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The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze

The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze

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The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze

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334 pagine
6 ore
Feb 22, 2014


A rich, salty, and steaming bowl of noodle soup, ramen has become an international symbol of the cultural prowess of Japanese cuisine. In this highly original account of geopolitics and industrialization in Japan, George Solt traces the meteoric rise of ramen from humble fuel for the working poor to international icon of Japanese culture.

Ramen’s popularity can be attributed to political and economic change on a global scale. Using declassified U.S. government documents and an array of Japanese sources, Solt reveals how the creation of a black market for American wheat imports during the U.S. occupation of Japan (1945–1952), the reindustrialization of Japan’s labor force during the Cold War, and the elevation of working-class foods in redefining national identity during the past two decades of economic stagnation (1990s–2000s), all contributed to the establishment of ramen as a national dish.

This book is essential reading for scholars, students of Japanese history and food studies, and anyone interested in gaining greater perspective on how international policy can influence everyday foods around the world.
Feb 22, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

George Solt is Assistant Professor of History at New York University.

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The Untold History of Ramen


George Solt


Berkeley    Los Angeles    London

University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit

University of California Press

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

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© 2014 by The Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Solt, George.

    The untold history of ramen : how political crisis in Japan spawned a global food craze / George Solt.

        p.    cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-520-27756-4 (cloth, alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-520-28235-3 (pbk., alk. paper)

eISBN 9780520958371

    1. Ramen (Cooking—Japan—History.    2. Japan—Social life and customs—History.    I. Title.

TX809.N65S65    2014



Manufactured in the United States of America

23    22    21    20    19    18    17    16    15    14

10    9    8    7    6    5    4    3    2    1

In keeping with a commitment to support environmentally responsible and sustainable printing practices, UC Press has printed this book on Natures Natural, a fiber that contains 30% post-consumer waste and meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R 1997) (Permanence of Paper).

You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jelly beans.

Ronald Reagan

For Beverly


List of Illustrations


Introduction. National Food

1. Street Life: Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers

2. Not an Easy Road: Black Market Ramen and the U.S. Occupation

3. Move On Up: Fuel for Rapid Growth

4. Like It Is, Like It Was: Rebranding Ramen

5. Flavor of the Month: American Ramen and Cool Japan

Conclusion. Time Will Tell: A Food of Opposition


Works Cited




1. Wheat in Japan

2. Average Annual Household Restaurant Expenditures, by Year in Yen


1. Statue of Andō Momofuku, founder of the Nissin Foods Corporation

2. Re-creation of the hut where Andō Momofuku developed instant ramen

3. Inside the hut where Andō Momofuku developed instant ramen

4. Pamphlet for Tokushima ramen and tulip tour

5. Ramen-related books on display at the Nissin Foods Corporation’s Food Library

6. The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum

7. Entry ticket to the Raumen Museum

8. Raumen Museum gift shop

9. Oversize ramen pushcart vendor on display at the Raumen Museum

10. Map showing where the ingredients in Sano Minoru’s ramen are produced

11. A common diner in a Tokyo residential neighborhood

12. A traditional ramen shop

13. A newer ramen shop


The book began as a doctoral dissertation at the University of California San Diego, where the late Masao Miyoshi was kind enough to allow me to pursue this topic while working toward a degree in history. My advisors at UCSD, Stefan Tanaka and Takashi Fujitani, were supportive and generous with their time as well. Christena Turner and Daniel Widener helped me distill the project when it was still in a much earlier stage, and Robert Edelmann was a source of friendly advice at UCSD. Hifumi Ito, Masato Nishimura, Mayumi Mochizuki, Yutaka Kunitake, and Sanae Isozumi at UCSD were also very kind in helping me gather research materials and think through the topic at an early stage, and I thank Tomoyuki Sasaki, Ryan Moran, and Denis Gainty for their camaraderie.

At Amherst College, Ray A. Moore and Kim Brandt introduced me to Japanese history, and I thank them for cultivating my interest in the subject. Wako Tawa helped me learn the language and culture of Japan, and I am grateful for her efforts in making it possible for me to study in Japan during my junior year. Gordon Levin, Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Umphrey were all inspirational teachers I was fortunate to have met at Amherst.

