Will rice cookers save the Japanese home electronics industry?

July 14th, 2014 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

Pricey rice: High function rice cookers on display at a discount electronics store

It’s been well documented that the Chinese are considered the saviors of the Japanese tourist trade, but there’s more to the story than just tour numbers and hotel bookings. An article in the July 10 Asahi Shimbun described an odd and recurring dilemma at Kansai International Airport. Chinese tourists are buying Japanese-made rice cookers at the airport’s souvenir shops in large numbers. Since the purchases are made after the travelers have gone through immigration processing, they don’t have to pay duty, but at that point they’ve already checked their luggage, and the rice cookers in their boxes won’t fit into overhead bins in airplane cabins.

Some of the rice cookers will fit if they’re removed from the boxes, but people on these flights are buying more and more of the home appliances so in some cases there is no room for any of them, which means flight attendants have to assist in having these patrons check the items so that they can put them in the cargo hold, and as a result more and more flights back to China are being delayed.

Rice cookers became a very popular item among Chinese tourists in 2010, when visa rules were relaxed to allow travelers who weren’t members of organized tours to come to Japan freely. One of the clerks in the Osaka airport souvenir store told Asahi that he once saw a Chinese tourist buy six of the devices at one time. One Chinese businessman who comes to Japan on a regular basis says he’s always getting requests from acquaintances to buy rice cookers for them. This souvenir store, in fact, sells an average of 10 cookers a day, most of them high-end models, which can cost as much as ¥90,000.

Last April, during cherry blossom viewing season, the store sold an average of 20 a day. A representative of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda in Osaka told the paper that whenever Chinese tour groups visit the discount electronics store they usually buy more rice cookers than they have members. Yodobashi has a duty-free system for tourists, but actually most Chinese prefer buying their rice cookers in the airport, since the price isn’t any different and they don’t have to lug the things around with them prior to departure. But there is the problem of carry-on.

Why rice cookers? There are few appliances that reflect Japan’s so-called Galapagos design mindset as thoroughly as rice cookers. They basically do one thing: Cook Japanese rice in a way that only Japanese people prefer. The rest of the world doesn’t eat much sticky, white, short-grained rice unless it’s combined with sauce or other prepared foods, and that includes the rest of Asia. Even China, from which Japan first imported rice-growing techniques, isn’t big on rice as a separate dish. It prefers long-grain rice, which is always prepared with something else in mind, and while it is considered a staple, at mealtime it isn’t as important as other dishes. In the northern part of China, many people don’t eat rice at all, since they grow more wheat there due to the colder climate.

But as more and more Chinese tourists have come to Japan, they have discovered the unique joys of sticky white rice.  As incomes rise in China, people are broadening their food choices, and one of those choices is short-grain rice. If it’s Japanese grown, it’s even better, despite the high price. And the best way to prepare it is with a Japanese-made rice cooker.

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers Association, more rice cookers are manufactured in China than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority are inexpensive models with few features. The first Japanese rice cooker was made by Toshiba in the mid-1950s, and since then they have become extremely sophisticated. Some even include porcelain containers and functions that allow the user to make rice that tasted as if it were made the old-fashioned way, in a kamado, the traditional, charcoal burning Japanese stove. Now, apparently, Japanese manufacturers are incorporating functions that will appeal to Chinese users, such as the ability to cook long-grain rice and different kinds of porridge.

In its own peculiar way, the Japanese rice cooker has done more to extend a specific Japanese sensibility than any electronic device since the Walkman. As any Japanese person over a certain age will tell you, the preparation of rice is the most important culinary consideration with regard to the Japanese menu. Cooking rice the proper way is difficult and time-consuming. You have to wash the rice throroughly until the runoff water is utterly transparent. Then the rice has to sit in that water for a certain length of time. The pot used for cooking rice, a kama, is only used for rice. First the rice in the water is boiled and the flame reduced — which, before gas stoves, meant removing pieces of charcoal from the kamado. And the person doing the cooking has to stay and monitor the flame for at least 15 minutes.

Consequently, the rice cooker was a huge boon for housewives. It not only freed up their time so that they could cook other dishes simultaneously, it freed up cooking space. Most Japanese kitchens with natural gas have only two burners. When makers added timing devices, rice cooking became exponentially easier because it cut the time needed for preparation, especially in the morning when housewives had to prepare breakfast and lunchboxes. Reheated cold rice is normally not acceptable. That’s why the next development was the “jar,” a special device for storing already made rice to keep it warm for later in the day without drying out. When the rice cookers themselves incorporated jar functions, the appliance had become perfect.

But only perfect to Japanese people. Most everyone else in the world didn’t eat rice this way, but apparently the Chinese are catching on. It’s too much to hope that their sudden affection for Japanese style rice will single-handedly save Japan’s home electronics industry — not to mention Japanese agriculture — but you never know. Look what the Walkman wrought.

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