The Good Grain

New Appliances for the Old Taste

Society Lifestyle

The electric rice cooker, which does its job with the flip of a switch, has greatly facilitated Japanese cooking since its introduction in 1955. With high-tech help, rice cooker developers are seeking the holy grail in taste: rice cooked on a wood-fired stove. We interviewed two of this field’s stars.

In 1992 Shimozawa Masayuki, an engineer at Tottori Sanyō Electric Co., Ltd., achieved a breakthrough in the field of high-tech rice cookers with the development of the industry’s first electric cooker employing induction heating. During his career Shimozawa had a hand in the creation of more than 200 rice cooker models. He became known as the “god of rice cookers” because of his vast experience in the development of these kitchen appliances, but his technological expertise extends far beyond that. He also has a wealth of knowledge about rice varieties, methods of refining rice, and ways of eating it. Shimozawa is now retired, but from the perspective of a developer, he is still in pursuit of the ultimate rice.

Shimozawa, “god of rice cookers,” has four cookers in his home.

From the Age of Convenience to the Age of Taste

We asked Shimozawa about his image of the most delicious rice. He replied, “It’s rice that retains the feel of separate kernels, has a definite sweetness, and is not soggy. And it leaves a refreshing aftertaste in your mouth after each bite. For more than 35 years I’ve been in pursuit of this ideal taste.”

Sanyō put Shimozawa in charge of developing rice cookers back in 1975, after Japan had transitioned from its era of high-speed growth to the next stage of economic development. Once the 1980s rolled in, he recalls, the market for rice cookers underwent a sea change. “In the seventies there was a real emphasis on speed. It was an age when people wanted things that operated more rapidly and conveniently. As long as rice wasn’t undercooked and crunchy, they were satisfied. But with the rollout of cookers equipped with microprocessors in 1982, momentum began to build toward a desire for good-tasting rice.”

Shimozawa’s Revolutionary Odoridaki Model

Initially the government bought rice from farmers and sold it to consumers, but it gradually moved in the direction of liberalization, giving farmers more freedom to market their crops independently. In 1987 independently marketed rice moved out in front of government-purchased rice. Around 1992 several new varieties went into distribution under such brand names as Koshihikari, Hitomebore, and Hinohikari, and their growing popularity added fuel to the growing demand for tasty rice.

“Until then,” Shimozawa recalls, “people had been eating rice without much thought, but I sensed they were developing an interest in tastier rice. With consumer preferences shifting, we adjusted our development goals accordingly. What the Japanese perceive as the ideal is, in a word, rice cooked on a kamado [a traditional wood-fired stove for cooking rice]. They were hoping for cookers capable of reproducing that taste.”

Development and testing continued as the years rolled on, culminating in the Odoridaki model, which went on sale in 2002. With a built-in mechanism for altering the pressure in the pot, this model in effect stirs the rice as it boils, making the grains seem to dance as they cook. Odoridaki is the buzzword created to describe this, coined from odoru (to dance) and taku (to cook). The result is rice just like that cooked on a kamado, with soft, full, and glossy grains. Although this was an expensive rice cooker, costing around ¥100,000, it was a big hit, becoming a showcase item among twenty-first-century appliances.

Aiming to Deliver Pleasure, Not to Make Things

“As Japan entered the age of affluence and people became able to eat whatever they wanted to,” Shimozawa says, “more and more of them paused to give thought to the essence of foods. True luxury, they concluded, comes from eating delicious rice with their everyday meals. As a developer, I was strongly inclined to deliver pleasure through products, not just to make things. When the Japanese are able to enjoy tasty rice, they become happy. I saw the rice cooker as a way to deliver of this perhaps trifling, but vital, sense of happiness in everyday life.”

Currently Shimozawa devotes his time to fostering successors in the field of rice cooker development. He is also engaged in lecture activities involving demonstrations of how rice is best prepared and eaten. “These days,” he reflects, “the Japanese only eat half as much rice as they used to fifty years ago. If they became acquainted with truly delicious rice, though, surely they’d want to eat more of it. That’s why I’m trying to pass on a total package of information starting from methods of cooking rice. I’d like to be able to help change attitudes toward this staple.”