In Japan, the late Murai Yoshinori generously sponsored my studies at the Institute of Asian Cultures at Sophia University. I also thank Taguchi Tetsuya at Dōshisha University and Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro at Waseda University for their support and advice. The Japan Foundation was extremely generous in providing support for the research that preceded the writing of the book, and I thank the people there for allowing me to live in Tokyo and study for a year.

At New York University, I thank my colleagues in the History Department, particularly Yanni Kotsonis, Joanna Waley-Cohen, and Mark Swislocki, who read earlier drafts of the manuscript and offered me valuable feedback on how to revise it. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Guy Ortolano, David Ludden, Michael Gomez, Rebecca Karl, Andrew Sartori, Stefanos Geroulanos, Jane Burbank, Karl Appuhn, Maria Montoya, Anindya Ghose, and Masato Hasegawa have each contributed to this book in a variety of ways, and I thank them for their time. Zawadi Barskile, Chung-Hao Kuo, Lin-Yi Tseng, Naoko Koda, and Joel Matthews have also aided the project at various points, and I thank them as well.

Eric Rath at the University of Kansas and Samuel Yamashita at Pomona College patiently read earlier drafts of the manuscript and offered me their insights, and I am most grateful to them for their advice. Fragments of my Ramen and U.S. Occupation Policy appeared in Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, edited by Eric Rath and Stephanie Assmann (University of Illinois Press 2010), and have been considerably altered for use in chapter 2. A part of chapter 3 appeared in Shifting Perceptions of Instant Ramen in Japan during the High-Growth Era, International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies 8, no. 22 (2012).

Kate Marshall at University of California Press welcomed the book from the beginning, and I am deeply indebted to her for working closely with me in editing the manuscript.

My friends Prentiss Austin, Aaron Bishop, Jesse Hofrichter, David Yoo, and Jesse Halpern provided suggestions and thoughts on the book at various points, and I thank them for keeping me grounded with their camaraderie. My family in California, Ying Liang, Hsiu-lien Chang, Andrew Solt, Joshua Solt, Dakota Solt, and Claudia Falkenburg, were supportive throughout the process, and I am grateful for their role in keeping me focused.

I thank my parents, John and Sachiko Solt, and my brother, Ken Solt, for backing me up in my decisions at all times. Lastly, I would like to thank my wife, Beverly, and our three children, Marcus, Malcolm, and Maria, for their love and patience. All errors of fact and judgment are solely my responsibility.



Ōsaki Hiroshi, fifty-four, eats approximately eight hundred bowls of ramen per year and writes about ramen for a living. In his book The Secret History of Ramen in Japan (Nihon rāmen hishi), he claims to have ingested more than twenty thousand bowls over his lifetime at 9,500 shops spread across the archipelago of Japan.¹ As the founder of the Ramen Bank, a website offering information on 35,330 ramen shops, he is part of a generation of ramen devotees who have worked to elevate the food from one associated with manual labor and night entertainment to an iconic component of Japanese national food culture. Ōsaki and others have transformed ramen in Japan into much more than simply a food. It has become an important source of tourist revenue, an idealized refuge for laid-off workers, and a focal point for the redefinition of the nation and its history.

There is something excessive about ramen. The salt, the lard, the lines of people waiting, the guidebooks, the television shows, the museum, and the taste of an unforgettable bowl—there is nothing else quite like it in Japan. The meaning that young people attach to the consumption of this noodle soup has been a seemingly inexhaustible resource for reality television producers, graphic novelists, and food bloggers. Every type of food has its fans, but the exaltation of ramen in Japanese popular culture in the past three decades is difficult to overstate. Ramen is now referred to as a national food (kokuminshoku) in Japan, and it is rapidly gaining popularity among foodies abroad. Sushi, tempura, and teriyaki may be the foods most closely associated with the nation outside Japan, but within the country, ramen and other so-called B-class gourmet foods such as Japanese-style curry rice, rice bowls (donburi), and premade lunchboxes (bentō) take center stage as the time-tested comfort foods that have contributed to the postwar healing of the nation. It was not until the 1990s, however, that ramen became recognized as a national food of Japan. How did this happen, and, more importantly, why? What is the relationship between the national media’s spotlighting of the iconic food of the postwar Japanese workingman as a component of national identity and the relative lack of stable employment opportunities, particularly for young people, in the last twenty years?

