Bringing Back the “Chin”: The Changing Sounds of Japanese Microwave Ovens

Society Lifestyle Technology

The appearance of microwave ovens in the 1960s transformed Japanese kitchens. The appliances also gave rise to new cooking words incorporating the distinctive “chin” sound the bell timers of early models made.

Microwave ovens are so much a part of everyday life that few people stop to think about the noises they make. Today, the appliances typically announce they are finished cooking with an electrical beep or chime. However, older generations likely remember the sharp ping of early, primitive models. In Japanese, this sound, expressed by the onomatopoetic “chin,” became indelibly associated with the devices and was the genesis of words like “renchin” and “chin suru” that mean to microwave something.

The first firm in Japan to outfit a microwave oven with a bell chime was Hayakawa Electric, the predecessor of today’s Sharp Corporation. We sat down with a company representative to talk about the evolution of the microwave oven and the revival of the iconic “chin.”

Birth of a Chime

According to Sharp, comments from professional cooks were the inspiration for the timer bell on microwaves. Sharp’s first industrial model, launched in 1962, did not feature a chime, requiring users to visually check whether the appliance was finished cooking or heating. Cooks frequently complained about accidentally forgetting food in microwaves during busy periods in the kitchen, only to discover later that dishes had become cool and unpalatable. They cried out for a sure-fire way of knowing that the appliances were finished.

Sharp’s first industrial microwave oven equipped with a timer bell.
Sharp’s first industrial microwave oven equipped with a timer bell.

Engineers got to work on the problem, and through a process of trial and error settled on using a bicycle bell. One of the members of the design team hit on the idea during a recreational ride, noting that bicycle bells could be clearly heard above the din of other noises. Sharp released its first industrial model emitting a “chin” in 1967 and a household version the following year.

A bicycle bell provided the ding for Sharp’s early microwave ovens.
A bicycle bell provided the ding for Sharp’s early microwave ovens.

Changing Sounds

The ringing apparatus was fairly simple, working on the same principle as a wind-up timer. When the oven dial reached zero, a ringer would strike the bell, providing the now familiar “chin” to inform the cooker that the microwave was finished. Although electronic sounds have largely replaced dings, appliances like toasters ovens still feature the easily identifiable noise.

According to Sharp, terms like “chin suru“ associated with microwaves caught on in Japan as frozen and processed foods became more prevalent. Television commercials helped introduce the new words to households, from where over time they took their place in the Japanese cooking lexicon.

A side view of the bell timer.
A side view of the bell timer.

As technology advanced, the methods for controlling the operations of microwave ovens grew more sophisticated. Around 40 years ago, Sharp began switching from bells to buzzers, followed by electronic tones and beeps. Along with providing more cooking options, advanced models allowed consumers to choose from a selections of chimes and adjust such things as the length and pitch of sounds in accordance with preferences or needs.

Chin” Revival

In 2018, Sharp brought back the bell sound to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its original chiming microwave oven and to highlight the history of the innovative appliance. In lieu of an analog timer, the company began including an electronically generated “chin” among the options of its Healsio AX series of steam ovens, which cook with superheated steam.

Actual bells on microwave ovens may be a thing of the past, but even young cooks can enjoy the experience of hearing an old-time “chin” when preparing meals.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’ s Prime Online on May 4, 2022. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. All photos courtesy Sharp Corporation.)

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