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Ramen Culture in Japan
Food has always been an essential part of human culture. Nothing can unite different people more than a satisfaction received from a tasty meal shared together. Food is the source of energy, a motive for communication, an enjoyment of taste, and even aesthetic pleasure. Therefore, a well-cooked soup appears to need not less creativity than a musical composition. The culture of Japan is rich in unique food traditions that currently are becoming popular all over the world. When any person thinks about Japanese cuisine, the first thing that will come to his/her mind will be sushi or ramen. Ramen have become more than a dish. Ramen culture is considered a vital part of the traditions, a symbol, a cult, and a trend. Studying the history of the transformation of ramen culture and the role it plays in modern Japanese popular culture helps to explore the uniqueness of the phenomenon and understand the origins of its immense popularity.
What is Ramen?
Ramen is a Japanese dish with wheat noodles. The term refers both to the specific type of noodles and the soup cooked using them. The noodles are cooked by using a unique recipe. The required ingredients include wheat flour, salt, water, and a special type of alkaline water. This type of water is called kansui and is known for giving the noodles their yellowish shade. Such water contains certain forms of mineral salt and is considered the most suitable for preparing ramen noodles. However, some people substitute it with eggs. There is a variety of shapes and length of the noodles. Ramen soup is cooked by using ramen noodles, broth based on the meet, and various ingredients. The ingredients can include shiitake (East Asia mushroom), vegetables, fish, meat or eggs. The soup is flavored with salt or other flavors and can be seasoned with different toppings after the preparation.
There are four main types or ramen soup, including shio, tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso. Shio is the oldest and the lightest variant of ramen soup while tonkotsu is prepared by boiling pork bones for hours and is the most nutritious and hearty variant. Shoyu is characterized by extensive use of soy sauce while miso is prepared with the big amount of miso seasoning. Though standard variants of ramen are still popular nowadays, numerous regions of Japan have developed their own unique variations. Sapporo, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Wakayama variants are among the most popular ones. Ramen is served in special restaurants in Japan, as well as in all types of cafes and cafeterias. It is also popular in Asia and all over the world. Nowadays numerous establishments across the country are dedicated to serving their variations of ramen. Many restaurants have established their own “ramen identity” with distinctive flavor and style (Brown and Brown 147). Each establishment attempts to gain a large population of fans and, as soon as it manages to do it, the lines become “never-ending” (Kajiyama 182).
The Transformation of Ramen Culture in Japan
There are several hypotheses on the origin of ramen culture in Japan. According to one of them, ramen was first eaten by the legendary feudal lord, Tokugawa Mitsukuni in the seventieth century, when his servant advised him how to improve the taste of his soup. According to the second hypothesis, the history of ramen culture originated in Japanese port cities where the noodle soup was brought by Chinese immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. The third variant of the history of ramen associates its beginning with the opening of the shop serving the modern version of ramen in Tokyo at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though two of the last variants appear to be more realistic, the first one was used as a true version by Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum opened in 1994 (Karan 108).
Ramen soup began gaining its huge popularity in the 1920s and the 1930s due to the great demand for food that is both hearty and quickly cooked. The industrialization encouraged thousands of Japanese people to work in the cities and have no time for preparing food. Eating outside became more common, and nutritious food was needed to give enough strength to the workers. Ramen soup became a successful solution as it was widely served all over the country and had more calories than traditional Japanese meals did. Therefore, ramen became an essential part of urban culture.
After the Second World War, Japan faced a severe food crisis. As the United States largely imported wheat flour to Japan, the diet of Japanese people living in that time heavily relayed on dishes made with the use of wheat. Ramen was among the most popular meals and helped the country to survive in the hardest times. In such way, ramen has become a symbol of desperate times and gained the reputation of the food that saved the people during the great hunger.
As the Japanese economy recovered from the crisis and started gaining the strength in the 1960s, the government started popularizing Western diet in Japan. Both ministries and nutritionists assumed people that the wheat-based diet is much healthier than the rice-based diet that was the basis of Japanese food traditions for centuries. Such situation changed the image of ramen in popular culture, and it became a symbol of new more Western-directed culture instead of being a symbol of despair.
Besides classic ramen soup popular in Japan and all over the world, ramen culture has given one of the most industrialized foods – instant noodles. Instant ramen were invented by Momofoku Ando in 1950s and quickly gained huge popularity in and outside the country. The invention gave millions of people accustomed to ramen culture an opportunity to stick to the traditions without spending much time for cooking. Instant ramen are considered by Japanese the most useful invention in Japan in the twentieth century, as they gave modern people eager to save time for cooking an opportunity to have a tasty hot meal by spending only a few minutes for preparing it. Though being rejected by Japanese industry soon after their invention, instant ramen have become not only a national food but a global food and a significant achievement of ramen culture.
A new transformation of ramen culture happened in the 1980s when ramen became a trendy item. Previously considered food for hard-workers, ramen turned to an attribute of the new generation of young people living in urban areas (Lombardi par. 21). The meal was no longer regarded as a cheap one, and thousands of special restaurants serving ramen were opening all over the country. Visiting such restaurants became a part of a lifestyle and a trend in popular culture.
