The Kikkoman Soy Sauce Bottle Is an American Icon of Design

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It’s a form so ubiquitous it’s change into almost invisible: an easy-to-grip, pear-shaped glass bodice planted on a sturdy base, a tapered neck swooping as much as a pink cap, and most vital, a two-way spout that controls the circulation of pours and prevents drips. The well-known Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser litters tabletops in numerous Japanese eating places throughout the USA. Based on Kikkoman, the corporate has bought over 400 million of those utilitarian bottles since their inception. You may undoubtedly discover a bottle at your native grocery retailer for a couple of bucks — and but some people can pay a whole lot of {dollars} for one.

Whereas the unchanging core design of the bottle has made it a permanent device, the “face” has been reimagined through the years, with one-off specialty releases and collabs with fellow Japanese icons like Hi there Kitty. These classic Kikkoman bottles are uncommon and coveted, rapidly snatched up by collectors, oftentimes fetching upward of $300 and growing in worth because the years go.

A warehouse worker, wearing a uniform sporting an American flag, stacks tubs of branded Kikkoman soy sauce.

A warehouse on the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Meals

That price ticket might sound excessive, but it surely’s maybe justified given the quantity of labor that went into the bottle’s creation. It took industrial designer Kenji Ekuan three years of growth and 100 prototypes earlier than he unveiled the ultimate model, which premiered in 1961 — although the roots of the Kikkoman model stretch again a number of centuries. All these iterations yielded a complete recreation changer, not solely changing the corporate’s unwieldy 1.8-liter jugs with a handheld design that may work for residence customers, however establishing the soy sauce bottle as a cultural touchstone. The corporate, effectively conscious of the extraordinary affection its specialty bottles have generated ever since, has totally cashed in on collectors’ enthusiasm. At Kikkoman’s greatest manufacturing facility, within the quaint village of Walworth, Wisconsin, manufacturing traces had been in overdrive in 2023, making and filling limited-edition bottles celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the corporate’s first U.S. manufacturing plant.

“Whether it is uncommon and an eyepopper, it’s on everybody’s radar,” says Steve Ketcham, former president of the Federation of Historic Bottle Collectors. The Kikkoman dispenser is undeniably a worldwide artwork object: It earned a spot at The Museum of Trendy Artwork for its iconic design in 2005. Specialty releases are additionally comparatively uncommon, making them as precious as any uncommon piece of art work.

“Collectors additionally hunt down magnificence,” Ketcham continues. “Eye-pleasing items could have a terrific visible enchantment from both colour or kind. A vibrant inexperienced cathedral pickle bottle or a brilliant blue fruit jar can typically be favourite meals bottles amongst collectors. In most bottle amassing classes, colour is of nice significance.” Although the usual Kikkoman bottle does have its shock-red high, it’s fairly plain in any other case; the colourful designs of the specialty releases increase their aesthetic enchantment.

However seems to be aren’t every thing. To change into really precious, a bottle has to inform a narrative too, particularly one a couple of well-known model. “Collectors search items of historic curiosity [and] items related to a big firm, from the very giant and maybe nonetheless in enterprise — Heinz, for instance — to the small producer who had a really brief historical past, which makes their containers uncommon. This is applicable to each the maker of the bottle and the maker of the contents,” Ketcham explains.

The model’s influence is exclusive to the U.S. Michael Sales space, who chronicled a sojourn to Japan in Tremendous Sushi Ramen Categorical, factors out that Kikkoman is on the cabinets of each grocery store, but it surely doesn’t obtain the extent of fanfare there that it wields in the USA. Japanese clients choose domestically brewed soy sauce from impartial makers who specific regional types.

“I feel individuals who find out about Kikkoman would say it’s a excellent industrial product, made to a worth,” Sales space says. “It’s completely high-quality for on a regular basis use and comparatively benign.”

However the bottle’s worth amongst resellers and followers — particularly American superfans — speaks to the model’s explicit juggernaut cultural energy within the U.S. Specialty bottles don’t simply characteristic Japanese cultural signifiers, however American ones too, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse to the American bicentennial. Following the primary waves of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i and the Pacific Coast within the 1860s, Kikkoman constructed this affect over the following a long time, fostering a uncommon unicorn of relationships: abroad enlargement with out friction, the stuff of Harvard Enterprise Faculty case research.

A warehouse-like plant with a large sign out front reading Welcome to Kikkoman Foods, Inc. Home of Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce.

