questions of national identity through food consumption, competition for consumers through ethnic marketing, and the hegemony of national symbols concerning cuisine culture. The next time you enjoy a bowl, think about it.

1Interview conducted on August 6, 2004.

2Ben Rogers. Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation. London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.

3児玉花外 , 東京印象記. 東京:金尾文淵堂,1911(Kodama Kagai, Tokyo inshôki.  Tokyo: Kanao Bunendô, 1911)

4福沢諭吉、『西洋衣食住』、1867 (Fukuzawa Yukichi, Seiyô ishokujû, first printed in 1867. Reprinted in 巻2、福沢全集、東京:時事新報社,明31(Volume 2, Fukuzawa zenshû, Tokyo: Jijishinpôsha, 1898.)

5奥山忠政『文化麺類学 ラーメン編、明石書店、2003. (Okuyama Tadamasa, Bunka menruigaku ramenhen, Akashi shoten, 2003.)

6Interview conducted July 27, 2004.

7Samuel P. Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster, 1998.


Type,Article; Theme,Culture; Topic,Food; Topic,History-Modern; Topic,Popular Culture;
ramen, food, sino-japanese, taisho, meiji, postwar, occupation, instant ramen, fast food,food