Though ramen originated from Chinese cuisine, it has made a long way to becoming a part of traditional Japanese culture. Nowadays ramen is considered a “quintessentially Japanese dish” all over the world (Lombardi par. 24). Japanese regard it as a part of their cultural heritage and no longer treat it as a meal that originated from a foreign cuisine. The servers in ramen shops no longer wear a uniform in traditional Chinese colors, and the interior of the shops do not present any evidence of the connection between ramen and Chinese culture. First being “Chinese noodles made Japanese way”, ramen have become one of the most well-recognized symbols of modern Japan all over the world (Brown and Brown 147).
Ramen Culture as a Part of Japanese Modern Pop Culture
Ramen culture has entered all areas of life in Japan and earned a unique place in the everyday life of millions of people. The significance of ramen in Japanese culture of the past three decades is “difficult to overstate” (Solt 2). Ramen culture is widely reflected in all parts of popular culture, including television, literature, music, web sources, etc.
The meaning attached to ramen culture by modern generation has become a resource for numerous reality shows and TV Programs (Solt 1). Numerous television documentaries investigate the history of ramen culture (Solt 7). Many anime and manga cartoons, which are extremely popular among Japanese youth, mention ramen on different occasions (e.g. Kinnikuman, Naruto, One-Piece, Great Teacher Onizuka, etc.). The lifestyles of the heroes, their preferences in food, and, sometimes, even their names reflect ramen culture (e.g. “Ramenman”). Numerous series also mention ramen, including InuYasha, Kappa Mickey, and Lupin the Third. Many movies reflect the cult of ramen in Japan. “Tampopo” (1985) is a comedy that sheds the light on the Japanese food habits and frequently appoints to the cult of ramen. The movie depicts the story of the woman eager to open ramen restaurant and reveals the obsession with and dedication to ramen culture (Shimbo 103). “Ramen Girl” (2008) is another movie explaining ramen culture as its plot is also based on the life of the owner of a ramen shop.
Besides being a popular theme used on television, ramen culture is largely covered by thousands of literary sources. The number of modern books investigating different issues related to ramen culture is huge. Solt has classified the existing literature related to ramen cult and identified eight major groups, including ramen guidebooks, manuals for “would-be entrepreneurs”, graphic novels and fictional pieces, autobiographies of celebrity ramen chefs, books studying historical development of ramen culture, books studying the representation of ramen in popular culture, works using ramen to comment on social issues, and the sources aimed to explain the origins of popularity of ramen (7). Such a vast variety of literature related to ramen culture and the number of works published every year reveals its enormous influence on the modern culture of Japan. Even literary sources that focus on themes of relationships, love, etc. (e.g. novels) mention ramen as a part of everyday life of the main heroes. The abundance of allusions to ramen culture in modern Japanese literature demonstrates the ubiquitous position it occupies in the contemporary life of the population.
With the development of web culture and popularization of internet among Japanese population, ramen has become a theme of numerous food blogs that popularize it among people all over the world and let the fans share their recipes and experience. Even computer games have not avoided being a part of ramen culture. Metal Gear Solid Three: Snake Eater and Kingdom of Loathing are among the games mentioning ramen as the best food.
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The popularity of ramen culture encouraged the creation of Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum that became the pioneer food theme park (Karan 108). The museum recreates a 1958 townscape and attracts millions of people eager to try different variations of ramen from all over the country (Karan 108).
The extensive use of references to ramen culture in modern Japanese pop culture illustrates its enormous popularity and the significance of role it plays in the everyday life of Japanese youth.
The analysis of the main events in the history of ramen culture demonstrates that it has gone a long way to becoming one of the most significant trends in modern Japan. From being a reminder of the hardest times, ramen transformed into a symbol of Westernization and, later, into a symbol of authentic Japanese cuisine. Ramen culture has become an essential part of everyday life of the modern Japanese society and is considered a significant fashion item that reflects a certain lifestyle among the youth. The invention of instant ramen has become one of the greatest contributions of ramen culture to the development of global foods that made the life of people easier and more comfortable. Popular culture is heavily influenced by the cult of ramen and reveals the enormous place it occupies in Japanese culture. Nowadays, ramen play an important role in representing Japanese food culture and attract millions of consumers. Ramen culture can be considered one of the greatest contributors to the popularization of Japanese cuisine and culture across the globe.
Brown, Ju, and Jorge Brown. China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs, North Charleston, South Carolina: Book Surge, LCC, 2006. Print.
Kajiyama, Sumiko. Cool Japan: A Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Japanese Culture Past and Present, New York: Museyon Inc., 2013. Print.
Karan, Pradyumna. Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society, Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Print.
Lombardi, Linda. The Social History of Ramen. 2014. Web.
Shimbo, Hiroko. Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors, Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LCC, 2012. Print.
Solt, George. The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, Los Angeles, California: California University Press, 2014. Print.