Popcorn professor traces origins of 'pon gashi' snacks to promote peace

by Yoichi Lee


How do you say “popcorn” in Japanese?

Trust Japan to develop a healthy take on the addictive snack, devising a homegrown system for popping rice, wheat or any grain you like.

A 51-year-old professor of business history at Ehime University in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, is known as an expert on “pon gashi,” literally “popped snacks.”

Toshihiro Wada’s interest draws in part from the modest efforts one woman made to alleviate hunger during World War II — and who devoted her efforts to the pursuit of peace.

During a recent lunch break in a far corner of the national university’s campus, Wada placed around 750 grams of rice into an iron containment vessel, sealed it tight and heated it with gas for about 10 minutes.

After checking that the pressure was right, he hit the vessel’s lid with a wooden hammer and broke the seal. With a tremendous boom, puffed rice poured out, in a volume many times the original amount.

Students gathered around the machine when they heard it and ate the pon gashi at Wada’s prodding, enjoying the taste and texture of the crispy puffed rice.

Wada was drawn to study puffed grains in 2007 after watching a television program about 88-year-old Toshiko Yoshimura, who produced the food for undernourished children during the war, when Japan suffered from widespread food shortages.

“Due to the war, children were fed half-cooked millet and so suffered from constant diarrhea,” Yoshimura said. “I just wanted to help them eat easily digestible food as much as they could.”

Yoshimura, a resident of Osaka at that time, designed a machine to produce pon gashi based on advice from a university professor and other acquaintances.

She then moved to Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, because of the availability of steel there, and looked for a producer. In 1945, a local plant manufactured a machine to Yoshimura’s specifications, lighter and easier to carry than existing devices. It came to be widely used.

Wada was moved by Yoshimura’s concern for children’s health and the desire for peace that it instilled in her, and purchased a machine in 2009. He took instructions from Yoshimura in how to use it and asked her to address students about her wartime experiences.

The professor now visits university fairs and local festivals around eight times a year to demonstrate the production of pon gashi as a way to illustrate Yoshimura’s experiences.

As a scholar, Wada studied the history of puffed grains in Ehime, where they are used as a wedding gift. He also visited China and South Korea to analyze differences in production methods.

The expression pon gashi is widely used in Japan to describe puffed grain because it was adopted for the promotion of Yoshimura’s machine.

Different prefectures have different names for it, and Wada has compiled a list of them. It includes “don” in Hokkaido, Miyagi and Toyama, “pakkan” in Mie and Shiga, “patto raisu” in Tokushima and Ehime, and “hachagumi” in Okinawa Prefecture.

Wada said the modern process for making puffed grains is thought to have originated from a confectionery production process invented by an American botanist. It is believed to have been introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904.

Japan began to import machines for making puffed grains after World War I.

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the debut of the machine that Yoshimura designed.

Influenced by all he has learned from her, Wada said “I would like to publish a booklet about pon gashi and help people understand the importance of peace.”

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