Sanyo gloats as Gopan turns top breadwinner

by Mai Iida

Kyodo News

Sanyo Electric Co.’s Gopan, a machine that bakes bread from rice, has been such a smash hit since its November debut that the manufacturer has had to stop taking orders.

The Gopan represents seven years of cross-division effort by Sanyo engineers. The company said the world’s first household cooker that makes bread from rice will hopefully help curb Japan’s long-declining rice consumption and raise the nation’s food self-sufficiency, the worst among major industrialized countries.

“It tastes so good. If I didn’t know it was made from rice, I wouldn’t have guessed,” said Sumiko Takeuchi, who tried Gopan-made bread at a tasting event in Tokyo.

Takeuchi, whose daughter is allergic to wheat, has organized an association of parents with children with the same problem. She said the product is “epoch-making” because it makes it easy to bake bread containing no wheat ingredients, the third-largest source of food allergies in Japan.

The new machine turns uncooked rice, along with other ingredients including salt and yeast, into a fresh loaf in about four hours at the push of a button.

Despite its hefty price of ¥50,000, Sanyo received a deluge of advance orders for the product. As a result, it had to delay the launch by a month. But even after the launch, it had to stop taking orders so production could catch up with the huge demand.

“That made us scream with joy,” said Masanori Okamoto, a Sanyo Consumer Electronics Co. product planning manager in charge of the Gopan.

However, the road to success was not a direct path.

In 2003, Sanyo introduced the industry’s first household machine that makes bread from rice flour to match the diet in Japan. But consumer reaction was tepid due to the high price and limited availability of rice flour back then.

Engineers at a Sanyo group factory in Tottori Prefecture began research the same year on a machine that could make bread straight from rice grains.

They faced a major challenge in milling the grain.

“Engineers ground rice with a stone mill as a way to make bread. But baking a well-risen and tasty rice bread was not achieved for a long time,” Okamoto said.

One day in 2008, an in-house engineer for rice cookers advised soaking the rice in water first to make the grains soft. Milling watered rice into rice paste proved successful.

“That was the turning point for us,” Okamoto said.

Although engineers cleared one hurdle, designing a bread-making machine based on the method was another challenge.

Two motors are needed in one household machine — a high-speed one to mill the rice and a slow one to knead the dough.

With support from Sanyo’s engineering team in charge of vacuum cleaners and electric bicycles in Hyogo Prefecture, designing two motors with a single blade system was invented. It enabled the company to commercialize the Gopan in 2010 after seven years of effort.

“Our company was not so bent on quick results and instead was patient in developing the Gopan, viewing it from a long-term perspective. I think that corporate culture was one reason behind the Gopan’s birth,” Okamoto said of Sanyo, which will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Panasonic Corp. in April.

As for the Gopan’s popularity, Okamoto said that in addition to the new easy-to-understand concept of baking bread from rice and the wheat allergy issue, rising concerns about Japan’s agriculture may be partly behind its success.

Eating habits have changed over the years. The average rice consumption per person in Japan was just 58.5 kg in 2009, compared with 118.3 kg at the peak in 1962. The number of farmers has also nearly halved from 25 years ago.

In March, the government set a target to boost the nation’s food self-sufficiency rate to 50 percent in terms of calories by fiscal 2020, compared with 40 percent in fiscal 2009.

To reach the target, the agriculture ministry is promoting the consumption of rice flour, referring to an estimate that if each person eats three pieces of bread per month made from domestic rice flour, it would boost Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate by 1 percent.

Takeuchi, a likely buyer of the Gopan, said the loud noise the machine makes when milling rice, like that of a food processor, is a concern. But she’s happy if she can support Japanese farmers by eating bread made from domestic rice.

Sanyo plans to boost Gopan production and aims to resume taking orders around April.

“Our ultimate goal is for every household to have one Gopan,” Okamoto said. “With this product, people would consume more rice and that would raise Japan’s food self-sufficiency. As a maker, we dream of realizing that scenario.”

Sanyo is planning to launch the product overseas in fiscal 2011 or later.