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Does NHK drama credit instant noodles to the right inventor?

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Each morning at 8 o’clock, millions of homemakers across the country tune into a 15-minute-long segment of a serialized morning drama on NHK. The current story, titled “Manpuku,” relates the saga of the man who invented instant noodles and his devoted wife, played by Hiroki Hasegawa and Sakura Ando, respectively.

The program is meant to dramatize the life story of Taiwan-born Momofuku Ando (1910-2007) and his wife, Masako.

Ando, founder of Nissin Ramen, is credited, in 1958, with launching Chikin Ramen, the forerunner of the instant noodles we know today, of which tens of billions of servings are consumed annually throughout the world.

NHK’s series, reports Flash (March 19), has been enjoying healthy viewer ratings of more than 20 percent.

But hold on just a second: Does Ando genuinely deserve credit for inventing instant ramen noodles?

“Ando had lived in Taiwan up to around age 20,” journalist Tsuyoshi Nojima tells the magazine, “and from before the Pacific War, there was a culture of consuming deep-fried noodles in southern Taiwan.”

According to Nojima, a Taiwanese company called Qingji Bingguo Dian had developed thin deep-fried noodles in chicken broth known phonetically as gui-shi-mi (chicken-thread noodles).

Ando would almost certainly have been familiar with such a food from his formative years in Taiwan.

What’s more, says Nojima, “These noodles were imported to Japan to alleviate food shortages in the immediate postwar period, as I’ve been told by numerous overseas Chinese residents here. It’s not coincidental that the noodles were sold by Taiwanese.”

Enter Zhang Guowen, who first came to Japan to study to become a dental technician.

Zhang, like Ando, worked in Osaka where he started a business producing a type of instant noodle named Choju-men (“longevity noodles”), which he began selling in the spring of 1958 — preceding the launch of Nissin’s Chikin Ramen by several months.

Choju-men may be all but forgotten today, but they were a staple on the third expedition of Japanese explorers to Antarctica. As proof, Flash ran the reproduction of an advertisement for the noodles in the autumn 1959 edition of Asahi Graph magazine.

In December 1958, Zhang applied to the Japanese Patent Agency to register his noodle-making process — one month before Ando did the same.

The Flash article runs the image of a document, dated Aug. 16, 1961, by which Zhang signed over his patent rights to Ando for ¥23 million, a figure equivalent to around ¥300 million today.

“To suggest that Ando invented instant noodles is a fantasy,” complained the late Zhang’s son, Nobuharu Kiyokawa. “As the saying goes, ‘Winner takes all.’ Or, if you prefer, ‘History is written by the victors.’ However, the Chinese expatriates in Osaka all say to us, ‘You were the first.'”

“I suppose my father got the hint to make the noodles from the ones he ate in Taiwan,” says Kiyokawa. “It saddens me to think that the NHK drama has convinced people that Ando was the one who invented instant noodles.”

A spokesperson for NHK told Flash’s reporter that it wasn’t just the names in “Manpuku” that had been changed.

The drama, the spokesperson says, is not so much about who deserves credit for the noodles as it is a “boldly reconstructed work of fiction” intended to portray “an emotionally moving era” and “love between a husband and wife.”

Some other topics have been stirring the pot on the food front.

According to the 456-member Japan Frozen Food Association, combined consumption of domestic and imported frozen foods in 2017 set an all-time record, exceeding ¥1 trillion in value.

An online survey in the Asahi Shimbun’s Be Between column of March 9 found that 85 percent of respondents say they regularly consume frozen foods, with the largest segment, 29 percent, saying they do so two or three times a week.

The most popular items cited by respondents included gyōza (pot-stickers), frozen vegetables, fried rice or pilaf dishes, udon and other types of noodles, and fried food such as croquettes and fish.

Meanwhile, reflecting the growth in popularity of Mediterranean-style cuisine from the 1990s, demand for olive oil in Japan has been realizing exponential growth.

From Italy alone, Japan imported 60,000 tons of Italian olive oil products in 2017, up from 33,000 in 2007. Total demand is said to have grown threefold.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal (Feb. 25) reported plans by the Association of Japanese Olive Oil Processors, working in collaboration with the Agriculture Ministry, to seek the same certification adopted by the Spain-based International Olive Council Standards.

Worldwide olive oil production is projected to fall by around 6 percent in 2018-19 due to poor harvests in Tunisia and Italy. The price of extra virgin oil has climbed to €600 per 100 kilograms — a rise of around 30 percent.

Domestic olive growers are no doubt hoping to exploit the shortfall. And if their products meet the same standards as the Europeans, they may eventually find their way to overseas markets.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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