A classic photographer of the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Meals

“Soy sauce is such a pillar of Japanese cooking that these immigrants turned a big export marketplace for Kikkoman. So, just some years after the top of the Civil Battle, we started transport kegs of Kikkoman soy sauce to Hawai‘i and California, changing into the primary main soy sauce provider within the Americas,” says Miwa Thompson, deputy chief advertising and marketing officer at Kikkoman Gross sales USA. By 1906, the model was registered with each state within the union.

For many years, the model needed to thread the needle between showing international and home. From the Twenties to the ’40s, Kikkoman was considered as an “unique” seasoning by non-East Asian buyers, so the model promoted that novelty worth by means of print adverts. Then, within the ’50s, it ran primetime TV commercials — first launched throughout President Dwight Eisenhower’s run for reelection towards Adlai Stevenson — depicting how soy sauce may very well be utilized in meatloaf, hamburgers, and fish sticks.

However the model actually took off as GIs returned from excursions of responsibility in Asia craving what many referred to as “Oriental” cuisines. Kikkoman, which had established a advertising and marketing base camp in San Francisco, seized on the chance to produce a burgeoning wave of Chinese language, Japanese, and Polynesian eating places sprouting up throughout America.

“These Asian eating places had been the door-opener that may assist soy sauce achieve a foothold within the West,” explains Thompson.

The trendy Kikkoman bottle was itself a pivot to maintain up with the occasions. Within the Sixties, as a wave of anti-Asian racism brewed within the U.S. through the Korean and Vietnam wars, Ekuan’s design introduced the face of a contemporary and progressive Japan. When the corporate constructed the manufacturing facility in Wisconsin not lengthy after (lowering import prices and offering entry to a gradual provide of Midwestern soybeans and wheat), it requested Japanese staff to search out houses inside the local people to foster sturdy relationships with different residents. Within the ’80s and ’90s, as conversations developed over synthetic components, Kikkoman may tout its actual components in competing with low cost imitators promoting hydrolyzed vegetable protein-based sauce, a technique that proved profitable sufficient with customers that the model launched low-sodium, gluten-free, and non-GMO merchandise through the years as varied well being issues rose.

On a regular basis, the model was working its means into the lives of actual folks.

“[Kikkoman] has actually surrounded me my complete life, from meals, household, hobbies, chores, every thing,” says Andrew Pei, who grew up with the model at his household’s restaurant, SuYu Pei in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For his grandparents and fogeys, who got here from China, Japan, and Korea, Kikkoman was a foundational staple of their new life within the U.S., and Pei lately documented the love he inherited for the model to win the model’s Love Unbottled contest. “Throughout my grandmother’s time, there weren’t loads of decisions accessible, particularly within the Midwest. For her, Kikkoman was a real Asian soy sauce,” Pei says.

As youthful customers encounter the model, in addition they reinvent it for their very own lives. Through the years, Kikkoman acolytes have created a litany of wearable and edible paraphernalia, artwork items, and souvenirs. To have fun the sixtieth anniversary of the design, Kikkoman invited followers to design their very own bottles. In 2022, designer Matthew Clark of Odachi Design shared a model of the enduring bottle upgraded with a 3D-printed gravity valve embedded within the dispenser’s cap to protect the contents from oxidation. After he revealed his design on-line, Clark says, he was briefly in contact with Kikkoman company headquarters in Japan, who enthusiastically shared it with the in-house design workforce.

Based on Alexander Manu, professor of design on the Ontario School of Artwork and Design College, the bottle’s enchantment stems from its capacity to transcend cultures and retain relevance with each passing era.

Kikkoman soy sauce bottles trundle along a factory conveyor belt.

The bottling line on the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Meals

“The bottle’s design negates the necessity for language; its use and performance are instantly obvious regardless of the place you’re on the earth, making it a robust instance of common design,” Manu says. “In a world that frequently gravitates towards complexity, there’s a profound lesson within the enduring enchantment of the Kikkoman dispenser: Typically, simplicity isn’t only a design selection; it’s a type of on a regular basis magnificence that brings surprising happiness.”

Whereas affection for the model could clarify a number of the bottle’s endurance, the design additionally sparks actual happiness. That’s not an accident. As a local of Hiroshima, Ekuan survived the atomic bomb earlier than designing his well-known dispenser. He assumed the position of an industrial designer with large accountability and defined that his creations at all times had a profound intention. As he advised the Japan Instances in 2001, “Design to me has at all times meant making folks blissful.”

Since its debut, Kikkoman’s soy sauce dispenser has managed to seize that feeling with each era. So long as restaurateurs and residential cooks proceed to make use of the little bottle, its legacy and worth will enhance exponentially. So save your bottles; they may very well be price a fairly penny within the close to future.

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