From Cooker Specialist to Wizard of Pots

Whereas Sanyō has a god of rice cookers, the Toshiba Group has a “wizard of pots.” He is Morimichi Nobuaki, Group Manager of the Microwave Oven and Cooking Appliances Products Planning Group Business Planning Department at Toshiba Home Appliances Corp. He has been involved with rice cookers for more than 30 years.

“I’ve always had great respect for Sanyō’s Shimozawa, considering him to be my senior in research and development. He’s truly the ‘god’ in our field. My own work with electric rice cookers began as an engineer, after which I worked on product planning. Because it’s not usual at my company for an individual to specialize in just one area year after year, people began calling me the kama sennin [pot full-timer]. Then, punning on sennin [which with different characters means ‘ascetic’ or ‘wizard’], they nicknamed me the ‘pot wizard.’”

While Morimichi speaks with humility, he is in fact one of the best when it comes to the development of rice cookers. “We’ve set our sights,” he says, “on products that bring consumers the taste they see as ideal: delicious rice cooked in a pot on a kamado.”

Japan’s First Electric Rice Cooker

In 1955 Toshiba Corp. put Japan’s first electric rice cooker on the market. Until then housewives had to watch the kamado closely while the rice cooked, making adjustments in the degree of heat applied from time to time. The idea behind the electric rice cooker was to lighten the household duties of women by making this task unnecessary.

In the 1980s the battle over rice cookers intensified, with eight companies developing products to increase their share of the market. Microprocessors were introduced to add more automated controls, after which induction heating came into use to increase the cooking temperature. Toshiba, however, seemed content to rest on the laurels of its proven expertise in rice cooker technology. Because it was slow to apply the new technologies, its sales fell into a slump.

In a bid to rescue Toshiba from the brink of defeat, Morimichi channeled his efforts into the development of a better pot. The new model went on sale in 1994 under the brand name Kamadodaki. “We focused in particular on the inner pot,” he says, “because it’s a key part—one that determines how the rice comes out.”

He explains: “Electric rice cookers applied only weak heat before the advent of induction heating, and that made it hard for them to reproduce the taste of rice cooked over the flames of a kamado. The key to applying strong heat lies in the materials used to make the inner pot. We wanted to mix stainless steel, a pyrogenic substance, together with aluminum, which is an excellent heat conductor. At the time, though, our company lacked the technology to shape a pot from a metal sheet made of a combination of metals. Our engineering department was located in Niigata Prefecture near the cities of Kamo and Tsubame, traditional centers of the metal-processing industry, so we made the rounds of plants in other industries in search of technological hints. After much trial and error, we found we could apply a technique known as the ‘squeeze-casting process,’ which is used in the auto industry. That’s how we created the inner pot.”

He adds, though, that getting the Kamadodaki to the market still required much effort. From the start of development, it took three years before they had confirmed the feasibility of mass production and started manufacturing the final products. 

When participating in rice-related events, Morimichi often dons an apron bearing the characters for “wizard of pots.”


Morimichi’s Memory of the Most Delicious Rice

Morimichi agrees that rice cooked on a kamado is the tastiest. “As a child,” he recalls, “rinsing the rice before cooking was one of my daily household chores. My family and our relatives dined on kamado-cooked rice. I want the electric rice cookers we’re now developing to reproduce that taste. No matter how good we get at creating electric cookers, my memories of that rice still form my image of the ideal taste.”

(Originally written in Japanese. Interview of Shimozawa by Nogami Tomoko. Photos of Shimozawa by Miyamae Sachiko and of Morimichi by Matsuzaki Nobusato.)

Electric rice cooker Tottori Sanyō Electric Toshiba Home Appliances Induction heating Odoridaki Kamado Kamadodaki Microprocessors High-tech Shimozawa Masayuki Morimichi Nobuaki