The Japanese Rice Cooker: A History of Trials and Errors

The Japanese Rice Cooker: A History of Trials and Errors

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Japanese rice cooker
Learn what led to the development of the Japanese rice cooker and how it found a home in just about every Japanese household.

Rice has been a staple food of the Japanese diet for centuries. However, the Japanese rice cooker has only been around for a few decades. What led to the evolution of this indispensable kitchen appliance that we all know and love today? 

The History of the Rice Cooker

Japan is famous for its wide array of unique and delicious dishes, many of which contain rice. But before the Japanese rice cooker was around to help prepare these dishes, people cooked rice on a large stove called a kamado. [1]

A traditional kamado stove for making rice. (Picture: クロチャン / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Cooking in a kamado was a long, tedious process. The taste and quality of the rice heavily depended on the strength of the heat and amount of water, both of which required constant monitoring and manual control. It took a long time to make one pot of rice. People usually started cooking rice in the morning in order to have it ready for supper. And if it didn’t come out quite right, you were stuck with imperfect rice until the next day.

The birth of the electric Japanese rice cooker started in the year 1923. That’s when Mitsubishi Electric released their first, bare-bones industrial model. About 10 years later, a similar cooker was employed on ships during the war. However, household Japanese rice cookers were still years in the making. [2]

The First Household Rice Cooker: A Failed Attempt

In 1945, a radio repair company released its first prototype, a crude wooden bucket with aluminum filaments that just could not produce a perfect bowl of rice. Share on X

A number of trials and errors lead to the development of the household Japanese rice cooker. Post-war Japan faced a number of struggles to rebuild its economy. Cash was scarce, and some businesses started to accept rice as payment. At this time, a radio repair company (that would later become Sony) sought to expand their business by adding a new product into their line-up – the rice cooker. [3]

In 1945, they released their first prototype, a crude wooden bucket with aluminum filaments that just could not produce a perfect bowl of rice. Eventually, they threw in the towel and went back to fixing radios without ever putting their rice cooker on the market.

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Automating the Process

The first automatic Japanese rice cooker would come about a few years later as the product of another famous electronics brand, Toshiba. [4] Around that time, Toshiba salesman Shogo Yamada surveyed Japanese housewives about their most daunting household tasks while promoting their new home appliances. Surprisingly, the majority of them responded not washing clothes, not cleaning the house, but cooking rice! 

The average Japanese housewife cooked rice up to three times a day, usually on a kamado. And the electric rice cookers available were not automatic and still required constant monitoring. The only real difference from using a kamado was the size. Yamada contemplated how he could solve this problem.

It was just then that an engineer (and failed water heater developer), Yoshitada Minami, came to him seeking work. Yamada entrusted the task of developing such a rice cooker to Minami. However, although he had the technical know-how (and because it was still a ‘woman’s job’ at the time), he had no idea how to cook perfect rice. So he asked his wife, Fumiko, for help. [5]

A Housewife Helps Revolutionize the Japanese Rice Cooker

In order to properly cook rice, one must control the time, temperature, and amount of water in the pot. But all these variables differed depending on season and geographical location (rice took longer to cook in a cold environment). Fumiko’s role was to collect data by cooking rice in a variety of places and situations while measuring the water temperature with a thermometer. She cooked multiple pots of rice a day, and oftentimes throughout the night, testing prototype after prototype. She did all this while raising their six children. Eventually, Fumiko fell ill due to physical and mental distress. 

The six children saw the tireless work of their parents. They became inspired and started to help with the experiments before and after school. But the research was taking a long time, and Minami had to mortgage their home while Fumiko continued her research. None of the prototypes had managed to cook a good pot of rice in the cold.

One day, they recalled a rice-cooking method from Hokkaido, the cold northern region of Japan, which involved covering the kettle with tin to retain heat. Minami wondered how they could build a pot that was similarly insulated. Meanwhile, Yamada had engineers at Toshiba investigate bimetals that they could use to create a thermo-switch.

Minami and his eldest son worked tirelessly for a whole week to develop a new prototype: a triple-structured kettle with a bimetallic strip that could turn the rice cooker automatically once the temperature exceeded 100℃. At last, it was time to test the prototype. 

Fumiko cooked one more pot of rice in a room at minus 10 degrees for 30 minutes. The result – a delicious pot of perfectly cooked rice! At last, the first automatic Japanese rice cooker was born. After a celebratory meal (cooked in the new prototype, of course), Minami took his wife’s hand and praised her. “This electric rice cooker was made possible thanks to you.” Toshiba began selling the machine in 1955.