Ramen means different things even to the same people. It can be a marker of cultural loss (wheat over rice) and preservation (noodles over bread), labor (lunch for construction workers) and leisure (late-night carbohydrates after drinking), derivativeness (Chinese influence) and inventiveness (Japanese curry ramen), speed (instant noodles) and slowness (artisanal soup). In this way, symbolic connections between food, national identity, and labor are sometimes contradictory and difficult to untangle. Yet any attempt to discuss culture in modern Japan, and the postwar period in particular, is incomplete without an understanding of food; any analysis of food in modern Japan is wanting without an understanding of the pivotal role ramen has played in defining the working class, and more recently the nation itself. This book therefore examines the history of ramen with a specific focus on the logic behind the dish’s availability, popularity, and function in reproducing labor power and, subsequently, national identity.

Ramen has had many incarnations in Japan, and each wave of popularity is attributable to a contingent set of political and economic circumstances that underlie the dish’s symbolic and material resurgence. The shifting composition and function of ramen in terms of ingredients, pricing, and production processes are deeply connected to both shifts in food practices on a mass scale in Japan accompanying the transition to a modern industrial economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the changing symbolic associations of new foods with different nations, regions, classes, and gender roles. By highlighting the materiality of historical change, the book posits that the story of ramen is the clearest manifestation of the changing role of food in the reproduction of labor power and the redefinition of the nation in Japan.


Although there are as many types of ramen as there are ramen chefs, the most basic components of a bowl are the noodles, the stock, and the flavoring sauce. The noodles (men) are made from wheat flour, salt, water, and usually baking soda-infused water (kansui), which endows the noodles with a yellowish color, slippery texture, and distinct odor and also enhances their chewiness. In general, the farther south and west one travels in Japan, the less kansui one finds in the ramen. Noodles with a high percentage of kansui (in which the baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, comprises 30 to 40 percent of the water in the recipe) tend to be served most frequently in the north and east of Japan. Hakata-style ramen (named after the city of Hakata in Kyūshū) and Okinawa soba (served primarily in the prefecture of Okinawa) contain noodles using no kansui, whereas Tokyo- and Sapporo-style ramen use noodles with a significant amount of kansui.

The soup broth (shiru) is made by simmering some combination of meat, seafood, and vegetables. The meat usually consists of chicken or pork (particularly the feet, back, ribs, knuckles, and occasionally the head of the pig). While traditional Tokyo ramen shops use only chicken and no pork in making the broth, Kyūshū ramen shops are known for their heavy use of pork and pork bones (tonkotsu).² The seafood component consists of clams, dried fish (usually sardines or bonito), and dried kelp (konbu). The standard vegetables used in the broth are onions, scallions, ginger, and garlic, although more recently shops such as Ajito, near Ōimachi station in Tokyo, have begun using kabocha squash, potatoes, and even apples in what is commonly referred to as vegetable potage (bejipota) ramen.

Finally, the concentrated seasoning sauce (tare), usually available in three flavors—salt (shio), fermented soybean paste (miso), or soy sauce (shōyu)—provides the flavor for the soup base. Although there are exceptional cases of shops that abstain from any use of tare, such as Ramen Zero Plus in the fashionable Omotesando-district of Tokyo, nearly every ramen chef makes his own tare and keeps the recipe, as well the techniques for creating his soup broth, a closely guarded secret.

The independent ramen shop has thrived in an era when most other small food businesses have struggled. There are more than eighty thousand restaurants serving ramen in Japan, about thirty-five thousand of which are ramen specialty shops. Each region of the country is home to a different style of soup, noodle, and toppings, and there is never a shortage of new combinations of ingredients being tested and touted at new shops. There are ramen shop associations that serve as lobbying groups for the industry, and millions of ramen shop employees whose livelihoods depend on the regular visits to the ramen shop by local residents. The average hourly wage for a new hire is usually 800 yen to 1,000 yen ($9.40 to $11.75), and the average cost of a bowl in Tokyo is now 590 yen ($6.50), up from 450 yen in 1990.³


In the present, where connections to history have been severed, ramen is a tool to rearticulate the charm of Japan’s traditions.

