I recently purchased a new rice cooker. Although there was nothing wrong with my old one, I had been using it for more than ten years and decided it was time for a “renewal.” That’s when I found out a little more about rice cookers and was quite surprised. With a rice cooker you can cook bread or cake, make stew, and cook both staples and side dishes. When I was a child, I remember spending the night at a friend’s house and in the morning my friend’s mother would often serve us pizza toast. She said that for Asians, who eat plenty for breakfast (for Westerners it’s probably lunch), eating a well-balanced breakfast of protein, carbohydrates and fats is best. And, she would cook that pizza toast in the rice cooker. It would be perfectly toasted, cheese melted and taste delicious. Until that time, I had only seen rice cooked in a rice cooker, so I recall being surprised that a rice cooker had other uses.
I was curious which manufacturer made the first rice cooker and found out it was Toshiba. In fact, the rice cookers in our household have also been Toshiba. The rice cooker first debuted in 1955. It was in this same year, exactly ten years after the end of the war, that many household appliances were introduced in Japan. This was also the year that the rice shortage ended. Rice production (at that time) was the highest in history at 12.39 million tons. (2010 rice production was 7.85 million tons.) Inside the Showa and Heisei period (Showa: 1926-1989, Heisei: 1989 to present) household historical timeline (Family Research Institute) there is an excerpt on “automatic rice cookers that cook rice while you sleep, which is like a dream for housewives.” In those days, it was called an “electric rice cooker.” (The Japanese characters mean electric and kettle.) Those living outside of Japan may not know that before the electric rice cooker appeared, the Japanese cooked their rice in kettles or earthen pots. The inventor of the electric rice cooker was Shogo Yamada, who was affiliated with Toshiba’s home electric appliance division. The product he made was a 6-cup cooker with a time switch, which meant rice would be ready at a desired time. The price in those days was 3,200 yen. Because the average monthly income from about 1954 to 1956 was between 28,000 yen and 30,000 yen, this was a luxury item. According to the Showa/Heisei household historical timeline (Family Research Institute), there were those inside Toshiba who voiced things like, “Is it really necessary for our company to think about lazy women who would do things like cooking rice while sleeping?” For this reason only 500 were sold. However, the product met the needs of the housewives and was a big hit. Production the following year reached 100,000 units per month and approximately 10 years later, in January 1964, 50% of all households in Japan had one, and the product was a huge success. (The average monthly income in 1964 was approximately 60,000 yen.) In the Toshiba Science Museum website history corner there is a section on nostalgic appliances. There you can check out images, advertisements, etc. from the electric rice cooker of that time. http://kagakukan.toshiba.co.jp/manabu/history/kaden_j.html
The rice cookers of today do more than simply cook rice. Almost all rice cookers come with functions allowing you to make things such as bread, cake, onsen tamago (Japanese hot spring eggs), etc. They are such multi-functional pots that the name should probably be changed. Rice cookers work not only for brown rice, etc. but also for today’s sprouted brown rice, no-wash rice, etc. They are loaded with features, including various ways of cooking your rice. Also, some manufactures have products that are environmentally friendly and save energy.
The best sellers are as follows:
Hitachi “Steam-cut, superb cook, pressure & steam”** RZ-KV100K
Zojirushi “Extreme cook”** NP-NB10-XJ
Sanyo Electric “Dance cook”** ECJ-XW100(W)
Tiger “Just cooked”** JKJ-G100-T
**direct translations from Japanese names
When you go to each product’s website, you will see that the product names (except for Toshiba) appeal to the way you cook rice and the technology involved. They convey the efforts made by companies in trying to get closer to cooking rice in kettles and earthen pots. If you visit a household appliance store, you will find that you are able to purchase them at prices lower than the suggested list price. There are also some products with certain functions, etc. that are priced higher.
Changes in people’s lives and the attitudes of Japanese companies in responding to the needs of the housewife haven’t changed. The pursuit of making the best tasting rice and the revolution of the rice cooker 10, 20, or 30 years from now is something we look forward to.