Japanese Rice Cookers: An Evolving Technology

Japanese rice cooker - rokkokumai
Picture: kuro3 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Toshiba’s success triggered a race between all other competitors to create even more innovative rice cookers. Soon, Japanese rice cookers took over the average Japanese home. By the 1960s, nearly every household had one, and they even made their way overseas. The Japanese rice cooker particularly flourished in other Asian countries, where rice was a staple of their diet. As technology advanced, companies released new models with new functions, and introduced microcomputers, fuzzy logic, and induction heating (IH). [6]

Types of Japanese Rice Cookers

All these new innovations meant new types of rice cookers. Here’s a look at some of the most common Japanese rice cookers. [7]

Standard Rice Cooker

The standard Japanese rice cooker uses a spring and magnetic thermostat to stop cooking at the right time by reading the temperature. (However, these usually don’t shut off by themselves, and instead switch to ‘keep warm’ mode after cooking). They contain a non-stick inner pot as well as an outer pot that holds the body, heating plate, and circuitry. As the simplest of rice cookers, that is all you will be able to do.

Digital Rice Cooker

This is the most common Japanese rice cooker people use today. It includes all the basic functions of the standard, plus a timer and extra cook settings. Some digital rice cookers also have functions for preparing specific types of rice, including white, brown, and sushi rice. 

Fuzzy Logic Rice Cooker

This is a more fancy version of the Japanese rice cooker. They include a microcomputer that can detect temperature changes, and can even compensate for incorrect water amounts, guaranteeing a perfect bowl of rice with each use. Although it is very beginner friendly, it also tends to be more pricey for its fancy functions.

Induction Heating Cooker

This is one of the most innovative types of rice cooker. It uses a magnetic field friction to heat the entire inner pot (unlike the average Japanese rice cooker, which only conducts heat from the bottom), resulting in a more evenly-cooked batch of rice.

Pressure Cookers

The pressure cooker, although not technically a rice cooker, is often used as an alternative due to its ability to cook not just rice, but a variety of other foods. It uses a combination of heat and pressure, trapping steam inside to raise the cooking temperature even higher than the average Japanese rice cooker. This also means a faster cook time. Many people opt for pressure cookers to prioritize speed and convenience. However, it may still require a little more knowledge on preparation than machines specifically for rice.

The Best Japanese Rice Cookers

With so many kinds and so many functions, you may be wondering, which Japanese rice cooker is the best? A complete roundup of all Japanese rice cookers on the market by kakaku.com [8] revealed the top picks for 2021. Kakaku magazine also describes a few of these top picks in more detail in a more concise and thorough roundup. [9]

Here are just a few of their top picks. (Note: Links are affiliate links; Amazon pays us a commission at no cost to you if you make a purchase.)

Zojirushi Pressure Induction Rice Cooker (NW-SA10) 

Taking top place on Kakaku Magazine’s ranking is Zojirushi’s NW-SA10 Pressure Induction IH rice cooker. [8] This is a high-end, high-quality rice cooker that uses a high-heat IH boiling method to heat the entire pot for perfect, evenly cooked rice. Special functions include rice selection (white, brown, etc.), texture selection (soft, normal, and firm), and even a baby food option!

While this Japanese rice cooker is certainly on the high-end side, it is highly recommended for those who want only the fluffiest rice of the best taste and quality every time, prioritize speed and convenience, and don’t mind making a greater investment towards a quality product they plan to use frequently and for a long time.

Toshiba (RC-10VSR) and Iris Ohyama (RC-PD5) (Japan Only)

If price is your main concern, Toshiba has some more budget-friendly rice cookers, such as the RC-10VSR model which ranks #7 on the same list above. The brand Iris Ohyama also offers several less expensive options, such as the RC-PD5 model which ranks #16 on the list.

What Can I Get Outside of Japan?

Sadly, not all of these models are easily available abroad. For example, only the NW-SA10 is available in the US from Amazon. And Amazon JP won’t ship these models overseas.

If you don’t want to pay the shipping expense, both Zojirushi and Toshiba make affordable models for the international market.

Zojirushi NS-TSC10

The 5.5 cup model is a solid workhorse with fuzzy logic technology, several non-rice settings, and a keep warm function. And it’s a decent price point that will get you high quality without breaking your bank.

Toshiba 6-Cup Rice Cooker

Named Amazon’s Choice in the rice cooker category, the slightly larger Toshiba sports two programmable delays and seven non-rice presets. For those in a hurry, the Quick Rice feature will cook up a pot of rice in 30 minutes.

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Sources

[1] Rice cooker. Wikipedia

[2] Mitsubishi Electric. Wikipedia

[3] 第1章: 焼け跡からの出発. Sony

[4] 暮しに役立つ家電の学校★炊飯器. Poyoland (blog)

[5] 台所革命を起こした町工場. E-chirashi

[6] 日本で生まれた「自動炊飯器」の歴史、海外の人に説明できますか. Courrier

[7] 炊飯器の歴史. JEMA

[8] 炊飯器 人気売れ筋ランキング 2021年12月. Kakaku

[9] 《2021年》炊飯器おすすめ16選! おいしいごはんが炊けるIH炊飯器. Kakaku Magazine

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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