Designs That Defined Modern Japan: The Rice Cooker

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and the audience were set the challenge of coming with their own list of 8 Designs That Defined Modern Japan. I have already done five posts (these are not in any particular order or ranking) on the shinkansen, Hello Kitty, the washlet (‘Japanese toilet’), emoji, and the personal stereo/Walkman. This time I am covering the rice cooker.

The rice cooker is the first one that I have written about that was neither on Kashiwagi’s list nor, as far as I remember, got included in the discussion with the audience. I suspect that this is because that the rice cooker has just become so ubiquitous. Or perhaps people aren’t aware of the history of the rice cooker and that it was first developed in Japan.

Or perhaps people are just not aware of what a huge impact the rice cooker has had.

In relation to this, there are a few publications that you need to be reading by Helen Macnaughtan, such as (2012) ‘Building up Steam as Consumers: Women, Rice Cookers and the Consumption of Everyday Household Goods in Japan’. In: Francks, Penelope and Hunter, Janet, (eds.), The Historical Consumer: Consumption and Everyday Life in Japan, 1850-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 79-104 (or, if you prefer the Japanese – (2016) ‘Jōki no Chikara, Shōhisha no Chikara – Josei, Suihanki, Katei Yōhin no Shōhi’. In: Francks, Penelope and Hunter, Janet, (eds.), Rekishi no Naka no Shōhisha: Nihon ni okeru shōhi to kurashi 1850-2000. Tokyo: Hōsei Daigaku Shuppan-kyoku, pp 85-113). You can also listen to a podcast that Macnaughtan did for the Nissan Institute at Oxford University on the subject “Building up Steam as Consumers: Women, Rice Cookers and the Consumption of Everyday Household Goods in Japan”

If you want to understand how women in Japan became the key consumers – a point that I remember coming across when doing my undergraduate dissertation about the creation of the professional football league, J.League, in Japan and how it was thought that making it popular with women would be key to its ultimate success or failure – you need to be reading the work of Macnaughtan and understanding what the significance was of the rice cooker within this.

The rice cooker was a product that gave women more time to do other things as preparing the rice had been so labour and time intensive (keep in mind how much I hate that sentence as it points to the gender imbalance of roles in the home). It helped lead to an important consumer boom that boosted the Japanese economy as a whole at a time when the country was still trying to recover after WWII. It helped put women at front of centre of consumerism. Whether you think consumerism is a good or bad thing is not the relevant point here – the point is that consumerism became the key feature of modern economies and, for Japan, the rice cooker was, in many respects what started it – before the “3Cs” of cars, colour TVs, and coolers (air-conditioners). And that’s why it is on my list rather than a colour TV (as Kashiwagi had on his list).

And today, the rice cooker is an essential part of the kitchen around the world (the one in the photograph is the one we have at home) – for people of all genders.

Although I am not ranking the eight designs that defined Japan in my posts, if I were to, it would be hard to see how anything could replace the rice cooker at the top of this list.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ryan says:

    Good afternoon Christopher from Ottawa, Canada. I’m currently reading your book, Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan. I also recently listened to your interview on Compounding Curiosity and I’m now stumbling upon your blog content.

    I recently visited Japan twice in 2018/2019 and these trips have sparked a complete fascination with the culture. I have even taken some formal coursework in Japanese studies (albeit introductory). Currently, we are planning our next trip for when travel becomes possible once COVID restrictions allow. You bet I’ll be using the Shinkansen once again.

    This rice cooker post is really interesting as my partner bought a rice cooker in Japan when she lived there for a year. We brought it back home and recently picked up a step-down voltage converter to be able to use it in Canada.

    I love walking around Tokyo electronic shops and seeing the amazing technology that they have.


    1. HoodCP says:

      Thank you very much for the comments and for reading my Shinkansen book. Hopefully you’ll be able to get to Japan again soon.


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