One of the most common reprehensions against the Japanese is that they are not inventive, that they rarely come up with an idea from the very beginning; no one denies them that they are methodical or hard-working or that they are capable of improving an idea, often to the point that it bears only a slight resemblance to the original but ingenuity itself is considered a commodity in short supply and this is usually attributed to the way the Japanese society is organized: when so much weight is put on the group instead of the person and when individuality is thought of as rather harmful for society, originality takes the back seat (if any at all). And even though, like all generalizations, this one does indeed mirror one aspect of the reality of Japanese society, it does injustice to hundreds of creative Japanese; last week, on March 5th to be precise, was the 105th anniversary of the birth of one of them.
It doesn’t really matter that Momofuku Ando (安藤 百福, 1910-2007) was born in Taiwan. He was educated in Japan and it was in Japan where he came up with the idea that would eventually reach the top of the Japanese inventions’ list and where he created a commercial empire based on this same invention: the instant ramen, known all over the world as “instant noodles” that have become the fastest and cheapest form of Japanese cuisine. Born like many other ideas (and not just in Japan) as an answer to the postwar hardships, “chikin-ramen” (チキンラーメン), that is chicken-flavored ramen, first (in 1958) in small blocks an later (in 1971) in plastic cups demanding only hot water and 4 minutes of patience, created a school and made Ando a millionaire and his company, Nissin Foods, purveyors to all Japanese –from the homeless in Shinjuku to the imperial family.
What is really impressive is that even today, with Japan’s food culture standing as an equal next to that of, say, France or Italy and several decades after Japanese society has earned its place among the world’s most affluent, the popularity of “kapu-men” (カップ麺) hasn’t dwindled; even more impressive is the fact that the Japanese believe them to be the pinnacle of ingenuity in their country’s history (surveys done by the media every few years reconfirm this). Although I have yet to hear some sound explanation for why this happens, I tend to attribute it to the value still put (and despite their prosperity) by the Japanese to the simple and “humble” things that are basic and essential for everyday life. Even though they have access to everything these days, every time they buy a kapu-men they, perhaps, remind themselves how easy it is to lose everything and have to re-make it from scratch –just like Momofuku Ando did.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.