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Japanese-Born Instant Noodles a Ubiquitous Part of World Food Culture

February 13, 2001
Tip of the iceberg: Hundreds of instant ramen products are on the market at any time.

It has been about half a century since instant ramen noodles first appeared in Japan. A change in packaging from bags to cups spurred the products' growth to where, today, instant ramen has become an essential part of the Japanese diet. The food also enjoys great popularity overseas, and the Japanese word ramen is recognized in many parts of the world as being synonymous with instant noodles. Today, for better or for worse, the Japanese-born noodle occupies a corner of world food culture.

Lining Up for Noodles
Ramen traces its roots to Chinese cookery, but today it is prepared in an unquestionably Japanese style and has become a favorite dish among Japanese consumers. Ramen eateries line the streets of not only business districts but residential areas as well. These restaurants compete with one another in terms of the originality and quality of their soups, noodles, and contents. Lines of customers spill outside the doors of famous or well-reputed shops.

Prices for ramen at restaurants range from 500 to 1,000 yen (4.35 to 8.70 U.S. dollars at 120 yen to the dollar). At the other end of the spectrum is instant ramen, which is often consumed as a snack and sold for anywhere from 100 to 200 yen (0.87 to 1.74 dollars). The instant variety of ramen is predominant in terms of quantity sold, and competition among makers is fierce. Each year about 500 new products make their debut on the market, only to disappear not long thereafter. Naturally, such a level of competition has spurred rapid advancements and improvements in quality and taste.

Recently, convenience stores have joined the competition for instant ramen sales. Around the beginning of 1999 information magazines targeting young people began to introduce "local ramen" sections featuring the wide variety of gourmet noodles that have developed in their respective localities. Convenience stores took note of this and teamed up with makers to develop their own cup-type noodles based on these local flavors.

In April 2000 a major convenience store chain began selling cup-type noodles bearing the names of two famous and well-frequented ramen restaurants in Sapporo, in the northern region of Hokkaido, and Fukuoka, in the southern region of Kyushu, for 248 yen (2.16 dollars). The chain originally forecast sales of 2 to 3 million servings, but ended up selling some 5 million. In September frozen-noodle versions bearing the same names went on sale. Marketed as higher-quality products than the cup-type noodles, those of the frozen variety have proven popular despite a higher price (380 yen, or 3.30 dollars). Competing chains have been scrambling to come up with their own new products.

Going Global
Instant noodles have quite a long history. In 1958 Chicken Ramen, the first instant noodle product, was put on sale and marketed with a slogan boasting of its ease of preparation: Just put the noodles in a bowl, add hot water, wait three minutes, and eat. One package cost 35 yen. Back then, with restaurant ramen costing 40 yen, coffee at a cafe 50 yen, and curry with rice at popular restaurants 100 yen, 35 yen must have seemed rather expensive. Even so, according to one industry representative, the rapid growth of the product can be attributed to its simplicity, sanitary packaging, preservability, and good taste.

Along with instant coffee, which began being marketed around the same period, ramen ushered in the age of instant foods around the world. But the real turning point no doubt came with the introduction of cup-type noodles, where the food came to be prepared simply by removing the lid of the cup, pouring hot water over the dried contents, and waiting just a few minutes. The concept of cup-type noodles first hit upon the president of the first instant ramen maker when, at a food-tasting session held in the United States, he saw American buyers sample his company's product by putting the noodles in cups and eating them with forks. The price of the first cup-type noodle to go on sale in 1971 was 100 yen.

At the time the price of ramen at specialty shops was around 180 yen, and 100 yen was a fair price to pay. Nevertheless, cup-type noodles became an explosive hit. Competing makers appeared one after another and added products containing other types of noodles, like yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), udon (thick noodles), and soba (buckwheat noodles). Following this rise in competitiveness, during which industry participants at one time swelled to over 200 companies, the market price for cup-type noodles has recently fallen to 140 yen (1.22 dollars). The number of makers belonging to the industry's association has also been reduced to 49.

Even so, with domestic production of 5.3 billion servings of instant ramen and exports of 81 million servings to 53 countries around the world, as of fiscal 1997 an annual total of 43.4 billion servings were being consumed throughout the world, including products manufactured overseas. The status that this Japanese invention has come to enjoy can be evidenced by the bright neon sign set up by a leading Japanese maker on a building on New York's Fifth Avenue, topped with a gigantic steaming cup of instant noodles.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.