It is the staple of college campuses and poor neighborhoods everywhere in the US, sold in grocery stores at six for a dollar. In Japan, there are over 1000 different local versions. In New York, luxury chefs serve bowls costing sixteen dollars apiece. It is Ramen. And here is its history–a history centering around imperialism, colonialism, war, occupation, economic power, and economic decline.
For most of history, Japan and China have had a schizophrenic relationship. Over the centuries, Japan assiduously copied much of Chinese culture, importing Chinese writing, religion, ceramics, and governmental structure. The Chinese in turn tried twice to invade Japan and conquer it, losing both times.
By the 1890s, the once-mighty Chinese Empire lay prostrate, crippled by Europeans who, with their superior military technology, occupied many of China’s coastal cities and dominated her economy. Japan, after undergoing the Meiji Restoration and transforming itself in just a few years from a backwards feudal society into a modern industrial economy, was looking to flex its military muscles, and China made a convenient target. In 1895, in the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese Navy inflicted a crushing defeat on China, and Japanese forces invaded and occupied the Chinese client state of Korea and the island of Formosa (now known as Taiwan), along with many of China’s coastal areas. The victorious Japanese began consolidating their new empire. They forced people in the occupied areas to learn Japanese and adopt Japanese culture.
But the cultural exchange went both ways. A number of people from the occupied areas of Korea and China went to Japan, and introduced elements of their own culture there. The cultural elite in Tokyo quickly adopted Chinese-style dress and decorations. To the Japanese, adopting the best elements of their conquered enemy’s culture was one of the benefits of imperial colonialism.
One of these cultural elements was introduced to Japan in 1910, when a handful of Chinese cooks opened a noodle restaurant in Tokyo. For centuries, the Japanese had eaten boiled noodles made from buckwheat, called soba. The Chinese cooks at the Rairaken Restaurant also offered soba dishes on their menu–but they were made with traditional Chinese noodles instead. These were kneaded by hand using carbonated mineral water, which made them stretchier and longer than traditional Japanese noodles. They were served in a chicken or pork flavored broth. The Japanese began calling the new dish “shina soba” (“Chinese noodles”). In the years leading up to World War Two, shina soba became wildly popular. Soon, noodle restaurants all over Japan were making their own local variations, serving them with vegetables, seaweed, slices of chicken, bamboo, and other toppings. For many Japanese nationalists and militarists, especially after Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in the 1930’s, shina soba was a symbol of Japanese Empire and the benefits that derived from colonialism and expansionism.
After the defeat in the Pacific and the occupation of Japan by the Americans, it was no longer a good idea to celebrate Japanese imperial conquests, and the name “shina soba” was quietly dropped. Now, the noodle/broth dish was more benevolently called “chuka soba” (“Chinese-style noodles”).
The Americans also brought a further change. The war had destroyed nearly all of Japan’s economic resources, including its agricultural sector. Traditional buckwheat became scarce. As hunger increased, the poorer populations in the Japanese countryside and in the cities became more and more distressed, and in protest many of them turned to the Japanese Communist Party. This was something the American occupation authorities could not allow to happen–not only would it cause potential problems with the occupation, but the Cold War was beginning, and Japan was an enormously valuable strategic ally against the Russians. To solve the food shortages, the Americans began importing large amounts of wheat from the United States, which the Japanese, rather than making American-style bread, duly used to make their chuka sobanoodles.
During the 1950’s, the Japanese economy grew at a rapid rate. At first, the economy was based on low-paying labor intensive jobs like assembling American radios and TV sets, but within a few years Japan had a thriving industrial base of its own, and rising wages created a middle-class that wanted economic luxuries. Traditional Japanese ways disappeared, and Japan became a modern consumer economy.
In 1958, the traditional chuka soba underwent an industrial change. A man named Momofuku Ando founded a small business called the Nissin Foods Company and developed a way to deep-fry chuka soba noodles, dehydrate them, then press them into a brick and wrap them in cellophane with a foil flavor packet. Mass-produced, these could be turned out in immense quantities at low prices. At home, the dehydrated noodles could be cooked in minutes by immersing them in boiling water and adding the flavor packet. It was the Japanese equivalent of the American “tv dinner”, and it swept the whole country. It was called “Ra Men”, after the Chinese words for “kneaded noodles”.
By the mid 1970’s, Japan was becoming a global economic power. The Japanese automobile, steel, and electronics industries dominated the world and invaded the European and American markets. There was serious talk that Japan would become the new economic superpower, eclipsing the United States. Once again, Japan had an economic empire–this time without firing a shot. And once again, Japanese culture went along with it–including Ramen. In 1970, Nissin introduced Ramen to the US in the form of “Cup-o-Noodles”, then “Top Ramen”.
At first, sales were slow–partly because of intense nationalistic anti-Japanese feelings in the United States. Purchases of American cultural icons like Rockefeller Center and Columbia Records by Japanese companies provoked public outrage. Japanese automobiles were being symbolically burned at protest rallies. In 1982, a Chinese-American student named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by a Chrysler manager and his laid-off son-in-law, who mistakenly thought he was Japanese.
In the late 1980’s, however, Japan’s economy stumbled, then tanked. A housing and banking crisis brought financial chaos, and several years of economic depression resulted. Now that Japan was no longer a real economic threat, Japanese culture became much more acceptable in the United States, and along with manga, anime, samurai and ninja movies, Nintendo video games, cosplay, and Hello Kitty, Ramen invaded the US and sales surged. This was particularly aided by the near ubiquity of microwave ovens in the US–cheap filling food and a quick easy way to make it, was a perfect marriage.
By 2005 there were over 85 billion bricks of Ramen being sold around the world each year. Today, Nissin Company has annual sales over $3 billion, with 7,000 employees around the world. Momofuku Ando lived to be over 90, attributing his longevity to his habit of eating one meal of Ramen every day.