Hayamizu Kenrō

Ramen, available throughout Japan in different regional varieties, is not cheap, but it is usually affordable. Its preeminent role in the postwar Japanese diet can perhaps be understood as similar to the role of pizza in American food practices.⁴ As are many of Japan’s most popular foods, ramen originated in a foreign country before evolving into a national favorite. (Kasutera, or castella pound cake, is from Portugal, kare’e raisu, or curry with rice, is from British India, and spaghetti with meat sauce is from Italy via the United States.) Although ramen’s origins can be traced to China, the noodle soup is unparalleled in its ubiquity, popularity, and national symbolism as a Japanese dish, both to Japanese and, increasingly, to non-Japanese.

Ramen began life in Japan as a cheap, scrumptious, and filling food from China. Although a precise point of origin is elusive, the introduction of ramen to Japan can be traced to the 1880s, when Chinese migrants from the Guangdong region began working as cooks at restaurants catering to foreigners in the bustling port city of Yokohama. In this early phase, Chinese cooks served their noodle soup and other dishes primarily to other workers and students from their own country. Beginning in the 1910s, however, Japanese restaurateurs employing Chinese chefs transformed the dish into a hearty lunch food containing ingredients previously unused in the Chinese version of the noodle soup, such as roasted pork, soy sauce, and pickled bamboo shoots. Japanese day laborers, students, night workers, and soldiers began consuming the dish with regularity in this period.

Ramen is complicated, and its history is messy. Although the dish is most commonly referred to as rāmen in Japan, it is also called Chūka soba and Shina soba, which are older terms dating back to the 1940s and the 1910s, respectively. Shina, a term associated with the language of Japan’s age of imperialism, is difficult to untangle from the history of colonial subjugation and territorial acquisition by Japan in Asia during its five decades as a modern imperialist power (1895–1945). The term Shina fell into disuse by the Japanese government and mainstream press following protests by the Chinese government after Japan’s defeat by the United States and its allies in World War II, but it is still favored by Japanese nationalists as a less Sinocentric term for China than the standard Chūgoku (Middle Country). Although Chūka soba, which became the dominant term for the food after the war, continues to be used interchangeably with rāmen in Japan without provoking the slightest ire, the term Shina soba remains a loaded term that carries the weight of historical memory and attendant political controversy. Therefore, even in the name of the dish, one finds many of the elisions, revisions, and controversies that animate modern Japanese history.

Ramen evolved differently in each area of Japan. In many of the cities that grew rapidly in the 1920s and 1930s, it became one of the principal foods marking the arrival of a modern urban lifestyle. In Tokyo as well as in regional hubs such as Sapporo in the far north and Hakata in the southwest, the spread of Chinese noodle soup, a cheap, fast, and filling meal packed with salt, animal fat, and factory-processed wheat flour, fit neatly within the structure of modern industrial life, in which new forms of work, ingestion, and amusement were replacing the old. As Japan became industrialized and more urbanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese restaurants and movie theaters gradually replaced the buckwheat noodle (soba) stands and comical storytelling (rakugo) performances that had previously dominated the cityscape. In this manner, ramen production and consumption became an integral component of modern, urban, working-class life in Japan at a time of rapid social, political, and economic change.

The popularity of ramen grew as Japan’s urban working population expanded in the 1920s and 1930s. However, shortages caused by war, first with China in 1937 and then with the United States in 1941, made it increasingly difficult for people in Japan to enjoy ramen by the 1940s. When the war ended in August 1945, not only was ramen nearly impossible to find, but all food had become scarce as a result of bombings, blockades, and bad harvests. Although starvation and scarcity characterized the food situation in the first two years following defeat in World War II, after 1947, the U.S. military’s emergency wheat imports to Japan resuscitated ramen production and consumption on a large scale. The import of wheat from the United States (as well as Canada and Australia) continued well after the formal occupation ended in 1952, fundamentally altering the food habits of people in Japan and other U.S.-Allied countries in East Asia during the Cold War.

In the 1960s, ramen culture spread as employment in construction and heavy industry expanded, and in the 1980s ramen gained national attention in the popular media as a favorite among trendsetting young people. Locally famous shops transformed themselves into domestic tourist attractions, and countless television specials, magazines, and

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